How I broke my Facebook addiction
Mindfulness practices that helped me reclaim time and strengthen relationships
When I left a hectic job in 2016, I made a commitment to improving myself in 3 key areas: eating better, losing weight — and scaling back the 1–2 hours a day I found myself spending on Facebook.
My relationship with Facebook had spiraled out of control. The time I spent passively consuming and “liking” on Facebook — which I did in spades — correlates with worse mental health.
It was easy to find tutorials on fixing your diet and losing weight. But in building a more mindful relationship to Facebook, I had to chart my own course.
Many of my friends have asked for the practices I developed to reshape my relationship with Facebook. So for them, I’m finally sharing my journey here.
Fair warning: this was not an overnight transition — this Medium article represents many months of experimentation and personal growth.
Step 1: Make mindless Facebook access hard.
Imagine you had a cookie jar you could keep in your pocket. This cookie jar buzzed you all day reminding you there’s new cookies in the jar — whether you were hungry or not. Who wouldn’t overeat?
For me, Facebook had become that cookie jar. It didn’t even matter to me anymore whether the cookie tasted good or not. So, how do you smash the cookie jar?
- Remove the Facebook app from your phone. Because my phone was the primary way I spent mindless time on Facebook, the app had to go. Clicking on the app had become an unconscious and addictive habit whenever I was bored.
- Log out of Facebook on every web browser you regularly use. This enabled me to eliminate Facebook as an unconscious habit on my computer as well. Using it now required a conscious choice.
- Find a browser you rarely use. Log into Facebook there — and only there. My unloved Firefox browser became my sole means of accessing Facebook. I kept the icon off my desktop, so using Facebook would require extra friction. And that friction helped reduce my impulse usage.
This part is really hard — especially at first! For me, it was reminiscent of giving up my sugar habit, and the sweet dopamine hits I had grown acclimated to.
But just as scaling back that sugar habit helped me lose 25 pounds and reclaim my physical health, I wanted the same for my mental and emotional health.
Step 2: Only open Facebook to connect with friends — never to “kill time”.
Next, I identified and rooted out the mechanisms that kept me falling back into mindless Facebook usage.
Don’t chat in facebook.com — use messenger.com instead!
I genuinely value Facebook Messenger as a convenient way to stay in touch with friends around the world. But I found myself wasting 5–10 minutes mindlessly browsing my news feed whenever I responded to a message on Facebook’s website.
Thankfully, Facebook makes this bad habit easy to fix. Just as they provide a separate Messenger app for your phone, they also have a separate messenger.com website for your computer. Even better, it lets you stay logged into Messenger’s website, without having to stay logged into the actual Facebook website.
By using messenger.com exclusively, a quick chat response no longer turns into a 10 minute mindless browsing session.
If an activity doesn’t bring you closer to your friends — remove it from Facebook.
For me, this primarily meant finding another way to get my news: I’m a news junkie.
I systematically unfollowed every news source I primarily received through Facebook. Now I get my news through the free Feedly app. It lets me shift my news consumption to high-quality, bipartisan journalism sources, with less of a filter bubble. And there’s no ads.
So when I’m on the subway and I’m looking to kill time, I now open Feedly. It’s my new habit.
Step 3: Be mindful of the time spent on Facebook — and your feelings while using it.
My next step was to become mindful of what I did while using Facebook: the time I spent, and the feelings I experienced.
Quit using Facebook as a slot machine
Part of what makes modern apps like Facebook and Tinder so addictive to browse is the inherent variable rewards: you never know whether the next swipe may change your life. So it’s easy to keep swiping and swiping in vain, while feeling empty inside.
We become no different from the addicted casino gambler, except we squander away our most precious commodity — our time — rather than merely our material wealth.
My late father (a compulsive gambler, whose addiction inhibited so many aspects of living a fully actualized life) never overcame this pull. I honor his memory by committing to do better.
So every time I scroll on Facebook, I count. If I’ve counted to 10 and haven’t yet read something that gives me a sense of connection to a friend, I always close Facebook — no exceptions.
In behavioral economics, this is called a “meta-rule”. Here, it’s a commitment I’ve made to myself to prevent the temptation to waste time.
And with this meta-rule, I quickly reprogrammed myself to automatically close Facebook within 1–2 minutes of opening it (rather than 10–20 minutes.)
Get cozy with your feelings while you’re using Facebook.
As you read each post, introspect on how you really feel — and non-judgmentally honor the innate validity of your own feelings.
What we read — especially when it’s from our friends — naturally affects our feelings. So I took on a conscious practice of becoming mindful of how the time I spent on Facebook affected my feelings.
What did I learn? Most of the content I see on my Facebook feed actually didn’t make me feel more connected to my friends.
Instead, I felt:
- angry at clickbait outrage content (why do these people keep sharing content that was engineered to make them and their friends feel angry and unhappy?! Shouldn’t my friends know better?)
- tired of reading the same partisan political propaganda designed to reinforce identity politics (while often denigrading the legitimacy and complexity of contrary viewpoints.)
- bored by the minutia of the surface-level lives of my friends (why do they feel the need to publish every dull or repetitive thought that goes through their heads? Who do they think actually wants to see weekly photos of their children?)
- irritated at the friends who keep reposting fake news without even checking Snopes (can’t they take even 15 seconds to fact-check before wasting hundreds of people’s time?)
- hurt by the friends who always found the time to click “Like” on my posts, but never seemed to have the time to meaningfully interact in real life.
- cynical at the digital portraits of the happy lives that I knew were often incomplete and insincerely portrayed.
- and worst of all, I felt guilty at myself for holding these judgmental feelings towards my friends in the first place.
The more time I spent reflecting on how my feelings from each post I saw, the more I realized that my passive consumption time made me feel more unhappy in my friendships.
I remind myself of that each time I find myself falling into passive consumption again.
Step 4: Break any dependency on posting content and getting “Likes” from it.
My final goal was to break my addictive dependency around posting content daily and receiving back the “Likes” and reshares. I craved the validation, the approval, and the sense of being needed.
How did I break this?
Find what you post the most — and just try stopping cold-turkey.
Figure out what you’re driven to keep posting on Facebook: what would cause you actual emotional angst to stop posting about? Then, stop posting about it — completely. Mindfully observe what happens next.
For me, I primarily posted links to journalism that I revered. It was so easy to imagine that my Facebook friends somehow “needed” these news posts, and would miss out on important perspectives or events if I didn’t. I craved the validation of my editorial judgement when seeing the likes and re-shares.
So, for a month, I did an experiment: I completely stopped posting news links, no matter how erudite, provocative or inspirational. And no matter how much I was dying to share it. (The first week was, indeed, torture.)
I then observed what happened: would the world end? Nope. Nobody even noticed. In my news feed, I saw my other Facebook connections sharing the same links. Nobody ever needed me to do it!
And if people missed an article — so what? My friends are intelligent and resourceful adults — they never needed me to spoon-feed them their news.
Reflect on the full breadth of your friends list before posting.
When I think I want to post something — especially if it’s personal — I look at my friends list: do I really want to share this with every single person?
When I think on the 700-ish people I’ve added to Facebook over the years, I see many current and former colleagues, high school classmates and teachers, neighbors, and more.
Rather than posting impulsively, I now mindfully reflect on whether I really want them to know it. Having seen my own prior Facebook posts turn into detrimental workplace gossip, I’m naturally more circumspect in what I choose to share with my professional network.
More often than not, I decide I’d rather not share what I was thinking or feeling.
Share things directly with the people you care about.
When there’s something I want to share with friends, I now think about who would be interested, and I tell them directly.
In particular, I maintain a private Messenger chat thread with my immediate family, where we share what’s going on in our lives directly and more intimately.
Combining these practices, my near-daily Facebook posts have fallen from several times a day, to roughly once a month.
Ironically, by sharing less, what I now share has likely become more valuable for my friends, because it’s more scarce.
Step 5: Be a friend, not an audience member.
My final step was to reset both my usage of Facebook — and to gently update the expectations my friends had of me on Facebook: I’m their friend, not their audience.
This mattered because, simply put, I initially felt guilty for not keeping up with my friends’ posts on Facebook. I needed to free myself from this sense of obligation.
Here’s how I solved it.
When people repeatedly post things that leave me feeling bad, I unfollow them.
Facebook has a valuable feature called “Unfollow”. It lets you silently hide someone’s posts, with actually removing them from your friends list.
I used to feel guilty unfollowing people whose posts repeatedly impacted my feelings in a bad way. I don’t anymore. Unfollowing people is a liberating act of assertiveness in how I spend my social media time.
I remind myself: being a genuine friend to someone means I’m always happy to spend focused, quality time with them. But it doesn’t obligate me to fill my spend my scarce time on earth being a captive audience to repetitive political memes, hourly life updates, or clickbait outrage porn designed to inflame and anger people — for decades of my life.
It’s possible I’ll miss something critical. But it’s more important to me to feel empowered and in control, rather than angry and annoyed, after spending time on Facebook. If you’re not sure whether to unfollow, you can always “Snooze” anyone’s posts for 30 days — and then make an decision on how you feel once they’re back.
When I ever feel guilty unfollowing a friend, I ask myself: “Why shouldn’t my happiness and mental well-being come first?”
Set the expectation directly with friends that you use Facebook infrequently.
I tell my friends to assume I rarely use Facebook — and they should not take it personally when I will miss their posts.
This serves two goals:
- It eliminates my guilt at not spending more than a few minutes each day reading people’s posts on Facebook.
- Most importantly, when I set the expectation with friends that I rarely use any social media, it’s easy to guiltlessly unfollow people: my friends should always assume that I will rarely read, “like” or comment on their social media posts. After all, I am their friend, but I’m not their audience member.
Rechannel your social relationships into 1:1 and small-group interactions.
When I talk to my friends directly, I’m always reminded by how much more is going on in their lives than one’s carefully curated social media persona lets on.
Typically, the most interesting things in my closest friends’ lives are the ones left unspoken on social media: the anxieties of moving to a new city, the challenges their kids are having in school, or the fraying of a longstanding marriage.
What I’ve learned is that the things that make me appreciate my friends come primarily from having a space that enables shared vulnerability and emotional intimacy. It’s a lot harder, if not impossible, to get that in the quasi-public space of social media.
I remind myself that by shifting my friendships away from a social media-filtered set of interactions, I’m not rejecting my friends. Instead I’m recommitting to deeper, less filtered and more meaningful relationships with them.
Instead of using Facebook for an hour or two a day, I now find myself using it around 5 minutes a day. My daily posts have become monthly posts.
And Facebook works even better for me now: I learn the most important things I want to know, but in a tenth of the time.
The attention that I once craved when posting now feels a bit offputting and even, at times, uncomfortable: why are hundreds of people, some of whom I feel I may have only met once or twice, reacting to my personal moments of my life?
Eventually, I was even able to log back into Facebook on my primary browser again — since I no longer find myself unconsciously trying to use it to kill time.
For my friends who are getting enjoyment and meaningful connection out of the ways you use Facebook or other social media — don’t change a thing. There’s (of course) nothing wrong with you.
But for my friends whose relationship to social media is in need of some healthy restructuring, I hope this provides inspiration. And I’d love to hear your journey.
Thanks to: David Burrowes, Devin Person, and Vera Horiuchi.