Social media can connect us to new ideas, help us share our work, and allow previously unheard voices to influence culture. Yet it can also be a highly addictive time-sink if we’re not careful about our goals, purpose, and usage.
Over the last two years, I conducted four different experiments to monitor my own behavior, implementing trackers and blockers in order to better understand how social media usage affected my productivity. My goal was to see if by interrupting my daily behavior I could change my “default settings” and have more time for deep, focused work.
In the end, these four experiments opened my eyes about my relationship to social platforms, and taught me effective strategies to maximize the benefit of these social tools while limiting the downsides.
The first step was collecting data. Before beginning my experiments, I tracked my daily behavior to better understand where my time and energy was going, which gave me insight into what I could change to produce more satisfying deep work. I used RescueTime for tracking my computer usage, and Moment to track my cell phone behaviors.
Experiment #1: Complete Removal of Social Sites For 30 Days
My first experiment was a complete removal of all social aspects from my routine: no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or LinkedIn for 30 days. Leading up to it, I raised objections—“but I need Facebook for my work!”, my brain sputtered, in a testament to the addictive power of the apps.
I logged out of each site and deleted all the apps from my phone. Then, I used Freedom, a website blocking tool, to restrict the social sites from my browser and phone. Finally, I had my partner take over my phone and install parental restrictions on browser sites with a password unknown to me. (I wasn’t taking any chances.)
The Results. Once I decided to go all-in, it was surprisingly easier to do than expected. There was a relief in being offline and deciding, once and for all, to do it. Here’s what I learned:
- There were a few technical hassles: Facebook, in particular, is embedded in a lot of other applications, which created a problem any a tool required Facebook as a login. Going forward, I’ll create email-based logins only (which is also better for security).
- My book-reading skyrocketed. In a month, I read more books than I had in the combined three months prior. Whenever I craved a break, I turned to my Kindle, instead of social or news sites.
- I used social sites a surprising amount for research and discovery—when I’m thinking of a person I want to connect with, or a project I want to follow-up on, I would quickly type the social site for ease. Not having access created more friction in the short-term, but didn’t ultimately delay the work I was doing. There was a tension between instant access and carving out boundaries for deeper creative work that I found useful, albeit annoying.
After the experiment was over, I went back to allowing myself unlimited social media access and continued to track my usage using RescueTime. With a fresh perspective after a month away, I was able to more clearly see a pattern emerge around how I used the various sites, both for better and for worse. My key finding was the marked difference in my behaviors across devices: My laptopwasn’t the biggest culprit for addictive behavior: when I was at my desk, working, I spent the majority of my time actually working. My phone was the biggest culprit for addictive behavior.
Further, it was very clearly time-based. My social media usage (or cravings) clearly spiked at certain times. Most of my bad habits were tied up in late-night tiredness, early-morning mindlessness, and craving “The Scroll” whenever I was tired. It also became fairly predictable that I wanted a mid-morning break (around 11am) and an afternoon break (around 3 or 4pm). By far, the worst time was late evening, after dinner, when my brain felt like complete mush.
By all-out blocking the social feeds for thirty days, I saw where in the day my tiredness emerged and when I wanted to use the platforms for research or actual connection.
Experiment #2: Carving Out Daily Time Blockers
I wanted to learn whether or not I could limit, but not eliminate, social media and have equally effective results. This next experiment involved a daily restriction on websites based on the known “tired times” I’d identified in the first experiment.
For two weeks, I limited social access during certain periods of the day using the blocking app like Freedom. I allowed social sites on my computer in the afternoons only — not in the mornings, or after dinner. I also blocked all news websites, television sites, and installed Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook, a social plug-in that helps prevent the scrolling nature of the newsfeed.
Results: Keeping the mornings social-media and news free was a game changer. I got so much more done on my biggest projects by having dedicated focus hours, and also knowing that there was a scheduled break in my day coming up.
- The long-term effects of this change became apparent by day four or five. In the mornings, if I succumbed to impulsivity (a quick check here, an Amazon purchase there, firing off a couple of emails), it was far more difficult for me to throttle back into the realm of deep work.
- By carving out chunks of the day to focus on specific work projects (moving one big project forward before 11am), I radically improved my personal productivity.
- Temptation was strong, but waned over time: by overcoming the biggest pull to check first thing in the morning, I was much more focused and clear throughout the rest of the morning.
This proved to be a very effective strategy for me. Time-based internet blockers helped me increase my productivity. But now the reverse question came up: instead of blocking out times when I’d never use social, what if I dedicated a particular slot of time to it?
Experiment #3: The Social “Happy Hour”
The next experiment I tried was dedicating a specific hour of my day completely for use on social sites. I set up a calendar invitation from 4-5pm: a “happy hour” at the end of the work day to connect, enjoy, and run across new people and ideas after nearly 12 hours of working or parenting.
Results: Creating a built-in stress relief hour where I know that I can slide into “social research and browsing” (“The Scroll”), helped me avoid temptation at other hours of the day. It was easier to replace a bad habit with a better one than to focus all my energy on eliminating the bad habit.
- Strangely, consolidating all of my social media use into a single hour made it seem less exciting. I noticed that I’d be finished scrolling within 20 minutes, or 30 minutes on a long day. There’s only so much sustained reading and commenting that I can do.
- I was much more efficient at responding to all of the requests that come my way—rather than have metered out conversations trickling through the day, I buckled down, opened up new browser tabs for each meaningful mention or request, and whipped through it.
- My content creation went way down. Instead, I began to plan ahead with a loose Evernote file for social media status updates and things I wanted to share, and the 12-hour delay between composing and pressing “publish” gave me a better chance to reflect on whether instant-sharing was really still necessary.
The biggest insights were that (1) social media usage dripped throughout the day drains the energy and focus I have for writing and other work, and (2) that there’s something insidiously satisfying about pressing publish on a status update, and each time I do it, I get the dopamine hit of satisfaction and response. But each tiny posting saps energy, and that adds up.
Experiment #4: 24 Hours To Break the Cycle
One of my favorite methods for resetting my brain is taking a full weekend day without my phone or my laptop, an idea I originally got from Tiffany Shlain’s “tech shabbat.” Back when I used to train for triathlons and open-water swims, Saturdays were spent largely outdoors, and it’s rather difficult to spend time scrolling the web while biking or swimming. So I used Freedom and a mesh wifi network to block the internet from midnight on Friday evening until Saturday at 3pm from all of my machines.
Results. Having something to do—going on a hike, going to the beach, meeting friends for coffee—helps tremendously.
- The hardest part is walking out the door without the phone. From there, the freedom begins. The best way to block the internet is to physically leave devices elsewhere.
- On days when I stay inside, I set my Freedom App to a weekend schedule of “no social media or email” until 3pm on Saturdays. The mornings can be lazy and slow. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an emergency worker, and we can all make it through the day if I’m not on email at 6am on a Saturday morning. By the time 1pm rolls around, I’m usually so involved in some other activity that I don’t notice.
- I found I needed to be flexible about this experiment. On days when I have article deadlines or want to work a few hours on the weekend, I’ll set parameters for how and when to log on to get a chunk of work done.
Today, even with kids (and no triathlons currently), I still notice the effect of taking a Saturday away each week to disrupt the pattern of connection. A day free of the Internet is a great way to do a pattern reset if you notice (as I have) personal productivity dips by Friday.
Shifting From Subtraction to Addition
By and large, my first experiments were based on control and elimination. Sometimes, instead of focusing on constriction and willpower, however, it’s actually a better strategy to focus on the thing I want more of: more reading, more unplugged time with my family, space to think. One of the reasons diets don’t work very well is because most of them focus what you restrict, rather than what you add. My later experiments opened my eyes to the power of addition: planning ahead for dedicated social time, or a Saturday spent outdoors.
Today, I use Freedom to block social websites and news in the mornings nearly every day. I deleted Facebook and email from my phone, I will manually re-install them from 4pm to 5pm and then delete them again (yes, daily). I take regular 24-hour breaks. And I track my usage with RescueTime, which sends me an alert when I’ve hit 45 minutes of total “distracting” time.
With social media, many of us want to reduce our consumption, but we miss an important piece of the puzzle: we’re craving something that we want, and we think that social media has a quick answer. These experiments helped me realize that at the heart of my cravings around the social internet are deep connections with friends, access to new ideas and information, or time to zone out and relax after a hard day. Each of these components can be satisfied with other things beyond social media, and more effectively. As with many tools, it’s not an all or nothing, good-versus-bad conversation. I will continue to experiment in the future, especially now that Apple has introduced it’s “Screen Time” feature. Just because the apps are available, doesn’t mean our current default behaviors are the best ways to use them or get what we want. By limiting my access to social sites, I created a pattern disrupt that allowed me to reach out to more friends, read more books, and go deeper into work that mattered.