In July 2014 I decided to quit social media, including deleting my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Now that more than a year has passed, I’ll share an update about the past year of being free of social media.
At the time it was mildly difficult to make the decision to quit, but that was only because frequent engagement with social media for so many years had caused it to build up a greater presence in my mind than it deserved. It felt like I’d be giving up something of value that I might miss. Truthfully, however, I don’t miss it, not even a little.
Logically I knew I’d free up more time for more meaningful pursuits, but emotionally it felt (at least in part) like some kind of abandonment. Once I finally came to terms with the decision, dropping social media was surprisingly easy. I deleted the accounts and moved on with my life. I haven’t done any liking or commenting in more than a year now. That’s a lot of time to reinvest elsewhere.
Overcoming the Impulse to Share
After dropping social media, it took longer than expected for my mind to stop twitching to share experiences online. I especially noticed this when taking photos. Even three months after deleting my accounts, I still caught myself thinking, I should take a picture of this and share it online… oh wait, I can’t.
While active on social media, I’d often take photos with the intention of sharing them, but not necessarily because I wanted those pics for myself. It probably wasn’t until the fourth or fifth month that I was able to fully release that habit. As the old conditioning faded, I began taking different photos — photos I wanted to take for myself. I stopped taking photos to share that I didn’t actually want in my personal collection. This improved the quality of my picture taking. I paid more attention to moments I wanted to remember, which were often different from moments I wanted to share.
For months after leaving social media, I’d still think of the occasional witty or brilliant one-liner of wisdom, and I’d feel the urge to share it online. But there was nowhere to share it unless I wanted to turn it into a blog post. Eventually those impulses faded too, and another mental distraction was eliminated. These days I no longer notice those random one-liners popping into my mind. I think that mental pattern was conditioned by social media. My brain doesn’t seem to devote any resources to generating tweetable wisdom anymore.
Over the following 4-5 months post social media, I gradually shed various thought patterns and behaviors which serve no purpose outside of social media. This allowed me to repurpose those mental resources for more valuable tasks, like thinking more deeply about my long-term goals. I felt like I was gradually becoming smarter the longer I stayed away.
Additionally, as I gained more awareness of these micro-patterns from social media activity, I became aware of similar temptations related to blogging. You may have noticed that I took the last 7+ weeks off from blogging (my longest break since I started in 2004). Partly I did this to release any habitual urge to blog. I kept going until the impulse to blog for the sake of blogging faded too. I want to write by conscious choice, not by subconscious impulse.
In the year after dropping social media, I gradually became less impulsive and more thoughtful in my choices that weren’t even related to social media.
When I was actively using social media, I didn’t see how the always-on ability to connect with other people might be increasing my impulsiveness in other areas of life. But I really saw the difference in the months after I quit. Dropping social media became the first step in a chain of gradual improvements I’ve made since then, and these improvements continue to this day.
One lesson I learned from reading several books on neuroscience is that an addictive behavior is never an isolated affair. An addiction in one area weakens our self-discipline across the board. So when we improve one sloppy or impulsive behavior, we’ll usually see cascading benefits in other parts of life. That was definitely true for me.
I especially feel more disciplined in my health and productivity patterns. I’ve made a number of important changes in these areas in the past year. Dropping social media removed a bad habit that encouraged me to drop other bad habits and replace them with better ones. This was a very gradual process, but I can see that dropping social media was the real starting point of this progression.
Although I’ve been more quiet online lately, I’ve been very active offline this year. I’ve been putting in many long days researching topics that interest me and working on my own personal growth. I really like not being distracted by impulses to share so many details along the way. It allows me to go much faster.
With the daily distraction of that internal urge to go online and see what’s happening in my social circle, I find it much easier to concentrate and get a lot of work done each day.
After quitting social media, I finally felt the motivation to tackle some long-delayed projects and get them finished and off my plate for good. It felt really good to close those open loops.
Earlier this month, I spent about two weeks setting and clarifying my goals for the next 18 months, including writing out a detailed plan of action for each and every goal. The resulting document was 40 pages long, single-spaced. Then I used Scrivener to neatly organize my goals, projects, and actions, so I could quickly navigate through them. This makes it easy to jump to my active projects, and it keeps everything neatly organized. Scrivener is a Mac app for writers, and I find it useful for organizing and managing goals, projects, and actions too.
Looking back I can see that when I was active on social media, it conditioned me to focus too much on short-term thinking. The instant gratification impulse eventually wore off, and I began making better decisions with more attention paid to long-term outcomes and consequences. I also became more patient.
More Rewarding Work
Without social media my work feels more motivating than it used to — not just the easy work or the fun work but ALL of the work. Even parts of my work that I didn’t enjoy much in the past now feel more pleasant and rewarding. I don’t procrastinate as much on tasks like accounting. This past year it’s felt so much easier to keep on top of my tasks and to even pull ahead of schedule in some areas.
Social media gives us instant feel-good rewards for doing next to nothing of value. When those rewards are no longer so easily accessible, we have to work harder for those same feelings. When we accomplish something meaningful to create that dopamine surge, the feelings can positively guide our behavior, and those feelings can stack up and create lasting motivation to tackle more sizable goals and projects.
Social media is an endless treadmill that substitutes for real achievement and progress. It completely wastes our natural reward circuitry. What will spending the next 5 or 10 years on social media do for your life? What meaningful outcomes will you achieve? You’ll just be on the same treadmill, having little or nothing to show for it. If you think that’s an acceptable result, I would definitely recommend quitting for at least six months, so you can restore some of your sapped motivation and ambition.
Looking back, quitting social media is a no brainer. In retrospect it’s patently obvious that such services are little more than a huge time waster. It may have been worthwhile to dabble in them for a few weeks to satisfy my curiosity, but I’d rather have back all the other hours sucked away by such services. At least I’m glad to have abandoned those junk activities when I did.
Using social media may feel good now and then. But not using it feels even better.