Hi, I’m Keith, and I’m a social media addict.
I know, because I’ve seen this before.
When I was around 8 years old, my father was a smoker, and I’d regularly see him leave family meals early to have a quick smoke, leaving us to finish our lunch or dinner without him. It was just something smokers did.
Today, I’m not physically leaving the table like my father, but my mind is just as disconnected, as my attention moves from eating to being fixated on my iPhone.
At least my father would finish his meal before he did his smoking routine, I typically pick up my phone mid-way through, and stay on it right to the end of dinner. Sometimes gobbling down unknown quantities of food while my eyes remained glued to some insufferable post on social media.
I could be talking to my wife, or asking my daughter how her day at school was. Instead I’m mindlessly scrolling the feeds and timelines hoping for something to catch my attention, while the two most important people in my life, remain neglected — while they’re right in front of me!
Clearly something was wrong.
I noticed this on airplanes too, at the end of a long flight, Smokers would make a bee-line for the smoking area to satisfy their craving. But phone-addicts immediately light up the cabin with the glow of their screens, the moment the pilot announces “you may now switch on your electronic devices“.
At least smokers were denied their addiction for the entire duration of their flight, usually hours — phone addicts (like me) had only to endure the 20 minutes of landing.
I saw this in myself a few months ago, late one night, I had binged on all my social media, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and after completely exhausting all possible posts on all platforms, I’d cycle through them again, and again and again!
I should have been sleeping, it was late — very late! I knew I should be dozing off, but instead my phone was firmly in my hand, with my finger scrolling through every last nook and cranny.
I was craving something (what exactly I didn’t know). I knew there was nothing interesting left (I’d checked, multiple times!) — but I was still scrolling, and scrolling…hoping for something interesting to magically pop into the feed. This activity gave me no joy, but I was doing it anyway.
I was addicted — social media was my slot machine — and though I was losing, I couldn’t help but want to play more.
All hallmarks of addiction.
It’s a feature
None of this is by accident either, these platforms are multi-billion dollar companies, whose sole business objective is to keep your attention.
They’re filled with a collective expertise that dwarfs most governments. Engineers, psychologist and designers, all working to tweak an algorithm made to eek drain every moment out of my day, and pour it into their app — just for them to show me ads and make a few pennies.
So on one side we have a multi-billion dollar company, employing geniuses, with a trove of my personal data at their disposal.
On the other side you had me.
I want to live a fulfilling and meaningful life — they want me to stare at my screen, and it was not a fair fight.
It’s like trying to beat a casino, the only way to win is to not play!
But that sounds crazy. After all, I’ve cultivated a group of friends on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, even GitHub, how could I just turn them off? Twitter was my main source of news, and post-Covid, Facebook was the only way I kept in touch with my extended family, while LinkedIn played a similar role for my professional contacts.
But these platforms were sucking hours from of my life. Sure, I’d get the occasional useful insight, but those were needles in the haystack of garbage content. You’ve seen them before, upworthy post on Facebook, angry rants on Twitter, or clearly fake statuses on LinkedIn — not to mention the mountains of ‘masterclass’ ads promising ‘financial freedom’ that plague every platform.
I realized I no longer wanted to sacrifice my time at the altar of social media. Time was too precious a resource to spend on the unfair slot-machine.
Deleting the apps
And so I decided to remove these apps from phone.
One. By. One.
First went Reddit and LinkedIn, my ‘backup’ social sites. The ones I went to when I had exhausted my primaries. They were relatively easy to get rid off.
Then I took the big step of removing Twitter and Facebook, I knew I could always log onto my laptop in case I needed to access this, but the inconvenience of doing this drastically reduced the time I wasted on these platforms.
After that, the biggest gun of all — YouTube. I could spend hours mindlessly scrolling that rabbit-hole. YouTube is particularly evil, as the content it suggested to me was the most insidious of all (topic for another day), and it’s ads were the most intrusive.
At this point, my phone became less attractive to my mind, I’d still instinctively picked it up, every time my mind was bored, but because it had so little to entertain me, the duration of each pick up had reduced.
Then I deleted the last bastions of apps that took my attention, these included Feedly and Gmail, and Outlook. No more email, no more newsletters, no more feeds, there was nothing wrong with these apps, but they still took more time from my day then justified.
The apps that will remain are the audio ones, Audible, Spotify, Tidal, Podcast and Castro. These are mostly for my bike rides or commutes. In my mind they’re OK, because I can’t pick them up in a boring meeting, or at the dinner table. The weirdness of using audio keeps them limited to the times I intentionally want to use them (intentional is a word we’ll come back to later).
But after removing all these apps. .. my life changed.
I experienced something I hadn’t felt in decades — BOREDOM!
I was at home, after dinner, wondering what to do … I had no social media to appease my boredom (like I used to). I couldn’t retreat to my bed, while scrolling a timeline, now I had to decide what to do.
A conscious and intentional decision I could no longer outsource to an algorithm. I had to figure out how to spend these hours of my day.
The same was true for my mornings, after sending my daughter off to school (usually 6.30am), I now had roughly 2 hours before work — I had to decide how to spend this time, time I never realized I had because the algorithm had stole it from me.
I’m forced to be intentional with my time. Because the mind can only stay restless for so long.
At first it felt odd — then it felt powerful — then it felt amazing!
Now I read hours every day, finishing up entire books in less than a week. I’m returning the to joy of coding, and actually building fun stuff on the weekends (and even weekdays). It’s like receiving a unexpected year-end bonus, but instead of money, you get time (which is better).
I’ve also been more present at the dinner table, I’m playing games, and exploding kittens with my daughter. My mind has more headspace (another book I read), and I feel it’s improved my work productivity, as my attention has increased, and my presence at meetings has improved (just like at the dinner table).
I would still impulsively reach for my phone during a boring meeting, but my device is now as boring as the meeting itself — and the calculator app isn’t as entertaining as Facebook, hence my mind could not wander off into a twitter feed while someone rambled on in a meeting.
To my wife’s pleasant surprise, I’ve also started helping around the house more. Suddenly having time, and your mind craves activity — even if that activity is making the bed, or sweeping the floor, or just making breakfast in the mornings.
I’m exercising more, something I didn’t have ‘time’ for before.
My life has improved in every possible way, my only regret is not doing this earlier.
It’s not hard
Sure, I still visit Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but only on my laptop, and for very short durations of time (perhaps 60 minutes a week). I subscribed to newsletters, who give me those insights — but at a much higher return on investment. Instead of trawling through hours of tweets for interesting news, I now read through 15 minute curations that give me far better content.
I might sound alarmist, but depending on how much you use social-media, you might want to try this out as well. It will work wonders — trust me!
If your phone is the first thing you pick up in the morning, and last thing you see before you sleep — you have a problem. Life has to be more than staring at a screen, playing a gigantic slot machine designed by rich companies to keep you
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels