Social media is a mixed bag: on the one hand, it can connect us to new people, new ideas, and new communities. On the other hand, advertising-based models of social networking can be damaging, spreading Fake News and elevating the extreme views to the center of cultural conversation.
What can we do about it? Take time away, intentionally and strategically.
Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby awards and forthcoming author of the book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week, is an advocate for taking time away from digital devices and technology. “Before living 24/6,I was on screens 24/7,” she writes. “While I loved the power of the world at my fingertips, I felt powerless against the device in my hand.” Then she implemented a weekly habit of taking a technology sabbatical, and everything changed.
In my own business, I’ve spent the last three years experimenting with social media sabbaticals as a way to study my relationship to it and improve my work focus and productivity. From full 30-day sabbaticals with no social media at all, to daily time blockers to prevent checking social sites in the mornings, to weekend 24-hour sabbaticals, I’ve tested in order to find what works, and how these pattern disruptions can help change your relationship to deep work and focus.
1: Fill yourself up with the good stuff first.
Restricting yourself from something arbitrarily without having an alternative way to spend your time can feel like a punishment, and is hard to stick to when your willpower runs low.
We turn to things like social media in part because they are satisfying a need for something we want—information, connection, news, friendship, or community, for example. There are positive benefits to social media. Rather than cutting yourself off from these things, add them into your life in different ways, like setting up weekly dinner nights, or taking longer walks in a park with friends.
Personally, I sometimes even forget about social media when I’m out doing things that fill me up. This is like the food philosophy of putting veggies out on the table first when you’re the hungriest, and saving the tasty cheese as an after-dinner bite to savor. Don’t try to fill up on social media first; you’ll leave with a bellyache and it won’t feel as good, either. Start by filling up with deep conversations, in-person connections, phone chats with friends, and restorative practices, and then see how that affects your social media time.
2: Use tech tools to block social media sites during certain hours.
I like to use Freedom, a tool that you can install on your phone or computer, to prevent social media sites from loading during certain times of the day and week. Monday through Thursday, I often manually delete my social media apps from my phone, and use Freedom to prevent me from logging onto the websites from morning until lunchtime. Only after I’ve gotten the most important work done first do I release the barriers and check-in on my lunch break and during the afternoon.
Try checking your iOS screentime settings, if you use an apple iPhone – they now have a built-in “limit” setting for various apps. I’ve set mine and it really does work well to break the mold.
3: Dedicate specific calendar blocks of time for social media
People focus so much on limiting or restricting social media, that they forget that it also has benefits. Schedule time on your calendar to use social media as an appointment, and enjoy the block of time you have dedicated. For example, I set a Friday “Happy Hour” window to check-in with friends and colleagues, and I go on in the afternoons and enjoy reading other people’s work and status updates, connecting, and catching up.
4: Do a quick feelings check-in before and after you use certain sites and set a timer.
Practice mindfulness when it comes to social media. See if you can check the clock and do a quick check-in on your feelings: Why am I here, and how long will I be here?
Set an intention: I want to browse for 15 minutes and escape work for a moment, and then come back to focus on my big writing project. Ask yourself how you’re feeling.
Weightlifters often keep a small notebook and log all of their workouts. Imagine you’re logging all of your social media sessions with a before/after feelings check-in, and a time diary of the amount of time you’re using it. The act of paying a bit more attention can be a huge game-changer.
For several weeks, I did a check-in on how I felt before and after, and how long I spent on the sites:
Monday, 1:38pm, tired and sluggish. 1:49pm: feeling avoidant (11 minutes).
Tuesday, 4:36pm, hungry. 5pm, oops, lost track of time, distracted (24 minutes).
Wednesday, 11:49am, curious. 11:56am, ready to go (7 minutes).
5: Pick one place to be, and ignore the rest.
Rather than treating it like a buffet and having to be on every single channel at all times, be strategic about where you show up and why. Social media sites can become a rabbit hole—there are so many sites, and so many places to check-in. Before you know it, several hours can disappear.
In a world of plenty, setting limits can also be implemented site-wide. When I work with clients, I encourage them to determine which sites are best suited for their businesses and their audience and then actively ignore the rest. You don’t have to be on all of the sites to make a difference; in fact, selectively being in one place can cultivate deeper connections, better quality content and engagement, and be a lasting source of connection.
For some businesses, LinkedIn is the preferred channel; for others, Facebook or Instagram matches their target market better. Set your sites strategically, and feel free to ignore other sites entirely.
The same goes for whether you use your computer or phone. Is one of the devices more of a culprit for bad behavior? Ditch the toxic device and keep the other. You can accomplish all of your social media goals via a desktop, and delete the apps from your phone. The reward? Sanity, and maybe more time to read books again with the kindle app if the social apps aren’t there, tempting your twitchy fingers.
Social media can fragment our brains and make us feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Choose wisely where you want to spend your time and attention, and your business (and brain) will thank you as a result.