I spend half my hours online for my work and hobbies (making virtual stuff, plus lots of reading). Unfortunately, this makes me doubly susceptible to tech's dark side: the ruthless hijacking of my mind and attention.
Because of this, I've searched far and wide for tools and strategies that would help me fight back, but so far I've never managed to consistently quit social media. That changed after a major downfall during quarantine.
Late March, I burnt out after being home all day with urgent work. It got so bad that I (a huge nerd) lost my will to code. I felt like an absolute animal, living moment to moment, in the pursuit of "happiness", checking FB, IG, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, Telegram, my email, the news, coronavirus updates...repeat, day in, day out.
I'd had enough of not making any progress. I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, started following his advice, and focused on permanently eliminating one distraction at a time.
I'm still trying to improve, but 6 months later, I now:
- have an actual sleep schedule;
- I have more meaningful conversations with people IRL & through calls, which means less virtual small talk;
- read/write more;
- have less time anxiety and virtually no text/social anxiety;
- am much fitter (after starting hiking)
- have my motivation for coding back.
I want to share everything I've learned about building a better relationship with technology— I hope that I'll understand the principles better, and that you'll share own experiences and tips.
Step 0: Know Thy Enemy
First and foremost, it was crucial for me to understand why and how social media and tech messes you up:
- How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind— from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, a short article that's simultaneously fascinating and horrifying.
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
- The Social Dilemma, a documentary that "explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations."
Step 1: Know Thyself
what are your bad habits? First, figure out the pattern. What do you do that you do not like? When? To quote James Clear, what are your reminders (the trigger that initiates the behavior), routines (the behavior itself; the action you take), and rewards (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)?
what needs your bad habits are currently fulfilling? This is the most important step. What are your needs? How does the habit's reward fulfill this need? Try to ask "Why?" multiple times to get to the root need.
Make sure to differentiate between why you use X vs what you want to use for For instance, I was abusing Reddit and Twitter because I wasn't getting enough mental, novel stimulation offline, while I wanted to use them for talking to my friends, sharing new things, and maintaining social connections.
What are my moments of weaknesses? I usually give in to temptation when I'm either bored, brain-fried, or through environmental triggers like notifications.
When does the thought of X not even cross my mind? This is important because we can replace the time you spent online with more of this behavior.
Step 2: Act
General Guidelines To Not Get Hacked
Once you know your basic needs, you can determine the most effective ways to get them met, especially without using tech! If you must do it with tech,
Define a clear purpose for each app you'll use—filter out everything else. Figure out the most effective way to use this app to fulfill this need. Reduce your chances of getting addicted by cutting out as many dopamine triggers as you can. If you can't, assume you'll fail to do the right thing more often than not— if you spent 2-10x more time and mental energy on this app than you wanted, would you be hurt significantly? Is the dopamine trigger still worth it?
Ask, "what's the longest time I can go without using this app and still reap most of the benefits?" The longer the time interval between use, the less likely that you'll form a bad habit. Figure out the point of diminishing returns!
Use Long-form media over short-form media. Read articles instead of tweets. Read books instead of articles. Watch documentaries instead of Youtube videos. To be better informed, study history instead of watching the news... you get the gist: consume information that is timeless.
Put your phone away. Drop it in a drawer or cupboard while you're at home. Out of sight, out of mind. Always keep your phone away from your bedroom. Just DON'T touch it before you go to sleep.
Turn off all notifications (except SMS messages). Also turn off in-app notifications where possible (e.g. LinkedIn network notifications or Instagram follow notifications).
Use your phone on greyscale mode. This makes renders color psychology useless against you.
Turn your WiFi off after you're done. This adds friction, so you're less likely to pick your phone back up again you check your phone calendar or respond to a text message. Bonus points if you can turn off your router before going to bed.
Use Ratio launcher on Android phones. It's free, minimalist, greyscale, and doesn't try to hijack your mind. A future (paid) version will also allow you to handle all apps' messages from one screen.
By turning off notifications, you remove a source of cheap dopamine, you use your apps proactively, and will find it much easier to remain in flow after regaining control of your attention.
"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate...
We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.".
It's the same with social media— much of it boils down to decluttering.
Always use the web version. The web versions of apps are much less intrusive or addictive. Strive to define a clear goal/endpoint before you log in, to avoid getting sucked into the vortex, and log out/remove all saved info after you're done. If the app doesn't have a web version, uninstall after usage.
Turn off Read Receipts, Last Seens, Online status visibilty— any feature that enforces unwritten social contracts or deadlines or otherwise guilt trip you.
Respond to crucial/urgent messages on your first check/before starting any work. Batch-process all of the non-urgent stuff later, preferably when everyone's offline, because then you're less likely to get (or wait for) responses, so you won't keep texting. This ensures less context switching and less time spent.
Disable and hide unimportant scrollable content. For example, you can hide Youtube's recommended videos sidebar using Ublock Origin.
Have maximum control over your information feeds. The cleanest feed is no feed. If the feed isn't why you use the platform (FB's home feed for example), disable it altogether(using the News Feed Eradicator browser extension)
Curate, Curate, and Curate. Unfollow people who post irrelevant content, regardless of your relationship IRL. Why unfollow instead of mute? Well, you'll start gathering irrelevant people and blocking out the ones you really want to connect with. Also, I've noticed that the explore tab is heavily affected by the people you follow/interact with.
Disable/Mute/Hide Statuses and Stories wherever you can. The nature of this medium limits its [[information density]]— it's low-effort and time-sensitive content.
Whatever emotions they'll stir within you are going to be fleeting at best— perhaps an occasional laugh or a loud snort. Is it worth getting addicted to?
Also, Google, why do I need stories in Google Photos?!
On Whatsapp, revoking the contacts permission will stop displaying statuses. You can enable it again when you need to text someone new. Inefficient, but its the only way I've found.
Use the law of attraction and keep your circles tighter online. On the internet, you have greater freedom of choice when it comes to choosing who you hang around with. People aren't really affected by your decision, but you will be. In fact, people online have changed my life more than my circle IRL. So choose wisely, and go for whitelisting instead of blacklisting—put everyone out and let only some in.
Separate business conversations and personal ones by getting two numbers/accounts. Allows you to do your job while using the personal account only when you really need to
Use social media anonymously. If you must use exclusive features (asking advice on FB groups for example), do so anonymously. Disconnecting your identity and social circles from these social platforms drastically minimize the addiction vector.
My Time Log
This is my progress timeline— it wasn't a straight road.
late April: Using Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram, and email (at reduced frequency).
- Focus is reasonably longer. I feel much more peaceful/joy. I've been writing so much more.
- I stumbled— and used Whatsapp/Twitter unhealthily. Why? I lost excitement when it came to my work, and I'm still much more comforable using Whatsapp for scheduling offline meetups than text or call.
- Decided to stop using Whatsapp DMs and statuses. Why?
- My previous habit of Checking Whatsapp only on weekends wasn't working out. Why?
- a) the extra dopamine on the weekends still can mess up my energy for the rest of the week.
- b) people continue to text me on Whatsapp because I respond on week-ends.
- c) Whatsapp is still exhausting+time-consuming for me, and sometimes produces text anxiety.
- To be clear, I still use group DMs, and for sending photos/links to people— I just don't text. Why?
- Because there are no convenient alternatives for things that require group discussions, like planning a meetup or sharing thoughts on a specific subject.
- The last time I used Whatsapp for texting (after faltering once in August).
- Permanently deleted my personal Instagram+Facebook accounts.
My Current Media Stack
Email (2-3x daily)
- I use email as e-mail, i.e. to keep in touch with people over long periods of time.
Twitter (2-3x daily)
- A great place to learn new things and connect with like-minded people.
- SMS is neat for talking about short but important things because
a) The character limit forces people to stick to what's important
b) each text costs actual real money, so I'm more careful with my time spent texting. This might not work as planned for someone who lives in the West/ has unlimited SMS.
- SMS is neat for talking about short but important things because
- Whatsapp is for longer calls, sending group DMs (because it's still the best way of simultaneously communicating with many friends), and sending one-off photos/files/links.
- I use WA Business's auto-reply feature to let people know that I don't chat on Whatsapp and where they can find me.
- I scroll through the homepage to learn new things (I'm subscribed to a lot of cool subs) but mostly use it as an information base (like StackOverflow)
Telegram (1x daily)
- I use Telegram for texting because
- Telegram is feature-rich while remaining bloat-free (no statuses :D)
- I have circles of friends who aren't anywhere else
- Most people I know don't use Telegram, so the pain of downloading the app just to talk to me automatically filters people whom it's worth texting.
- I use Telegram for texting because
- I mostly use it to listen to music that's not available on Spotify. I also use it as a source for new information, although I've drastically reduced this usage in the past few months (<2.5 hrs/week)
- For professional stuff.
Facebook, Instagram (as I need to)
- I have burner accounts for when I need to use FB Groups/Pages.
And that's it from me! A few more resources that I'd recommend going through:
Thanks for reading ヅ You can follow me on Twitter for more.
Thanks to Tanesh for helping polish this guide.