In the 14th century, a merchant in Venice pulled out a notebook, a few pens, and put together “a page-sized patchwork of his afternoon.” It was called a zibaldone, and was a hybrid diary, doodle pad, scrapbook, and ledger, reinforcing that a desire to record our days has been thriving long before social media apps were conceived.
It’s really no secret that human beings are wired for connection. But in today’s digital climate, it’s easy to forget that people made do without technology in their pocket. In thinking back to my own analog childhood, I spent countless hours on the phone with close friends, and I mailed postcards to them while on vacation or away at camp. Friendships flourished before social media. Letters took longer to arrive, and marketing was different. In some ways, maybe all that felt harder. I’m not really sure. But it’s not as if human beings haven’t survived for centuries without the world at their fingertips.
Social media might be an instantaneous way to share more about our lives and our creative offerings in one swoop, but what is it doing to our brains and our sanity? And is it possible to find a balance between both our desire and need to share information, while also protecting ourselves? These are two of the many questions that have been on my mind lately.
I’ve just returned from a 30-day absence from social media and as expected, it was simultaneously challenging and liberating to spend time in reflecting on my relationship with Facebook and Instagram. In this post I’m sharing all the insights I gathered during my experiment, but a quick warning: I have lots of thoughts. Well over 3,000 words to be a little more exact, so you might want to pour yourself a cup of tea before diving in.
Why I Took a Digital Break
At the end of May I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. This book confirmed much of what I’d been feeling—that I was a digital minimalist at heart—but needed to figure out a way to blend both my personal and professional uses on a select group of platforms without compromising my mental health along the way.
One of Newport’s recommendations is to spend 30 days off social media (not just a few days) and since I take a break from blogging and newsletter writing every July, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to add social media to the list and really go off the grid.
The reason for a hard break, according to Newport, is because moderate approaches don’t often work. Charging our phone in the kitchen at night, staying off social media on the weekends, or turning off notifications are smart ideas to help minimize social media’s damage while still elevating the good. “But as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape—the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed,” he writes.
Although it’s difficult to admit that half-quitting apps isn’t always the best solution, Newport’s philosophy has been confirmed by several recent articles on the subject. In “The Horrible Place Between the Apps” New York Times media reporter John Herrman notes:
“It turns out there’s a thriving culture of folk remedies, tricks, and hacks, some clever, others desperate, and others bordering on self-flagellation.”
This can include everything from turning your phone to grayscale in the evening, deleting apps from your phone (but using them on your desktop) and “hiding” them in folders that require several keystrokes to access.
“Generally speaking, turning off notifications seems to help, but can also increase compulsive app checking. Logging out of services after using them adds an extra step or two, but often leaves users no less engaged than before and slightly more irritated.” Most of us have been here.
As for me, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with social media pretty much from the start. I love it for the relationships I’ve built, some which have turned into real-life friendships, and the ability to share my work with others. I hate it for its constant drain on my brain, for distracting me, for making me feel like I’m not getting enough likes or comments. I hate that I feel like I should be there, like I’m missing out on something when I’m not scrolling. In some ways, it’s not our fault. Newport explained this fascinating tidbit of information on a podcast:
Here’s what social media used to be like: We posted something about our life, and caught up with our friends who did the same. But during this critical social media shift, the platforms bent toward a stream of social approval indicators. As Newport points out, “the like button was a late arrival and it was a boon for Facebook’s bottom line.” Suddenly we could post something, then return to see if we got likes. “This exploits psychological vulnerabilities in our mind. It makes it almost impossible to not go back,” Newport says.
When I first heard this, I felt upset and taken advantage of, but then I softened and realized the explanation makes it easier to understand exactly what’s going on here. Social media didn’t used to be like gambling. It was just a fun way to stay in touch with friends and family. But times have changed, which means our approach to embracing a healthy relationship to social media needs to change, too.
Here’s what I know about myself: I mindlessly turn to my phone when I need a mental break, or when I’m bored, and have been known to scroll through Instagram for 20 minutes for no reason at all.
The first step for me was removing these apps from my phone. Heading into having more downtime, I took a page from Melissa Coleman of The Faux Martha. In a similar boat navigating conflicted feelings on all things social media, she posted a smart idea in Instagram Stories: pick some things to fill your time. “Unless I hop off the internet, I’m learning how to consume and contribute without getting so high and dipping so low. If you’re canoeing down the same river, a detox is a good place to start. But, for long-term success, putting in some new rhythms, some things to look forward to on your calendar, is a great place to continue.”
Here are a few ideas she shared, plus some of my own additions:
Join a book club (or start one)
Plan a monthly happy hour
Pick up an old hobby
Tackle a fussy recipe (like sourdough or croissants)
Start a garden
Schedule social media time (and turn off app notifications)
Play a lawn game
Go see a movie
Read every book written by a single author
Learn to knit
10 Questions to Ask Before Taking a Social Media Break
To shape my month, I wrote down a list of questions to answer, then pulled out a notebook to sort through them.
What makes me excited about taking a break from social media?
What makes me nervous about disengaging from social media?
Why do I use [social media platform]?
What do I receive from others?
What do I offer followers/my community?
What don’t I like about using these platforms?
Which elements do I like?
What would happen if I stopped using it?
What boundaries do I need?
What are my goals and intentions for social media, and how can I use various platforms to serve these?
These are expansive, general questions that are a great start to any break, and helped me turn inward quite a bit. But I also had a more specific question on my mind about Instagram, namely whether or not I should continue using my personal account, or branch into using an account created just for the Wild Words community.
Entries From My Social Media Detox Journal
To show the progression of where I started and where I ended up, here are a few journal entries from my month off.
7/2 Second day without social media and the reflexes are real.
7/3 Baked an apple pie and instinctively photographed it, wanting to share the accomplishment and tag my friend to shout her recipe from the rooftops. It’s not a terrible instinct to have, but it can also wait.
7/7 Not swiping as much. Reading more news.
7/12 In moments of boredom, I reach for my phone before remembering Instagram isn’t there. This platform is a boredom filter for me, more so than Facebook.
7/15 My reflexes have diminished considerably. Missing social media is simply as an antidote to boredom, not because I feel like I need to post something about my life.
7/20 Am I posting because of perceived expectations, to keep a record of my days? Should social media be for ourselves, the betterment of others, both? What’s worth posting and what isn’t, and how do we decide?
7/25 Because of our move last year, most of our friends and family are scattered across the country, so social media is an easy way to touch base. That might be what I miss most.
Facebook vs. Instagram: Where I Landed
Let’s start with what didn’t change a whole lot. Facebook is where I prefer spending my social media energy from a professional standpoint, and have hosted my private group for writers there for more than two years now. I’m invested, I’m happy, and I enjoy creating content for this platform.
What I didn’t miss about Facebook was the main feed which may or may not have relevant posts for me to peruse when I’m scrolling. I decided to take a closer look at my page likes and prune organizations and businesses that are no longer important for me to follow. Any blogs that weren’t already in my Feedly account got added so I don’t need to rely on Facebook to let me know when a new post is published. I also bookmarked my Facebook group so I can head there directly.
Instagram is where most of my insights appeared. Before the break, I was wrestling with how to proceed (see note above). My personal account is filled with a variety of followers from various stages of my life and career, so the audience isn’t as curated as my Facebook group.
Since I have a book coming out all about the writer’s life, I was considering ramping up a dedicated Wild Words account, which would not only help privatize my personal account, but get my ideas in front of the people who could engage and benefit most. If I had more time and energy, this is probably the direction I’d go. But in evaluating my current circumstances—not my ideal circumstances—(something I always, always recommend, by the way) I realized leaving Instagram alone is my best strategy right now.
On a personal level, I truly enjoy using Instagram in a lighthearted way, posting when I want and not worrying about the algorithm for connecting with my audience in DMs. Instagram is my “for fun” platform where I enjoy being an observer, staying up to date on happenings with friends, or learning about topics that are important to me like social justice and sustainable fashion.
The minute I attach an outcome to an Instagram post, or expect it to be anything other than a source of entertainment, things fall apart. When I start refreshing constantly to see my likes or comments, getting down on myself when I don’t get responses to questions posed in Instagram stories, I know it’s not where my heart lies.
The idea of creating content on Instagram that has any kind of agenda gives me anxiety. (An older version of me, knowing very well how adept I am at organizing and planning, would sign up for the software to make this process “easier,” but it would just be more work to maintain, which I’m not interested in.) But when I share things on my own timeline, without planning my grid in advance or thinking about creating a call to action, that’s when it’s fun for me.
If you’re going through your own evaluation process with social media, Christianne Squires had a gem of a response after going on her own journey.
“The thing that cinched my decision to leave Facebook was the reality of time and focus. I’ve given a lot of myself to Instagram in the last two years. I’ve built relationships there. I know the kinds of things I like to share. I feel a sense of community. Also, on the more technical side, I’ve learned what my voice sounds like. I know my aesthetic. I’ve figured out how I like to use Instagram Stories. And I’ve learned how this tool fits into my work and my life. Not to mention that, overall, I just really like it. Bringing that same level of focus and the same amount of time it has required to a second platform in order for it to thrive too—and for a platform I don’t enjoy that much? I just couldn’t imagine doing that. This is what led, quickly, to a hard no for me. It was time to say goodbye to Facebook.”
Yes and yes! I love this because it’s exactly how I feel about Facebook. That’s where my community is, and when I think about adding a second platform to my plate, I can’t stomach it.
With Instagram, I simply needed to let go of outcomes and embrace the fact that I’m not there for “business” reasons. Yes, I share my books and peeks from the writer’s life, but I also like to post photos of my garden, of trees, of food I’m eating. I have fun when I engage more lighthearted ways with Instagram, and that’s how I’m planning to keep things for the foreseeable future.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In many ways, it’s difficult to sum up an experience that seems so essential to our time. And really, this isn’t a process we should do once and never revisit. Annual breaks and time for reflection are pretty essential if we want to be mindful of our relationship not only with social media, but technology as a whole.
This time around, a social media break reinforced my love of long-form content (like this post!). Blogging and book writing are places I consider a sweet spot of mine in part because they take time. You let ideas simmer, walk away, tweak, massage, walk away again. It’s not an on-the-fly creation process.
When I look at my life and how I operate, I’m not good at being spontaneous, at least when it comes to writing and speaking. For podcasts, I like having a list of talking points ahead of time to prepare. Same goes for author talks. And I’d rather take two weeks to fiddle with a blog post than type a rushed caption on my phone with a half-formed thought.
All that being said, there’s no substitute for truly knowing yourself. Not all of my insights and reflections will be ones you share, but I truly hope there’s been enough here to kickstart your own journey.
5 Ways to Declutter Your Social Feeds
Wrapping up, here are a few recommendations for how to move forward after coming out of a nice long break.
01 Choose one platform to put your energy
Although there are examples of writers who have built careers without social media, the majority of us need to have some social presence in order to make inroads, at least at the beginning. Conventional wisdom took a “more is better” approach, but these days, we’re realizing the value of quality over quantity. This doesn’t mean you can’t have accounts on multiple platforms, but when it comes to building a community around your work and creating meaningful connections, focus on one.
02 Follow fewer people
I felt nearly weightless after cutting 300 people from my “followers” list on Instagram. Ditto for unliking pages that aren’t important to me anymore, like restaurants in a city I no longer live in. The editing process will take a bit of time, but it’s worth it to have a cleaner feed filled with more relevant content.
03 Figure out what you want to achieve.
Are you interested in meeting like-minded people? Sharing photos with friends and family? Learning from folks with different perspectives? Staying up to date on current events or causes you care about? Get to know the in’s and out’s of your city? You get the idea. Knowing the “why” behind what motivates us to be on these platforms in the first place can help us make decisions for how to use them.
04 Remove temptation.
I deleted the Facebook app from my phone during my 30-day break, and plan to make this a permanent decision. The platform is easy to use on my desktop, and it keeps me from getting caught in endless scrolling.
05 Share, but not right away.
One of the things that can cause anxiety on social media is the assumption everything needs to happen in the moment. I’ve come across a few examples of people sharing round up posts (and have done it myself on occasion), which is a great way to pull together all the thoughts on your mind, but in a more organized way. Heidi Swanson from 101 Cookbooks curates a favorites list when she feels inspired, Cup of Jo shares “Four Fun Things” on a weekly basis, Emily P. Freeman shares what she’s learning lately, and Lindsay Ostrom from Pinch of Yum does a monthly Coffee Date post where she shares snippets from her life.
You can keep track of things you’d like to share throughout the month or week, then share them either in succession on social media, or in a blog post, on a timeline that works for you instead of feeling pressured by the apps to make everything feel more urgent than it really is.
More Resources About Limiting Social Media Use
For even more insights, here are several other posts worth reading.
“Fallow time is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. To do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. It is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.”
How I Spent 40 Days With a Flip Phone
by Claire Gibson
“Instead of responding to every little urge, I had to sit there. Drive. Cook dinner. In those moments, I realized that I’d been tricked by my smartphone— I’d believed that I was being efficient when in reality, I was just being distractible and compulsive.”
16 Hacks to Stop Spending Time on the Internet
by Marsha Shandur
“All of my clients know that I have a minimum two-day response time. I also teach them hacks to get my attention if something is urgent. I use (another favorite app) Boomerang for Gmail to delay responses to people by at LEAST two days if I can, so that no one expects me to be accessible all the time.”
How to Do Nothing
by Jenny Odell
“Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.”
Why I’m Deleting my Instagram Account
by Tonia Peckover
“One of the first things that happens when I unplug from Instagram is a shift in my perception about my life: I’m happier with my home, my relationships, my work, and my appearance. Real contentment is the antidote to corporate manipulation and consumerist culture, but I can’t expect to have it while I’m using corporate/consumerist tools.”