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Ideas Into Action

The 7 Stage Social Media Detox

Strategies To Defend Your Attention Against Digital Distractions

Did you know that the average person checks their phone roughly once every 12 minutes? Which means that by the time you’re done reading this article, there’s a good chance you’ll instinctively reach for your phone.

This instance, revealed by a recent survey of 2,000 people, will be one of 80 others. And what exactly do you do when you bury your head into your phone this often? A big chunk of it might involve how you discovered this article in the first place; according to a related study, 30% of all the time you spend online is on social media. Here’s the rough breakdown, in case you’re curious:

  • YouTube: 40 Minutes
  • Facebook: 35 Minutes
  • SnapChat: 25 Minutes
  • Instagram: 15 Minutes
  • Twitter: 1 Minute

The math is staggering: you’re currently on track to spend somewhere around 5 years and 4 months of your entire life on social media. That’s just under 10% of your existence.

Now we’ve known since at least 2012 that social media contributes to the release of dopamine — a “feel good” chemical — in the human brain. And we’ve recently learned that the compulsive behaviour encouraged by the medium is reducing our attention spans. Each tiny red dot from YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc. is compelling you to task-switch. These distractions, in turn, are wreaking havoc on your productivity. In fact, research indicates that up to 40 percent of productivity is lost due to task-switching. And it typically takes more time to complete the tasks you’re switching between (and with a higher chance of errors) than if you were to mono-task, in sequence.

It’s not enough to manage your time and energy — you have to be just as vigilant when it comes to protecting your focus. Distractions are the quickest way to rupture your capacity, as they have a ripple effect backwards through your attention, then energy, and ultimately your time. Over the years, like myself, you’ve probably built an unsustainable relationship with technology and social media. You know that you need to reset and recalibrate. But with social media playing such a massive role in our lives, the question is how? How can you create better habits, and further defend yourself against supercharged competition for your precious attention?

Personally, quitting social media altogether isn’t an option. For what it’s worth, I enjoy social media. And my career depends on it. Instead, I propose taking a social media detox. I’ve laid out a simple 7 stage plan that I’ve used (and continue to use) in order to regulate myself. It’s important to note that you don’t need all 7 stages. Start at the top, and only descend further into the more difficult (and extreme) measures if you’re not seeing results:

  1. Establish Day Trading Hours. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk often likens social media to a stock market. Except the only thing being traded is attention. Various successful entrepreneurs, Vaynerchuk included, have designated times for using social media. I personally have a strict “no early mornings, no late nights” rule. I need my best hours reserved for doing my best work, not multitasking. A Stanford study confirmed the effectiveness of this strategy by showing that those who multitask are indeed worse performers, and struggle because they can’t filter out irrelevant information. This slows down completion of the cognitive task at hand.
  2. Schedule Sabbaticals, Then Go Dark. For several hours each Sunday — sometimes for the entire day — I turn off my phone and leave it in another room. Sundays are critical for reading and writing. In fact, I crafted this piece on a Sunday. Research indicates that multitaskers are less likely to be productive, yet they feel more emotionally satisfied with their work, thus creating an illusion of productivity. These scheduled sabbaticals will help you wane yourself off the obsession with refreshing your feeds, and remind you of the deep work you’re capable of doing.
  3. No Beds, No Tables. We sacrifice our power of full presence when we’re multitasking, and we do so for a perceived benefit of improved productivity that simply doesn’t exist. If you’re in a meeting, put your phone away. If you’re in bed, put your phone away. The rule is simple: no beds, no tables. Make it awkward for yourself to ask the person you’re with for permission to check your phone. And remember that every time you check your phone, you’re suggesting to whoever you’re sharing time with that they’re not as important as what’s on your feed.
  4. The Zero Notification Challenge. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. If you’re still under the illusion that you can browse social media while being productive, you need to take this challenge. To break free from the stranglehold of tiny red dot stimulation, experts suggest turning off the audio and visual cues built into the devices that alert you to the presence of more information. Here’s how you do it: for 30 days, disable social media notifications on your phone. And if you want to play on hard-mode, consider disabling all notifications. The purpose of this challenge is to recalibrate your understanding of what’s urgent vs. what’s important.
  5. Go On An Extended Social Media Vacation. Just do it. Don’t announce it. Don’t write an elaborate explanation and share it on social media. Doing so will backfire by encouraging you to check how many reads/likes/shares you’re receiving. Consider the University of Queensland study which looked at the effects of a break from Facebook on a person’s stress and well-being. “Taking a Facebook break for just five days reduced a person’s level of the stress hormone cortisol,” said Dr. Eric Vanman of the School of Psychology.
  6. Switch To A Grayscale Interface. As a marketer with a background in design, I can confirm just how much painstaking thought is given to the colours that appear on your screen. Choosing the correct colour is a strategy, rooted in psychology. Combat your addiction by changing your screen to grayscale.
  7. Deactivate Your Accounts. If all else fails, deactivate your accounts. It’s a last-ditch effort towards digital wellness. It will help you accomplish many objectives: help you sleep better, re-prioritize in-person interactions, reduce your anxiety, curb your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), inspire you to get a little more exercise, remind you of all the other stuff you like to do.

Now, I know some people who believe that compulsively checking social media is restorative and doesn’t contribute to a decline in productivity. Like myself, these people also work in marketing. But consider the research by the American Psychological Association which shows that what you think is multitasking is simply ineffective and inefficient. In fact, research also indicates that multitasking, i.e. trying to do two cognitive things at the same time, just can’t be done — the mind doesn’t work that way. Even trying to parallel path a cognitive activity and a more automatic activity doesn’t work. That’s why the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. A Stanford study confirmed all of this by showing that those who multitask are indeed worse performers, and struggle because they can’t filter out irrelevant information, slowing down completion of the cognitive task at hand. Something as simple as checking Instagram for 15 seconds during a meeting is enough to render you useless in that meeting.

There’s nothing on social media that’s more important than the task at hand. And the sooner you detox, the sooner you’ll realize just how much capacity you’re leaving on the table by mindlessly scrolling up and down your feeds. You’ll find ways to make your dreams more real. Have you always wanted to learn a new language or write a book? Instead of wasting time on social media, you can invest that time into your dreams and watch them become a reality. At work, you can get a lot done instead of aimlessly checking your phone now and then. It can be easy to deceive yourself by trying to limit your social media use, but how many times has a planned 15 minutes on social media turned into 2 hours? You don’t fight temptation; you avoid it.

Most of us think of multitasking as a necessary part of life. How else could we possibly meet the demands of our over-scheduled, hectic lives? But, the truth is, you can only truly multitask (accomplish more than one task simultaneously) if one or more of the tasks is “second nature, or the tasks being performed involve different brain processes. Social media, even if you’re digital native, is neither of these. Don’t kid yourself. The most productive version of yourself doesn’t get distracted by tiny red dots.

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