You have to be careful with social media.
I’m not saying you need to break up with social media, but you should probably create some boundaries.
Social media may seem innocuous, but it’s engineered to hijack your attention in ways that you simply aren’t wired to combat.
For instance, social media companies design their apps with something called TTF in mind. TTF stands for “time to fun,” but it really means how long does it take user to feel a hit of gratification after opening the app.
The industry standard is seven seconds. Tik Tok can deliver gratification in less than two.
There’s also intermittent rewards. Maybe you’ll get a notification. Maybe someone will put a little heart on your picture or comment on your post. This kind of unpredictable reinforcement is virtually irresistible.
But wasting your life away scrolling isn’t the only danger of social media. It might not even be the biggest. The new media promotes envy at an unfathomable scale. It also seems to be making everyone stressed out and anxious.
Just consider the plight of the teenage girl. Puberty is a tough stage for males and females, but the physical, emotional, and social changes that a girl goes through when she becomes a woman are truly harrowing.
Puberty is so hard on young women, that for decades many young ladies have resorted to various destructive coping mechanisms: Cutting, anorexia, bulimia, etc.
And that was at a time where you had less than a handful of pretty girls at school to compare yourself to. Now, you have every pretty girl all over the world to compare yourself too. And unlike your classmates, they’re always at their glamorous best.
Even worse, you can quantify how much more popular they are than you. They put up a picture of their butt as they turn around and make a peace sign at the camera and it gets 5 million hearts in less than 24 hours. No matter how hard you try, you struggle to get just five hearts on anything you post.
And of course, we’ve all experienced social media’s destructive affect on relationships. Have you ever gotten annoyed and irritable when someone interrupted your precious scrolling time? Is scrolling really that important to you, or was your control over your attention no match for the algorithm?
Putting Up Barriers
Whenever this issue comes up, most of the solutions offered revolve around putting barriers between yourself and social media:
- Turn off notifications
- Delete social media from you phone
- Sign out by default so you have to sign in to access the app
- Set an app timer to limit your exposure
While I agree with and support all these measures, they won’t be enough. You’ll never win by focusing on what you’re not supposed to do. You need to build up habits of things that you will do so that you don’t need to rely on social media as a crutch.
Here are eight smart things to do besides social media.
1. Create Instead of Consume
Usually when we talk about consumption in personal finance, we’re talking about spending money. When we’re talking about consuming media, however, we’re primarily talking about how you spend your time.
And ultimately time is a more precious resource than money.
Just like you can waste money consuming junk, you can waste time consuming junk as well.
Baby Step: Create on Social Media
Yes, this step still has you tied to social media, but hopefully you can flip your relationship with the platform.
The way things always breakdowns is that the small minority of people actively create on a consistent basis, and most people just passively consume.
You can go from the many to the few.
By creating content, you’ll be forced to think. Consuming intelligent content can give you the illusion of thinking, but you’re really just reacting to someone else’s insight before moving on to the next tweet.
Next Level: Create Off of Social Media
Creating outside of social media gets you out of the whirlwind.
This blog is something I do every morning. I wake up before the sun comes out and write for a couple of hours before I have to go into work.
The writing helps sharpen my thinking. The act of crafting a half formed though into words that you can put down is the act of thinking.
This blog is also being built in a way that respects your time and attention. The long term plan for this blog is to have it grow through two ways:
- Organic word of mouth, referrals, and repeat visitors
- Search traffic from Google
I’m not going to be spamming some feed with a million posts. I’m going to build a website worth visiting, and trust that people will find it and direct others to it.
Even though I’m very early on in this journey, it has been satisfying to see people share my work on social media and on forums.
2. Learn Something
True learning requires a longer attention span than you need to watch a minute-long tik tok video.
You have to engage fully in the material over a period of time.
Learning is often uncomfortable, because it makes us feel incompetent. This is the barrier to entry. Learning offers short term discomfort, social media offers short term gratification.
Of course, once you get into a flow state, your psychological well-being improves dramatically. You no longer have the bandwidth to ruminate over all your problems and imperfections, you have to fully concentrate on the task at hand.
And when you achieve competency—or better yet, mastery—it’s extremely satisfying.
Social media goes the other way. It feel good at first but gets worse the more you use it.
So what can you learn?
Learn a Language
One thing you could try is learning a language. This is what I’m doing.
Yo aprendo hablar español en mi celular.
The nice thing is, my pursuit of language has let me use my cell phone as a tool, rather than a distraction.
I primarily use two apps:
Both are free and both are fantastic.
Duolingo has many of the features that make social media dangerous, but it uses them to help you, not hurt you. It’s designed to make language learning fun and mildly addictive so that you can build a habit of practicing.
LingQ does not have nearly as nice of a user interface, but follows a much sounder theory of language learning: Stephen Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis. This is the idea that people acquire language by listening and reading, not by studying and memorizing vocabulary.
I also sometimes use Ankidroid for flashcards with spaced repetition (it’s called Ankimobile on iPhone and it actually costs money for ios users) and Google translate.
3. Face-to-Face Conversation
Nine years ago when my wife was pregnant with our first child, I had the opportunity to catch up with a mentor from college. He gave me some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard.
He said they key was to spend time with your child every day, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball.
Human beings are designed for in person interaction. We can adapt to email or text messaging reasonably well, but there is no substitute for “the meeting eyes of love” when a mother looks at her child.
While it’s always possible to feel alone in a community, the risk is much higher when the community interacts digitally instead of physically. The ability to talk to someone is the best way to form a bond.
When we are forced to interact online, we often choose the worst ways of doing so. Most people prefer messaging to phone calls, because it lets you respond on your own time and think through what you want to say. But devoting your undivided attention to someone is the best way to signal to someone that you value them.
Phone calls are better for building community than messaging. Video calls are better than phone calls. And absolutely nothing holds a candle to face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball.
4. Read a Book
I love books. I love fiction and nonfiction. Unlike social media where content is made in hours and consumed in seconds, books are made over months or years and consumed over weeks.
This sustained engagement increases the quality of the experience dramatically.
Think about this. When you read a good nonfiction book, it might take you somewhere between five and fifty hours. Chances are, the author spent 50 weeks writing it. At least. And it might have taken her decades to acquire the knowledge that went into it.
If that isn’t a screaming bargain at $10-$20, I don’t know what is. Oh, and you can read it for free if you get it from the library.
Reading fiction is just as good for me. Fiction teaches you just as much as nonfiction, but the lessons are more abstract. What it means to be human, how to react to the difficulties of life, these are the lessons encoded in good fiction.
I’ll say this, a good novel is the perfect companion just before bedtime. There’s something about reading fiction that helps your mind wind down. When I use my phone before bed, I find it hard to fall asleep. My head hits the pillow frazzled and distracted. My mind is still going a mile a minute.
But reading a chapter of a good story helps me fall asleep almost instantly.
One downside of the luxurious and decadent society that we live in is that we’re all getting fat and sick.
Seriously, you should watch old television shows and movies. People were basically stick figures.
Obviously part of the solution is diet, but part of it is exercise.
I try to work out five times a week. One of the best investments I ever made was buying a 24kg kettlebell. You can buy a kettlebell for less than $100 and it is basically a full gym.
I do different varieties of swings, cleans, squats, presses, and snatches. I can work out my whole body using just a cannonball with a handle.
Exercise can boost your mood, prevent you from developing what Dr. Jonathnon Sullivan calls the “sick aging phenotype,” and make you a stronger and more useful person in general.
When it comes to exercise, I like short and intense. Four hours of running sounds like torture. Four minutes of moving something really heavy around sounds like a fun challenge.
Plus, think about this. When you’re 80 you won’t be upset that you can no longer run marathons. You’ll be upset that you can’t get up off the toilet without help. Choose exercises that will help yo always be strong enough to get off the toilet.
6. Do Nothing
I’m being serious.
It might seem odd to recommend doing nothing in a post called “redeeming the time,” but I promise you this is a wise use of your time.
In the book Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle points out that while social media feels like taking a break, our attention is actually captured and divided.
True mental rest is when there are no demands on our attention and our mind is free to wander.
This might sound a little like boredom, but it’s actually a lot like boredom.
Boredom isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s the mental relaxation that enables all our bouts of focused effort.
If you are chronically anxious and stressed out, if you find yourself unable to concentrate, maybe the problem is that you’re never giving your brain a break.
Just ask yourself this question: Has anyone ever come back from scrolling on social media refreshed and ready to tackle the world?
Play isn’t for children, play is for humans.
Play is how you explore and interact with the world. It’s foundational to creativity. It’s foundational to learning.
Play is how you align your conscious and subconscious minds.
Do you ever have that experience where you’re doing one thing but thinking about something else? That doesn’t happen when you’re allowed to follow your genuine curiosity and interest and play.
Journaling is in many ways the opposite of social media.
With social media your time is guided by the thoughts of others as you passively consume digital content meant for sharing.
When you journal, you encounter a literal blank page and are guided by your thoughts alone as you actively create physical content meant for your personal use.
Journaling can be a very rewarding habit. As Rachel Wilerson Miller says in her book Dot Journaling:
“Writing about yourself and your life — even just brief notes! — is a huge privilege, and that writing can be incredibly liberating. Writing in a diary is, at its core, a declaration that your voice matters.”
To start a journaling habit, use an exercise called “homework for life” by Matthew Dicks. It’s very simple, every day just answer the following question in one or two sentences: “What made today different than any other day?”
Once you’ve built that small habit, you can expand your journaling activities.
I’ve gotten rid of most social media on my phone. I liked instagram, but I had to delete it because it promoted envy, wasting time, and—quite frankly—lust.
I downloaded Tik Tok once but quickly deleted it.
Right now I have Twitter and YouTube on my phone. Twitter has a 15 minute timer and to be honest, I should set one for YouTube as well.
But my best strategy has been developing activities to engage in besides social media. If you want to reclaim your attention, that’s what you’ll have to do as well.
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