I wonder what kind of bird that is, I thought to myself as I stopped for a snack during a training hike for my upcoming Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike. I hate to admit it, but before this past summer, I usually had my face glued to my phone in moments like these. No matter how hard I tried to stay connected, it felt impossible to keep caught up on emails, text messages, and Instagram replies. But that day, I was content sitting in the shade, listening to the birds, staring off into the prairie, and thoroughly enjoying my social media break.
My word of the year for 2023 was “presence.” But for much of the year, it felt like I’d chosen the word “overwhelm.” In addition to everything we already do during the short Minnesota summers, my husband, Jer, and I finished an exciting, but time-consuming building project. And as I mentioned, I was training for my first thru-hike. Every week that we were at home between our summer adventures, we stuck to a strictly structured schedule, optimizing every minute. This meant that we only had time to focus on our top priorities. There wasn’t much socializing or leisure time. And as I write this in mid-December, I haven’t logged into Netflix since November of 2022 and haven’t scrolled or posted on social media since May 4th of this year.
As I sat next to the trail enjoying my snack, I thought more about how I was usually staring at my phone during these quiet moments. Then I realized that I had zero desire to check email or social media. Then it occurred to me that perhaps this wasn’t the year of “overwhelm” after all. But the year of cutting out things that don’t matter all that much so I can shift my focus to the things that do.
During that training hike, I listened to the book Stolen Focus by Johann Hari for the first time. Given that I hadn’t been on social media for a few months at that point, I found myself connecting deeply to the stories he told. I liked it so much that I listened a second time this summer and then read it in the fall. I’m always fascinated by how each time I reread or relisten to a book, I’m able to walk away with totally new insights. On my third time through, one of the stories made a profound impact on the way I see the world of social media.
Hari recounted an interview with Sune Lehmann, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark. It was an interesting conversation that I imagine all of us can relate to. But this one paragraph, more than any other, stopped me in my tracks and filled my heart with terror as I began to envision it for myself.
Hari wrote, “Shortly before I met with him, Sune had seen a photograph of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, standing in front of a room of people who were all wearing virtual reality headsets. He was the only person standing in actual reality, looking at them, smiling, pacing proudly around. When he saw it, Sune said, ‘I was like–holy shit, this is a metaphor for the future.’ If we don’t change course, he fears we are headed toward a world where ‘there’s going to be an upper class of people that are very aware’ of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits, and then there will be the rest of society with ‘fewer resources to resist the manipulations, and they’re going to be living more and more inside computers, being manipulated more and more.'” I highlighted that passage and made a note that read, “It’s already happening.”
As I continued reading, I learned more about how social media is hijacking our lives and attention. This wasn’t breaking news to me, however. I watched the documentary Social Dilemma when it initially debuted on Netflix. But since the book goes much deeper into the problem than a 90-minute documentary ever could, Hari was able to share additional research and insights. Here are some of the ways social media has hijacked our lives and wellbeing.
“First, these sites and apps are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards. They make us hunger for hearts and likes. This craving will drive you to pick up your phone more than you would if you had never been plugged into this system. You’ll break away from your work and your relationships to seek a sweet, sweet hit of retweets.
Second, these sites push you to switch tasks more frequently than you normally would—to pick up your phone, or click over to Facebook on your laptop. When you do this, all the costs to your attention caused by switching—as I discussed in chapter one—kick in. The evidence shows this is as bad for the quality of your thinking as getting drunk or stoned.
Third, these sites learn how to ‘frack’ you. These sites get to know what makes you tick, in very specific ways—they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, what enrages you. They learn your personal triggers—what, specifically, will distract you. This means that they can drill into your attention.
Fourth, because of the way the algorithms work, these sites make you angry a lot of the time. They have discovered that if they make you angry, you will pay less attention to the quality of arguments around you, and you will show ‘decreased depth of processing’—that is, you will think in a shallower, less attentive way. We’ve all had that feeling—you start prickling with rage, and your ability to properly listen goes out the window.
Fifth, in addition to making you angry, these sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people’s anger. This can trigger a different psychological response in you. These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility.
Sixth, these sites set society on fire. There is evidence that these sites are now severely harming our ability to come together as a society to identify our problems and to find solutions. We are becoming less rational, less intelligent, less focused.” – Johann Harri, Stolen Focus
I think we all know this is true at our core. But at the same time, it’s so terrifying that we don’t want to believe it. And besides, most of us are already hooked.
If you need further reason to reconsider how you use social media, read what Hari wrote next. “One day, in the spring of 2020, it was revealed what Facebook actually thinks about these questions, in private, when they think we will never be able to hear them. A large number of internal Facebook documents and communications were leaked to the Wall Street Journal. [These leaked documents read]: ‘Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,’ and ‘if left unchecked,’ the site would continue to pump its users with ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.’ [And as if that wasn’t enough] they found that 64 percent of all the people joining extremist groups were finding their way to them because Facebook’s algorithms were directly recommending them.” Reading these words made me want to delete my Google and social media accounts right then and there.
All that aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the good that can come from social media when used with intention. I’ve been offered exciting and meaningful work opportunities by organizations that discovered me on these platforms. Social media has also aided me in forming priceless new friendships and has helped me stay in touch with old friends and colleagues. It can also be a fantastic resource for learning and personal growth.
As I’ve been preparing to log off and delete my social media accounts, I was recently treated to this post from an old friend. It read, “We drove to Minnesota for Thanksgiving weekend but didn’t know how long it would take so we didn’t make Thanksgiving dinner plans. We arrived after the meal was served and our eldest son had been begging for Golden Corral Thanksgiving for months.
So we stood outside Golden Corral in the freezing cold for 15 minutes. I noticed the gentleman behind us and asked if we had separated him from his group because as we got closer to the entrance, everyone was squeezing in to warm up. He told me he was alone because his sister didn’t invite him over and I immediately knew what to do.
On our first Thanksgiving as a full-time traveling family, we ended up at a different Golden Corral and there was a single gentleman behind us that day as well. I felt a nudge to invite him to our table but was too afraid. It felt awkward so we just paid for his meal and ate separately. I still think about that man frequently and wish I’d been brave enough to listen to that nudge. When I prayed for him, I told God that if He gave me another chance, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to extend the invitation.
Six years later, different city, but in the same situation. This time I extended the invitation and we made friends with a sweet gentleman named Rick. We treated him to Thanksgiving dinner and proceeded to share stories with him for two hours. Following that nudge was a blessing and this is one Thanksgiving my family will never forget. I’m so thankful for second chances! I hope my kids saw how much a small gesture can mean to someone and I hope when they feel that nudge, they’ll invite the person in front of (or behind) them.
If you pray and you could add a prayer for Rick to feel loved, and important and find friendship, that would be amazing. Thank you!”
I’m so grateful that my friend shared this and that I saw it. As I thought about it though, I questioned whether I would share an experience like this. I don’t want to come off as braggy and full of myself. I’m quick to share photos of our adventures and quotations from others. However, I would likely neglect to share meaningful interactions because I’m afraid of how others might perceive it. Now I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if we all shared more of this and less anger and divisiveness.
As the year progressed, I promised myself I’d get back to social media on August fourth. That became October fourth, and here we are, well past December fourth. There are people I miss seeing and chatting with, but I’ve been so much happier and less anxious this year that I haven’t been able to force myself to log in. I will, of course, log in one last time and connect with missed messages, and make sure my friends know how to get in touch with me over the next year.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a break from social media. I took my first month-long break in 2012 and have become more intentional about how I use technology every year since. I even wrote a post about it back in 2016 that you can read here. In addition, I haven’t had notifications on my devices for more than a decade. But I still struggle sometimes with the devices and apps that are designed to capture as much of our attention as they possibly can. It takes a lot of discipline and structure to not get sucked in. So, if you’re stopping by after a long social scrolling session, know that there’s no judgment coming from my end of the screen.
Benefits of a social media break
As I write this, I’ve been mostly disconnected from social media for seven months and counting. I’ve updated some links and bios recently, but haven’t posted or scrolled in a very long time. I didn’t intend to take this social media break. As I shared at the beginning of this story, I had zero margin. But as time went on and things slowed down, I found I had no desire to log back on. As I planned my week each Sunday, I would think to myself, I should really post something on social media this week. And then I’d compromise, telling myself I’d get this set of projects done, and then I would have more time to be social next week. More than anything though, I was enjoying how I felt being disconnected. Here’s what changed most for me.
I’m less anxious and more focused
Something struck me earlier this year. As I’ve exchanged ideas with friends and other people I’ve met in recent years, I noticed that many of us shared a desire to “turn our brains off” or “take the edge off.” It makes sense when I hear that from friends who have full-time jobs, businesses, and families to juggle. Or from people who have very demanding and intense careers. But then I met someone who was living a life we’ve all dreamed of. When they told me that they “just needed to take the edge off,” I thought to myself, what edge?
I realize it’s not as simple as the point I’m going to share. This desire to switch it off is much, much deeper. But I think we can all relate to what I’m about to share.
There’s a section in Stolen Focus that discusses the sheer amount of information being thrown at us at any single moment. Hari wrote, “The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it.” He went on to try and quantify just how much is dumped on us daily.
“Dr. Martin Hilbert at the University of Southern California and Dr. Priscilla López at the Open University of Catalonia [suggest we] picture reading an eighty-five-page newspaper. In 1986, if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being—TV, radio, reading—it amounted to 40 newspapers’ worth of information every day. By 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. (I’d be amazed if it hasn’t gone up even more since then.) The increase in the volume of information creates the sensation of the world speeding up.”
By turning off the firehose from several sources of information overload, I’ve been able to feel less overwhelmed and anxious, and at the same time, more focused and in control. I’ve been able to get more done—quicker and better I might add. And I’m also enjoying a newfound sense of peace in my day-to-day life.
Less comparison and feeling like I’m not enough
I hope this is unique to me, but I doubt I’m alone. You know how you log into social media and the first thing that pops up is that friend or colleague or—worse yet—someone you’ve never even met in real life who seems to have the perfect life? They’re successful, thin, don’t have a single gray hair, have the perfect spouse, and even more perfect children. And while I know the healthiest reaction would be—oh, look at that, I’m so happy life is going well for them—that’s not always the case. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes when I see Mr. and Mrs. Perfect, I can be pretty hard on myself as it pertains to my looks and life choices.
There’s something else I noticed too, though. When I have conversations with friends in real life and they tell me about big wins in their careers, businesses, and craft, I never have this reaction. I’m always genuinely happy, excited, and curious about their success. I’m not sure why this is but I do know one thing—I love the way I feel in one situation and do not enjoy the other.
I feel less angry
There have been too many years during the last decade that have felt like a rollercoaster of volatility. From politics to pandemics, it feels like we jump from one divisive issue to the next. I’ll spare you my personal opinions on all of this and instead share how it’s made me feel. I find it all very heartbreaking and enraging. I couldn’t believe the things people said about those who disagreed with them during the pandemic years. And the vitriol expressed toward others with different political opinions is equally mind-blowing. Again, this rarely happens in face-to-face interactions in my world.
I think for myself
I’ve always been a little punk rock. I’m human. I want people to like me and I want to fit in. But at the same time, I’m not afraid to push back against what’s considered “normal” if it’s not good for me. I’ll stand my ground when I’m in the minority if I believe I’m doing what’s best for myself and others. More importantly, though, I found that while I was disconnected from social media, I wasn’t looking outside myself for answers as much. I was learning to trust my inner knowing.
I’ve been more present
As I shared, my word of the year this year was “presence.” In 2017, I began selecting a word of the year as a part of my goal-setting process. But to be honest, it often takes many years to feel like I’ve made progress in my area of focus. And “presence” has been no different.
That said, unintentionally disconnecting from social media has helped me feel much more present. Imagine going out for a meal and not feeling a nudge to photograph your dinner and blast it out to your “followers.” Or taking a hike and being fully immersed in the journey instead of planning how you’ll present it on social media. Not being on social media completely changed my Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike experience as well. I knew that I’d be writing a story about it when I finished. However not participating in social media while I was hiking made it feel like the experience was all for me and not for social media.
As Johann Hari put it, I was “living within the limits of my attention’s resources.”
Social media break goals
Every morning I write my intention for the day in my journal. This practice brings peace and contentment to my life by deciding where I want to focus my time and attention that day. And at the end of the day, no matter what happens, I can look back and feel content knowing that I accomplished at least one thing that was important to me. So, as I move toward this year of being social media-free, I thought it was important to define what I’m hoping to accomplish. Here are four goals I’m hoping to achieve during my social media break.
Improve relationships with more face-to-face connection
Does anyone else find it odd that in this period of great technological and economic advancement, depression, loneliness, and suicide are at an all-time high? I—and many experts—believe that many factors in our modern life brought us to this point. And one of the most significant has been social media. It’s changed how we communicate and relate to one another and I worry that there’s no going back.
One of the stories I remember most from the book Stolen Focus is during Hari’s three-month sabbatical from the digital world. During that time, he was sitting in a café in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and observed a peculiar interaction between two people he assumed were on a date.
Hari wrote, “Then I realized they weren’t, in fact, having a conversation at all. What would happen is the first one, who was blond, would talk about himself for ten minutes or so. Then the second one, who was dark-haired, would talk about himself for ten minutes. And they alternated in this way, interrupting each other. I sat next to them for two hours, and at no point did either of them ask the other person a question. At one point, the dark-haired man mentioned that his brother had died a month before. The blond didn’t even offer a cursory “I’m so sorry to hear that”; he simply went back to talking about himself. I realized that if they had met up simply to read out their own Facebook status updates to each other in turn, there would have been absolutely no difference.”
Since reading this story, I’ve begun to notice this too. And as a writer, I wonder if I, myself, am guilty of this as well.
As we’ve become more and more isolated—especially during the long periods of pandemic lockdowns—I’ve become increasingly cognizant of our innate need for healthy face-to-face human interaction. My year without social media hasn’t even begun and our calendar is filling up with in-person gatherings with friends in the upcoming new year. This even includes a camping trip with friends we met in Minneapolis who now live in Texas and we haven’t seen in years. This alone is enough to consider my year without social media to be a victory.
Invest my time in things that matter to ME
Many years ago, I stumbled upon this quote, and have tried to live my life accordingly ever since.
“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” – Jim Rohn
The more I’ve been able to build a life of intention based on this concept—the more I’ve realized the terrifying reality of these words. My only wish is that I would have known this much earlier in life.
Over the years I’ve clarified the four areas of life that matter to me most. I value (1) my health and wellness, (2) connection, (3) time and financial freedom, and (4) personal growth. What areas of life matter most to you? How well does your daily life align with these values? And what one thing could you do today to start living a life that is more authentic to you?
I get it. We’re all busy and life can feel quite overwhelming at times. But consider this. I researched data from several sources and it’s said that the average person spends about 150 minutes per day on social media worldwide. That’s about two and a half hours per day. This of course is an average. Some people are glued to their devices much less—and others much more. If you fall somewhere close to this average, that’s nearly 18 hours per week–close to 76 hours each month. Over the course of a year, that adds up to 910 hours or close to 38 days. I’m not suggesting everyone quit social media entirely—although that would be an interesting experiment. But if you set aside just one screen-free day per week, you’d get back 130 hours or about 5 days each year. Keep in mind also that it’s not just the time we lose while we’re on social media–we also lose time and focus by switching tasks.
How would your life be different a year from now if you spent those 5 days a year on the area of life you said matters most to you?
We are all creative.
I denied this fact for a good portion of my life. I was bound and determined to create a better life for myself and I had no time to waste on creativity. Fast forward to today, the majority of my income comes from my work as a freelance writer and photographer.
It’s not just me and the other “creatives.” We—and by we, I mostly mean my husband Jer—spent a good portion of our summer building out an overlanding rig for an upcoming adventure. Every Saturday and Sunday, he’d climb into the back of my pickup truck and work well past dark. It was hard, sweaty work, and quite frustrating at times. But I also noticed that Jer’s contentment and sense of meaning were at an all-time high.
The brilliant social scientist, Arthur Brooks, released a new book this year with Oprah titled Build the Life You Want. With its recent release, Brooks has been on the podcast circuit. I caught a clip of Brooks being interviewed by Dr. Peter Attia and was inspired to listen to the full podcast episode. In the interview, Brooks defined four pillars that are essential to happiness: faith, family, friends, and meaningful work. He then went on to explain what has happened to these four pillars over the previous decades.
Every weekend when Jer was sitting in the back of my truck for 12 hours a day with heat indexes topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit, he experienced a special kind of happiness that I attribute to that fourth pillar. He was building something we’ll be able to enjoy for years to come. In addition, he was able to engage with his creativity. And as an added bonus, he enjoyed a great sense of accomplishment before heading back to his demanding–but meaningful–day job the following Monday.
Watching this process made me consider more deeply how often I was accessing my creativity and inspired me to create more for myself. I’ve been writing more here on my website and this is something I plan to continue during my entire social media break. I can’t wait to see what develops after a year of committing to create more.
“And I’ve never felt happier!” I exclaimed to a group of friends after finishing a day hike last month. After saying it, I was shocked by the words that just came out of my mouth. I’d been disconnected from social media for exactly six months, but I hadn’t realized how it had affected my feelings of happiness. And not to sound greedy or anything, but I want—and need—more of that.
The reasons for my increased levels of happiness were many. I was present and fully engaged in life instead of being preoccupied with how I might share that life on social media. I was spending time with friends in real life—or at the very least—keeping in touch via text message rather than assuming we both were caught up on the joys and sorrows we chose to share on social media. And I was more focused than ever on the activities that were most important to me.
My time away from social media during the last seven months was unplanned. But I believe that going into a full year with intention will offer even more of those unexpected joys. As a result, I hope that the energy I bring to my daily interactions will not only be better for myself but better for everyone around me as well.
What does this mean for you?
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ve already asked yourself this question. And I guess that’s the point of this story. I’m not here to tell you that you need to spend less time on social media but to simply share how disconnecting has improved my life. I would love it if something I shared triggered an insight into how you could live more intentionally in the coming year. And if not, simply sharing my journey and connecting with you has been meaningful enough.
Since I won’t be logging into social media over the next 12 months, I’d love it if we kept in touch via my monthly email community. Each month I’ll send you something that pertains to living with more intention and purpose while you find yourself outside. Use this link to subscribe today. I can’t wait to share this new adventure with you.