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I Gave Up Facebook for Lent - And I Liked It

29/03/2016 16:35 | Updated 29 March 2016

Lent: that period between gorging on pancakes and gorging on chocolate eggs, when you abstain from something to honour Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert.

I can't claim to hail it from a Christ-commemorating standpoint, but I do think there is huge value in Lent. Spending a select period eliminating something we otherwise take for granted, I think, is a valuable exercise in self-control, reflection and appreciation.

That made me sound like a 1950s dad. But there we are.

Anyway, this year I decided to embrace Lent's character-building potential and give up Facebook (I also didn't go on Twitter or Instagram, but I don't really like them anyway so that doesn't count).

Much as it begrudges me to say, my FB account has been a big part of my life for the past nine years. I used it relentlessly in university and have since continued to rely on it for event planning, sharing articles and keeping in touch with friends abroad.

I was pretty sure I'd find the challenge difficult, but I had no idea whether it would have significant impact on my everyday life. Would I miss out on things, would it be a massive inconvenience, would I get weird withdrawal symptoms?

I kept a diary throughout the experience. I've now condensed my ramblings into a set of key moments in the process. Here goes:

Day 1

I'm only a few hours in (it's 1pm) and I'm in shock. The amount of times I've had a sudden urge to check FB is ridiculous.

Every time I get even slightly bored or distracted, I think: 'FACEBOOKTIME'. With that option eliminated, the second best relief is to check my emails. And they're not that regularly updated or perversely interesting, forcing me to just close my computer or return to the task I was distracted from.

A little part of me is excited. This is challenging right now, but am I taking my first life-changing steps to killing one of my productivity's most prolific nemesis?

Day 5

I haven't seen any pictures of puppies getting freaked out by lemons in days. I haven't been tantalised with claims like: 'CHECK OUT THIS LIST OF CELEBRITIES WHO ARE BAD AT EATING MUFFINS - NUMBER 6 WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO DIE'.

I don't feel like I'm missing out. However, I am still having powerful cravings to type 'Fa...' into my URL bar and scroll brainlessly through a void of superfluous information. I feel a little pang of dejection every time I stop myself, like there's a whiny child in my brain going 'Ah, come on! 5 minutes!'

Day 9

As the days go by, I'm becoming increasingly glad I'm doing this. It feels like my self-discipline is getting a much-needed workout. I didn't see it before, but it was getting flabby.

Oddly, I've actually started to worry about what happens when this is over. Already I can feel my Freudian id getting excited about all those notifications it can roll around in when Easter arrives, lathering in tiny ego boosts.

When this is over, who will stop it? Who??

Day 18

Things have suddenly got a bit shit. My boyfriend and I broke up. Which, on top of heinous amounts of emotional pain, also has social media implications. I'm aware my current cover photo is a sweet picture of us taken on a recent ski trip, looking out across a snowy landscape. It's weird to think that picture is there now, frozen in time, preserving a happy little pocket of our existences that's growing colder by the day.

I suppose when I go back on, I'll have to take it down. And then there are other stupid practicalities, like whether we're going to remain FB friends, or if having access to each others' newsfeeds is going to just cause problems.

But you know what helps? Not having to deal with that now, and instead focusing on mourning my relationship with the real him, not his FB page.

Day 20

Life's been a right prick over the past week. Today I came into work and found out a friend has been involved in a serious car crash. Immediately, I wanted to message her and ask if she was okay, but didn't have her number. Our means of communication outside work has always been FB, which left me with two options: let down Desert Jesus and break Lent (on account of serious circumstances), or employ Sherlock Holmes mode and track down her number. Luckily, the latter didn't turn out to be that much of a mission and felt like a more personal means of reaching her. Once again, not having FB seems to be a bit of a win.

Day 27

So far, I've been mostly positive about my current lack of FB. I've felt quite smug about my decision to cut it out. But over the past couple of days, I've started to miss it.

I'm not missing the wasted time, or the perversity of knowing intimate things about other people's lives. But I'm starting to miss feeling connected to something that feels broad and open - that offers a sense of opportunity.

This may be reflective of my current mindset, as I'm very down in the dumps and desperate for something to come along and make things better. Maybe I'm deferring false hope to FB, as if it could present me with some alternate reality to improve my situation. Still, I can't help but feel there might be events I'm missing out on, or opportunities I could be creating if that ridiculous resource was available to me.

Day 38 (Written under the influence of gin)

This is the first time I've been a bit drunk since FB Lent began. Normally if I come home drunk, I scroll through Facebook. Because you do that when you're drunk - you indulge in guilty pleasures (LIKE MASSIVE BURGERS AND A POT OF HUMMUS WITH A SPOON). But I can't now and it means I will go to sleep instead. Yay! More sleep!

Good Friday

It has happened.

I have to admit, I got pretty excited leading up to the moment I was reunited with the social media mecca.

When I finally hit login, 65 notifications and 10 personal messages awaited me. I ravished through them, like a sugar-crazed child on Christmas morning.

But how many of them were in any way useful to me?

Three.

The first was some nice pictures Becks took of us in Cornwall. The second was Kit sending me a link to an article she wrote. And the third revealed I'd missed Sophia's birthday, leading to an apologetic phone call.

So over that entire two-month period, only three things occurred that were worth seeing. And in that time, I probably would have spent upwards of thirty minutes per day gawking at it.

This makes me more determined than ever to proceed with a more healthy relationship with FB. I don't want to waste large chunks of my time on it anymore.

The Aftermath

This experience has confirmed something I always suspected but never really accepted: that on the whole, my use of FB is a detrimental habit I revert to whenever I want to distract myself from boredom. I never crave it when I'm in an exciting place, or surrounded by fun people. I crave it when there's nothing to do, or when I'm supposed to be doing something I don't really want to. I use it as a form of escapism.

I'm basically Julio the macaque - a monkey belonging to Wolfram Schultz (a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge).

Schultz developed an experiment in which Julio had to touch a lever whenever coloured shapes came up on a screen in front of him. If he touched it when a shape appeared, he was rewarded with blackberry juice. Over time, it created a pattern in his brain that meant he anticipated a sense of happiness when he saw the shapes, before he even received the juice.

FB is my lever. The blackberry juice is a distracting notification or message - my sweet relief from boredom.

I do not want to be like Julio the macaque. I don't want to rely on something to give me a cheap hit of contentment whenever I hit a trigger.

It's time to break this habit. However, there are positive aspects to FB I would like to keep in my life:

• Sharing articles/photos with friends.
• Keeping in touch with people who have moved a billion miles away.
• Being notified of events/birthdays (Sorry Sophia!).

I'd therefore like to develop some FB discipline in order to still enjoy using it, but no longer allow it to be a Ribena-laced, habitual attempt to drop out of tedium.

So here are my 're-introducing FB into my life' rules, which I'm hoping I will not let slip:

• Cull people I no longer speak to. (I've never done this before, and so over the past 9 years I've accumulated over 700 FB friends. I don't even recognise the names of some of these people any more. There's no need for them to be there.)
• Don't check just because I'm bored, or don't want to do something else.
• Limit checking to no more than once a day. There is no foreseeable reason why I would ever need to look more often than that.

In short, I've learned there are pros and cons to FB, and that overall I want to keep using it. But I also want to stay wary that its place in my life is as a supplementary communication tool, rather than a mindless habit.

Bye bye, blackberry juice. You may be sweet, but you're also sticky.

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