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What social media addiction is costing you (and me)

I like to write about things I have experienced, learned and applied in my own life. This post is no different.

Yesterday I decided to go on a social media detox.

The idea occurred to me as I was driving back from a bucolic 25-mile trail run in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. For the duration of my five-hour adventure, I was disconnected from the pings and pulls of the social world. My respite ended abruptly. In the middle of my run, my cell phone came alive with reception (1-bar!) and a “ping” rang out. My device, hungry for attention, cried out. I promptly stopped running and pulled out my phone to see what was going on.

Then, the absurdity of my situation struck.

Instead of enjoying my run and embracing the moment, I was being pulled into someone elses’s world. A Facebook message “pinged” me away from my idyllic surroundings and the flow-zone I was entering after so many hard-earned miles on the trail.

Placing my phone back in my fanny pack (yes, I run with a fanny pack, don’t judge!), I spent the remaining hours on the run contemplating the cost I’m paying by being so well-connected and reactive to the beck and call of my devices and social networks.

Returning home, I removed all social media from my phone, and also resolved to test a specific hypothesis:

By radically reducing my engagement with social media, I will not miss anything of substance and will simultaneously improve my capacity to enjoy life and do work that matters.

The boundaries for testing this hypothesis will include a wholesale reduction in my exposure to social media, with the following exceptions. Note: I have no intention to terminate my social accounts. Instead, I want to harness social media to work for me, and not the other way around.

  1. I am leaving Facebook messenger and WhatsApp on my phone. I have friends and family who use these services like SMS, and I want to stay connected to them.
  2. I am organizing an event using Facebook groups, and will continue to do so as needed. I am also a member of a few groups that are providing information I need to participate in a few events I care about. I will drop-in to check this information and see if I resist the gravitational pull of the dreaded “feed”.
  3. I log my runs using Strava, and will continue to do so. I don’t find myself habitually checking the Strava feed and the physical escapades of my friends, but if this becomes a tendency, I will remove myself from that community.
  4. I will continue to post my content on Medium and LinkedIn, so those who want to read my content will be exposed to it. I also rely on these services to grow my business and expose my work to potential clients.
  5. I will compartmentalize my browsing and engagement with social media to twice a week, on Monday and Thursday for no more than 30-minutes each. This will be sufficient time to reply to comments and if I feel the urge to post something, it will occur during this time.

I have a strong suspicion that I will not be missing anything by detoxing from social software.

Addictive by design

Social software (and virtually all software nowadays) is designed to hook you and take up more than its fair share of relevance in your life. Having spent almost 14 years in the software industry, I know how companies hire the best and brightest researchers, engineers and strategic planners to devise ways to get you to use their software and use it as often as possible.

To put it bluntly, as stated by Computerworld’s Mike Elgan:

“Social media is engineered to be as habit-forming as crack-cocaine.”

Companies are measuring your usage, and you can rest assure that those statistics are intensely analyzed and are the focus on intense debate and conversation as teams of innovators conjure up ways to make those numbers go up not only in absolute terms but also vs. the competition. It’s no wonder that data scientists are in high-demand and garner absurdly well-paying jobs, particularly for those just starting out in the field.

Companies are on a quest to steal your time, and your sanity.

This has nothing to do with software companies being evil. No doubt, the people creating social software must truly believe that their work is crucial to society. Just put yourself in their shoes. Imagine that you were working on cutting software that you thought could change the world. If you believed that, wouldn’t you want everyone to use what you offer? Of course you would. It’s only human nature. You can’t blame the engineers, designers or marketers. You need to take responsibility for how you use the tools they build, in a way that suits your own desire to lead a happy life.

Just like the Warren Buffet famously stands by the operations of Coca-Cola (his Berkshire Hathaway company is the largest single shareholder) by essentially saying that in moderation, there is nothing wrong with having a Coke. He also says that you need to factor in the happiness of consumption, not just the deleterious health effects.

Likewise, social software has a positive side to it.

The question is, when the software is designed by armies of engineers who seek to make “moderation” impossible, what chance do we all have to gain back control of our lives?

How anxious are you?

There is another symptom of social software that not many people are talking about (except Cal Newport). The constant pings and rewards these networks offer creates a low-level anxiety, like a background noise that is mildly irritating, but so consistent and commonplace that it goes unnoticed over time.

We eventually acclimate to bad things and treat our sub-par circumstance as normal.

This background noise is a little urge here and gently tug there, to check-in and see what’s happening. Did someone like my post? How many re-share’s did I get? Are they “hearting” my photo? How many comments are landing on my blog post? Did a client email me yet? How many people agree with my point of view?

There is inherent value in being bored, and I believe that it is through boredom that true creativity is unleashed. Boredom is harder to come by, with Twitter’s 140 character deluge only arms length away. Boredom and it’s cousin, creativity, don’t stand a chance.

Think of the background noise generated from social software as a form of low-level anxiety. The steady hum of Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Slack, blog comments, email, chats and more…create a palpable but modest level of anxiousness. This anxiety creeps up slowly, like a frog in a warming pot. The stealth-like nature of this dis-ease goes unchecked until something palpably negative happens.

For example, a highly connected and social person might have a background anxiety level of “3 out of 10” (10 being so awful you seek professional help) as a result of the constant emotional tug of social software (this includes things like email, Slack and so-called “collaboration” software sold to businesses under the guise that it makes teams more productive).

What would then happen when something significant happens at work or in their life? What normally would be tolerable, might push this person over the edge. It’s like performing manual labor all day, then expecting to perform well in a running race in the afternoon. It doesn’t work that way. Even worse, without any time to truly relax and be stress free, how is anyone supposed to recover from the trials of stressful work?

Do you need to detox?

The only way to know how bad your background level of anxiety is, is to detox from unwanted external stimuli and see what happens. This process will take days (minimum) or perhaps 6–8 months or more. The later was my experience, when I quit my insane job to travel the world, and disconnected from all reactive social media. It didn’t realize how bad I had it, until I left my crazy environment.

You know you are in desperate need of a social software detox if:
1. You can’t go to the bathroom without being accompanied by your phone.
2. You compulsively check your email, even on the weekends.
3. You often find yourself dwelling on comments or feedback from social media or email.
4. You worry about not being responsive enough to people.
5. The idea of not having your phone with you for 24 hours produces anxiety.
6. You worry about your “follower count” instead of creating things of value.
7. You find it hard to sit still and do nothing for more than an hour.
8. The idea of eating a meal without watching tv, looking at your phone or talking with people is unbearable to even think about.

Context switching’s true cost

Beyond the anxiety production, the context switching social software triggers has a cognitive load and impact far greater than the time it takes to quickly switch tasks. There is a residual impact, a residue if you will, that is severe.

Here is a summary of why context switching is harmful to productivity, in the realm of computer programming, by legendary software engineer and entrepreneur Joel Spolsky.

The trick here is that when you manage programmers, specifically, task switches take a really, really, really long time. That’s because programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once. The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve.

Spolsky goes on to share his thoughts on just how much context switching hurts productivity:

On the individual level – have you ever noticed that you can assign one job to one person, and they’ll do a great job, but if you assign two jobs to that person, they won’t really get anything done? They’ll either do one job well and neglect the other, or they’ll do both jobs so slowly you feel like slugs have more zip. That’s because programming tasks take so long to task switch. I feel like when I have two programming projects on my plate at once, the task switch time is something like 6 hours. In an 8-hour day, that means multitasking reduces my productivity to 2 hours per day. Pretty dismal.

Here’s another example that strikes close to home.

Midway through writing this post (long-hand, using a legal pad and pen to avoid the distraction of technology) I picked up the phone to call my wife. She is traveling and I wanted to catch her before she headed out to start her day. Our call lasted 10 minutes.

Returning to my writing, I noticed something intriguing. It took me 1 minute to pick up my train of thought so I could start writing again. (I used the timer on my iPhone to measure this). I literally forgot what I was writing about! It then took about 5 minutes to be fully engaged to the point where my ideas were flowing as easily as before the call happened.

Even more startling, after writing this entire post, I reviewed my content and noticed that I missed a complete section of content I planned to write (the part about background anxiety triggered by social software). I went back and wrote this content, noticing that the ideas didn’t flow as easily as they were before. The content seemed out-of-place and disjointed. I estimate that it took my 50% more mental focus and energy to write those paragraphs as compared with the rest of my post.

The distraction of a simple phone call pulled me out of my own creative flow, a “river of ideas” if you will. When I jumped back into my metaphorical river, the ideas I had were far further downstream, and I needed to use more effort to catch them.

FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out

The bigger point in this social software detox experiment, is the fact that I know deep down that I won’t miss out on anything important. I’ve pulled myself away from social software in the past, and this was my learning. I sense the same thing will happen this time around.

Even when it comes to my business, where new clients occasionally find me through my blog, Twitter or LinkedIn, they typically end up visiting my website and applying for a free consultation with me, which sends me an email notification. Therefore, as long as I check my email periodically (once a day or so), and occasionally post high quality information to my blog and relevant social sites, nothing will fall through the cracks.

Over time, I can hire someone to screen and respond to these emails and perhaps even “publish” my content, easing the burden on my own timely responses and dealing with the pressure to quickly check my “feeds.”

Entropy

Like anything in life, the law of entropy states that nature abhors a vacuum. If you remove something, something else will promptly rush in to fill its place. If you remove social software from most of your life, what will happen with the remaining free time and empty mental space?

If you aren’t careful, other useless or anxiety producing tendencies will rush in to fill the void. To counter-act this effect, I’ve decided to replace the time and energy previously spent on social software with creativity. Like a kid crying when you take away the dangerous item she found in the yard and decided to turn into her favorite toy, a sure-fire way to counteract the upset is to replace the bad thing with something better.

Avoid the void at all costs!

I’m filling the void with something far better than reacting to social software, creating something useful. These creative projects will include writing (including this post) and building programs and protocols to help my coaching clients build meaningful careers and lifestyles.

What’s possible?

Down the road, I will be more satisfied with having spent time on meaningful tasks, than having wasted hundreds of hours retweeting, sharing or liking random stuff.

I also believe that I’ll have the time and energy to harness more impactful and creative ideas when I’m not dealing with a deluge of information coming into my brain.

Tactics

As mentioned above, here are a few tactics to support my social software detox:

  1. Removing all social apps from my phone, aside from Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp and Strava.
  2. Removing all bookmarks to social media from my browser.
  3. Batch processing my social engagement to specific times of day, twice a week. I will monitor this and may adjust the frequency and timing as I see what works best for my schedule.
  4. Filling the “void” social media co-opted with creative and productive work.
  5. Continuing to write and journal what I’m learning and gaining as a result of this experiment. I’ve noticed that when I write about what I learn in the pursuit of any new habit, the habit is reinforced.

How is social software impacting your life? What do you think of my social media detox plan? Would you like to join in with me and social software detox?

Leave a comment and let me know!

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