Please, Please, Please Quit Social Media (But Not For The Reason You Expect)

Your excuses are excuses. Every time I talk about quitting social media everyone tells me why they want to but cannot. Most people don't take advice, no matter how good it is. Don't be like most people.
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I love quitting things. It's one of my specialities.

My life is about subtraction, carving away the excess to reveal the essential.

I have said goodbye to quite a lot in the last year, including television, alcohol, smoking, shopping, soda, university, having a home, wearing make-up every day, fashion and social media.

The last item on the list was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I did for two main reasons:

1. To save time. The average person spends 120 minutes a day on social media. Or at least, that's according to self-reported data which is almost definitely on the low side. Even so, I could read 120 pages or write 200 words in that time - far more important. Yes, I'm a fast reader and a slow writer. It takes me 8 hours to write a blog post and I can't afford to waste a minute tweeting about it.

2. To preserve my ability to focus and do deep work. This was a huge motivator. I had long felt the tangible impact on my concentration. Keeping my brain running at the highest level is my priority and feeling like a junkie who craves the next notification was unhelpful. I need to be able to focus on difficult tasks for long periods of time, without wanting to check Facebook. On a number of occasions, I have seen people working on a computer in the university library, whilst watching Youtube videos on a laptop beside them. This is mindboggling. How could anyone focus on both at once? Heck, I often forget to breathe when I'm writing.

Here's a wonderful quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which is relevant:

"Most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.

This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality."

This is why I think it's so important so reassess how you use social media. Not because I'm old-fashioned, or a luddite or dislike the internet (I love it.) Because I desperately want everyone to be able to express their unique creativity. I want every single person to make art, music, writing, whatever. I want people to be more active, less passive. To engage in forms of entertainment which actually involve the use of your brain. To stop wasting your energy on pretending and start becoming. There is nothing intrinsically bad about social media; it's a tool and the poison is in the dose. It becomes negative when it a) takes up time which could be put to better use, b) begins to harm your ability to focus c) leads to an urge to fabricate a personal brand or d) literally anything which means the negatives outweigh the positives.

If you use social media for a specific purpose, try performing an 80/20 style analysis.

For example, I used to use it for bringing people to this site. I looked at how much of my traffic actually came from social media. I found that Instagram and Twitter created just 2% of my visitors, compared to 30% for Quora. Over 60% is direct, from Google or email - the result of creating good content. This made it clear to me that I had to spend 80% of my time writing and use the remaining 20% for Quora, Medium and Reddit.

This works for most common uses. Let's say you have Facebook for keeping in touch with friends. In this case, ask yourself what the 20% of activities which bring 80% of the value are. It might be that video chatting with friends is the most enjoyable activity you use Facebook for, yet it's not something you do often. The remaining 80% of your time on there involves commenting, liking and scrolling through pictures. Now that you are aware of it, you have options. Disabling the newsfeed and just using chat is one. Deleting Facebook altogether and using Skype or Whatsapp for regular calls is another. The latter would free up time to make more calls than usual. Win-win. I apply this to all areas of my life and the outcomes are always valuable.

Whenever I quit something, I condition myself to hate it first.

This involves exposing myself to information about how bad it is every single day. After a few weeks or months, I wake up and can't stand the thoughts of said thing anymore.

I did this with smoking. I subscribed to the QuitSmoking subreddit and read through it each evening. I blasted myself with medical information. I let friends and family berate me. Then one day, I woke up and knew I could never smoke again. Conditioning had shaped me into a non-smoker, removing will-power from the situation.

This was how I also quit social media. I listened to every single interview Cal Newport has ever done on the topic. I watched his TED talk daily. I read through his entire blog archive, marinading myself in the message. My own desire to improve my work took over and it was time.

It began with Tumblr. Oh, the pain of clicking the little button. My Tumblr blog had over 10,000 posts on it from years of my adolescence. Every moment of angst, friendship, crush and drunken night recorded with text posts.

Next, I said farewell to Facebook. This was not hard - it felt wonderful. I HATED Facebook. The adverts, the disregard for user privacy, the banal statuses, the posturing. I had only held onto it because I believed I would lose even more friends. In truth, I have indeed lost contact with many people.

But that is not an issue. Reading an occasional status or sending a sporadic message to someone barely qualifies as staying in touch. I still speak to those who matter most via phone or email.

11 million young people left Facebook between 2011 and 2014. That is plenty for me to speak to who aren't glued to their phones.

I am notorious for being hard to contact and out of touch with the wider world. I avoid news and current events like the plague. My phone is almost always on silent and aeroplane mode. This is apparently annoying because there could be an emergency. I tell people to call the police first if it's an emergency- I am not of much help. My phone is such a foreign creature to me that I only learned last month what voice recognition does. I like it this way.

My Twitter and Instagram account still exist. I have forgotten the passwords for them, and for the email address I used, so they cannot be deleted. Otherwise, my site is my online home. Writing good content is my focus, not promoting it through mundane tweets. The growth of my readership since I made this switch has been dramatic - no decline whatsoever.

Some important reminders:

  • You can always join again if you discover you cannot live without a particular site. 'But I'll loose my followers!' So what? You will regain vast swatches of the most valuable thing of all - time.
  • If you have a lot of followers, you can always sell your account. Take a look at the prices offered per thousand followers. Then realise how worthless these vanity metrics actually are. Anyone can buy thousands of bot followers or fake likes.
  • Social media accounts do not even belong to you in the first place. They belong to the company which owns the platform. At any moment it could shut down, ban you or start charging enormous account fees.
  • If you use a free service, you are the product.
  • Your time is a commodity. Never forget that. Guard it like you guard your money. Or rather, guard it more carefully because money is renewable, time is not.
  • No one will miss you. It's sad, yet true. If you followed me on any site, did you notice when I left? Unlikely. Even my close friends and family didn't realise.
  • If you feel deprived at the prospect of quitting, it is a strong sign you are addicted.
  • Nothing bad will happen. Many people believe their site/book/product will fade away in the absence of social media. It forms the foundation of their marketing strategy. Anyone can see why - it's cheap, requires few skills and seems productive. Personally, I disagree. There is little value in
  • A '7-day social media detox' or whatever is not the same thing. Would you buy your alcoholic uncle a bottle of wine to celebrate him being a week sober? Of course not. Overcoming any sort of addictive habit takes a long, sustained abstinence.
  • Your excuses are excuses. Every time I talk about quitting social media everyone tells me why they want to but cannot. Most people don't take advice, no matter how good it is. Don't be like most people.

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