I was going to try it for just one month — remove all social media, news, and email from my phone and limit my internet browsing time. I had spent my entire life living with these things and wanted to see what it was like without them. I was sick of it anyway: all the distractions, all the comparisons, all the extra information.
The idea was introduced to me from Cal Newport’s blog. He is doing research on removing optional technologies from your life and seeing how you bring them back into your life. He challenged his readers to remove all optional technologies for a month, reconsider their importance, and bring back only what was needed.
After my experiment, instead of reintroducing parts of social media, I now want to take more technology out of my life. I can’t say I’ll never have Instagram again, but I can say that I won’t for the near term.
Below are notes on what I learned since being social media free. Keep in mind this isn’t a controlled experiment and much of what I have learned came also from reading books, not just being social media free. However, I would not be reading so much if I was still on social media so who knows what a controlled experiment would look like anyway.
I’m not comparing my life to others. When’s the last time you saw someone post a Snapchat of them sitting down with a good philosophy book? Hopefully your answer is “recently” but I’ve never seen one. Yet, compared to most activities that are posted on social media, reading books is more beneficial in the long-run. I found that I’m much more willing to justify wholesome activities when I’m not concerned with everyone knowing what I’m doing.
I’m spending time with people who I care about. Because I’m not showing people my life online, friends and family have to reach out to learn about how I spend my time. People have been operating this way for a long time; it’s only in the past ten years that our communication has trended towards being passive. I’ve had coffee chats with friends. I’ve caught up with people on the phone. Even texting people is more personal than a like on Instagram.
Down time is valuable. For a long time, I thought that it was an easy trade off: if I worked more hours, I would be more productive. I’m learning this assumption is often false. Down time to think about ideas, create mental models, and notice subtleties of life is not only is more enjoyable, but makes me think better. Seneca mentions this concept frequently in his letters:
"People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity."
"Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where his is and pass some time in his own company."
Many other leading thinkers have also mentioned they use down time to think about ideas instead of filling it with other work. Whether processing a new concept or letting my mind wander, I’ve found down time very valuable.
Pursuing reality makes us happier. In his book Principles, Ray Dalio’s key theme is that radical transparency leads to better decisions and more meaningful relationships. I’ve found this to be true in my life and in examining some of the best thinkers (there is a longer argument for this point – perhaps I’ll write on it later). Many people are aware that social media only shows the best of the best: carefully edited photos and videos. Turns out this does represent reality, and I don’t particularly want to deal with it.
Accomplishing difficult things makes us happier. Think back on your life, what are you most proud of? When I answer this, I look fondly on the times where I grew the most as a person. For example (and without making this a pity party), I spent of the majority of my life physically unhealthy (either over or under weight). While I still have a long way to go, I’m currently in the range of ideal weight for my height and work out consistently. Getting to this point took a lot of unpleasant work. However, I’m very proud of my progress and overall health. Social media is a master of distractions and can pull you away from the difficult, agonizing work that leads to the most satisfying accomplishments in life.
News sucks. I’m a firm believer in the “The Lindy Effect”: the longer and idea or concept has been accepted and talked about, the longer it will continue to be accepted and talked about. For example, we are very likely going to be reading Aristotle and Plato 2,500 years from now because we’ve been reading them for 2,500 years already. The same is true about something published a week ago: chances are we will be reading it in a week. After that, it’s unknown. I prefer to read things that naturally build on each other and aren’t going to change, and news (by definition) is the opposite of that. Besides, if something is actually important enough that I need to know about it, I end up finding out through everyday conversations.
Email on your phone is overrated. For many people, checking email is as addicting as checking Instagram. For me the costs of reaching for my phone outweigh the ‘benefits’ of always having email with me. No one has since complained that I take too long to respond to emails.
I could write more — this topic has become a passion of mine. Instead, I’ll leave you with advice: try removing addictive technologies in your life for a defined period. The more addictive, the more important that you take a break. Perhaps you’ll realize that you do want these things in your life, perhaps not. But if you don’t try life without them, you might never know if they are worth your trouble.