It should be easy to quit Facebook and Twitter, right? Then… why was I finding it so hard to decide to finally do it? Was I addicted? It was time to do an experiment and find out: I quit social media and took a “social media sabbatical” for thirty days. Here’s what happened.
First, some backstory: why I decided to quit.
It’s no surprise that I love social media. I’ve been able to stay in touch with great friends for years, and I’ve loved keeping in touch with some amazingly smart folks from around the world and seeing what they’re up to.
But I also can spend too much time there. And some nights, when I’m working the hardest, when the days are long, I can have a really hard time stepping away from my computer or my phone and calling it quits.
(Yes, I’ve been one to read into the wee hours of the night by the glow of my phone in the living room.)
One night, while eating a pint of ice cream and scrolling incessantly on my phone, not sleeping, but exhausted, I thought to myself:
This is crazy. What am I doing?
But I couldn’t stop!
We know that apps are extremely addictive, and social media apps are some of the worst culprits: the designers of these apps are some of the smartest people in the world, and they want to do everything they can to get you to stay on the app or website as long as possible A good thing can quickly turn into too much of a thing. In fact, some executives expressly forbid their children from using the apps because they know how addictive they are. And an entire generation of people may be experiencing completely different connection and community than ever before, to skyrocketing levels of mental anxiety and depression. Some studies show that the more we use Facebook, the worse we feel.
Aziz Ansari, creator of Master of None (incredible show, I loved it*), recently revealed to GQ why he “quit the internet” and deleted social media from his phone:
“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things.”
It got me thinking: what do I want from this?
And, more soberly: what have I lost from the last decade of my life in exchange for a whole bunch of probably obsessive checking of Facebook?
Have I failed myself in other areas of my life as a consequence? Am I reading less, building fewer offline connections, or even doing less athletically because the pull of the social media status update is too great?
Well, there are a few ways to find out. Starting right now.
Readers of this blog know that I love to do experiments and learn more about myself, my patterns, and my habits. I’m a guinea pig for things that teach me more. Because at the end of the day, what’s the worst that can happen?
That I miss Facebook? I’ve missed far many more things so much more greatly. So, for July, the first experiment: a 30-day social media sabbatical.
A 30-day social media sabbatical experiment
This past July, I took a month off of social media and deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my phone and my computer (That’s the bulk of what I use, really — I occasionally use Whatsapp—a handful of times per month—and never use Periscope or Snapchat, so those aren’t on my radar). The next most frequented app on my iPhone, besides email, is probably The New York Times App or Google Maps.
Now, I’d been meaning to do this for a while. I have a note in my journal from early in January and again in May that I’d wanted to quit social media. It’s a testament to the power of addiction and the stickiness of the apps (and potentially my avoidance of the idea that I could make it quitting) that it took me this long to do it.
Worthwhile behavior note: I notice the sharper I make objections or rationalizations to something, the more likely it is that I need to actually do it or try it.
Immediately upon outline the experiment, I began creating a list of reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. “But I HAVE to use Facebook for my business! But I NEED to reach out to people. But I HAVE to stay active. But how will I market my services? But how will I stay in touch with my mom’s groups?” And so on.
As though Facebook were the only way to stay in touch, ever.
Oh really, Sarah?
You have to? You have to?
With a little self-guided peer pressure, I dove in.
Overall: the setup and the way I tracked my results
So how did it go?
For the most part, overall, I succeeded.
I didn’t use a fancy tool or scheduling blocker to keep myself away from the programs. I made a commitment and stuck to it. Something freed up in me when I decided to finally do it. It was like I breathed out, said, okay, here we go, and just did it—it’s hard to explain beyond that.
To help myself stay on task, I logged out from the sites to make it obvious that I shouldn’t be there, so that if my automatic behaviors started typing these URLs, I’d see a login screen to remind me to stay away. I deleted the apps from my phone.
Also, I went back to my “normal” behavior during the first two weeks of August as a comparison point. I was shocked by how much I backslid in August and without the boundaries, how I’d stay up late and scroll through social media feeds, or check first thing in the morning. Either this was me trying to make up for the month before, or I was slowly becoming aware of my habits. Either way, it wasn’t pretty.
Here’s what I learned and observed from quitting social media:
1. Interestingly, my laptop wasn’t as much of a shock or a problem.
I tend to work in Scrivener, Word, Evernote, Google Docs, Email, Adobe Illustrator, and lately, Garage Band (yay for my new podcast!) to do the majority of my work. Much of my work time during the day is spent getting to work and working. That was somewhat of a relief to double-check.
(And to be totally honest: there have been times in my life when I’ve been in that swampiness of being unable to get things done, a sure sign of burnout, so no judgment from me if you’re in the swirly mess that is being stuck inside of social media.)
2. I missed Facebook when I wanted to share big news.
When I wanted to use Facebook was when I wanted to share some big news from my business with my groups. I run a public and private Startup Pregnant group for women that connect over entrepreneurship and being badass mothers, and I missed talking to these ladies.
3. I use Facebook for information recall.
It was hard when I wanted to look up someone’s name or information. Facebook serves as a rolodex, of sorts. (For example: who do I know that works at ABC company? What was their email again?).
4. I didn’t really miss Twitter.
I didn’t emotionally miss it or think to check it.
5. The afternoon slump hits me hard.
Around 3pm or 4pm, however, things get dicey: I’m tired, my brain is in a whirlwind, and sometimes I’m completely done creatively.
Depending on the day, I was either feeling behind because I put too much work on my plate, or I’m feeling stuck because I’m locked in a battle with the book or another big project— and it’s during these moments when I crave, CRAVE going online to do the browse-and-scroll behavior.
“I’ll just look around and numb out for a while,” is what it feels like my body is asking me to do. Now, on the whole, I’m okay with this as a request…
Behavior note: I just don’t want Facebook to be the online thing I do with my body’s request for rest, staring off in space, and taking a break.
6. The social media problem is an iPhone problem, more than anything.
My phone ended up being a huge part of the culprit and the problem, which was fascinating.
Before I took the social media break, I might have put my “work” down from my laptop and left the desk to go take a break, but what I ended up doing was some version of the following:
- Slumping on the couch to … read social media for 30 minutes. Or 45 minutes.
- Going to the bathroom and … literally reading and scrolling through Twitter on the Loo for a good half hour. (I’ve got the butt cheek marks to prove it.)
- Staying up late at night, laptop closed, but on my phone in bed, reading the news, or scrolling through some social media feed.
The iPhone, cradled in my hand, was more of a problem than anything else.
Behavior lesson learned: my relationship with my iPhone feels far more powerful and dangerous than my relationship with my laptop.
What I loved about quitting social media
What surprised me was how quickly I got used to it. Once I made the decision to do it, which was the hardest part, I sighed and felt relieved.
I loved how much I had more space and more time.
There was a softening of my inner monologue and self-talk. I wasn’t crafting everything for a statement or a purpose (one of the things that finally got me to quit). I wasn’t secretly checking my phone in the bathroom or in lines or queues or reading in coffee shops. I wasn’t checking late at night.
And, after a few days, with the extra time, I felt a surge of creativity.
I didn’t want to read short bursts of status updates anymore.
I actually craved reading longer things.
What surprised me the most from the month was how much I fell in love with books again. I can’t believe how much I missed books. I read, of course, but it felt like I’d been piecing together books in stiches of time over the past few years—a half hour of a book here, a 20-minute social media break, another 20 minutes for a book—and somehow the book was interwoven amidst all of this noise of my already-busy life.
Now, I could read a book and not feel quite so distracted. I could read and crave returning to reading. I could carry an entire book in my mind from start to finish.
I felt like ideas were deeper.
Where do I go from here?
I love social media, but I also love being off of it. The critical problem is that I can’t seem to control the amount I use social media, and when I’m on it, I just want more of it. And that is when it becomes unhealthy and unhelpful.
My phone seems to be one of the largest parts of the problem. (As a consumption device, this makes sense.)
So the question I’m left with is this: how do I design my own personal phone experience so that I can use my phone for what I want, without getting looped into the bad habits and patterns that I want to eliminate? Is it possible to design a pattern of behaviors that’s “minimum use smartphone,” or is that an exercise in frustration?
This is part one in a series of posts about taking a break from social media. I’ll be writing more soon as I continue to experiment.
Over to you: please leave a note in the comments!
- Have you ever done a social media sabbatical or break? Why or why not?
- Do you think Facebook and other social media addictions are a problem?
- Do you use any hacks, tips, or tools to break yourself from the internet?
- What would you ideal user behavior look like for your relationship with the internet, or your relationship with your phone?
*For those of you reading the fine print, yes, in a post about social media, giving a shout-out to Netflix may be a bit misguided. But, I’m not advocating never using these services, and for what it’s worth, I think Master of None creates episodes that explore new topics not commonly seen on television. I love that it’s not all white main characters, that they explore topics like deafness, being lesbian, foreign translation, parents, culture, being Indian, stereotypes, work, being out of work, relationships, and more. It felt real, while still being easy to watch and enjoy. Consider this a recommendation!
If you'd like to get my blog posts by email, click here.