How a Social Media Detox Helped Me Become a Better Writer
The magic of the trickle-down effect
A good word to describe my relationship with social media is “volatile”. Sometimes I think it’s the greatest invention since the NES controller, other times it feels like a tool crafted by the devil himself.
Social media is a great way to stay in touch with people. That’s kind of the point, right? Having a constant stream of communication with friends on Facebook is nice, and I’ve met a lot of interesting, friendly people through Twitter because of its active writing community.
But I started to notice the effect social media was having on my attention, and on the minutes I could’ve spent differently.
I’d look up from the screen to rub my tired eyes, and watch the moments vanish into the dark spots filling my vision.
I started to ask myself:
“What do I want from all this?”
“Is this the best way to get what I want?”
“Is this the only way?”
So I decided to do a little experiment:
For the month of July, I would delete all social media apps from my phone.
If I had to post, it would be through Buffer, so I wouldn’t see my feed, likes, or comments. In addition, I’d blog on a daily basis and track any lessons learned as I went through my day.
So, what did I learn and, more importantly, how did it help me become a better writer?
De-cluttered Mind and Space
After I stopped logging in, it felt weird, at first. I’d reach for my phone and attempt to open Twitter only to remember it wasn’t there, but after a day or two, I felt free.
It was as if I had a tangled beard with little blue birds living inside it that had suddenly been shaved, or a neuron-sucking leech that had been removed from my brain, or an LA-style traffic jam within my neural highway that had suddenly been unblocked, or…well, you get it.
Once I removed the layer of noise, the door of time cracked open a little wider and a flood of minutes poured through.
With this new Olympic-sized swimming pool of time, I started looking around at my physical space, examining my closets, shelves, drawers. They were all cluttered, each one containing its own unique mess: unworn clothes, wrinkled receipts, broken smartphones, that wig I wore once for the Halloween party three years ago.
“Why do I have all this stuff?!” I shouted at the gods of consumerism, who responded with a hearty cackle and a hundred advertisements for classes or books on minimalism.
I realized I had no use for the pie tin that had never held a pie, or that unused bag of hot glue gun sticks (I don’t even have a hot glue gun!), or that rolled up piece of paper with a sticky pencil inside it.
So, with one last look around the cluttered space and a deep sigh at the illogical nature of it all, I began to de-clutter, but not all at once — just a little bit each weekend.
During this invigorating process, making Goodwill piles and trips to the dump, I started to think about the correlation between physical and mental space; if one space is cluttered, the other is likely to be, as well. Shedding the extra stuff creates more room for the essentials.
Now that I have a de-cluttered living space, I have one less thing to distract me. I don’t have to use that mental energy searching for a tool or stuffing the five extra pairs of mismatched socks into the drawer.
De-cluttering your brain works much the same way as de-cluttering your house.
My brain isn’t thinking about whether or not to make that post, or the different ways I should respond to that tweet. Right now, it’s focused on how to increase the quality and quantity of my creations, and the different possible ways to express my ideas in a meaningful way to an interested audience. For me, this is incredibly hard and so requires an uninterrupted thought process, which I would have no hope of maintaining if I was getting blasted with notifications all the time.
In short, de-cluttering my space means de-cluttering my mind. Now that I have less stuff, I can focus on being more present.
Being Present in the Moment
As a writer, I need the ability to think deeply about things. The constant barrage of information inherent in social media uses up a lot of mental energy, which diverts my attention from writing and pretty much everything else.
In order to paint a vivid picture with words, I need the experience of living in the moment.
In order to create believable characters living in extraordinary worlds, I need to have physical interactions with people and learn how they get along in the real world.
I need to know how to find the right words to describe sights, sounds, and smells, weaving the senses together with threads of relatable, human emotion, and wrap it all in pretty prose.
Shutting myself off from the present would rob me of inspiration. I need to focus my attention and actions within the confines of the moment, not on a little screen that fires off every five seconds.
More Meaningful Social Connections
Social media allows for a greater amount of social connection, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher quality of social connection. The phone provides a filter, a sense of security that we can hide behind, and that prevents us from making real connections with others.
More quantity, less quality.
Twitter can be fun for quick little quips, but is not optimized for deeper conversation. An email, text, or tweet is not the same as a physical interaction.
On his blog, Cal Newport writes about the long tail approach to social media, which focuses on social media services that are more segmented and niche-based, rather than our current norm of a few large, addictive platforms. The idea behind the smaller networks is that a creator could more easily assemble and take care of their “tribe”, while avoiding the overwhelm and distraction of a tangled feed provided by a much larger network.
Newport posits that:
“…perhaps in attempting to consolidate the social internet into a small number of massive platforms, we were accidentally stripping away much of the potential of this technology to actually make us more social.” -Cal Newport, Blurring Offline and Online: More on the Potential of Long Tail Social Media
These services also encourage physical, more localized connections.
Only time will tell whether or not this is the direction social media will ultimately head.
More Reading, Learning, and Creating
It used to be that when I had a spare moment, I’d click on the Twitter app without giving it a second thought. Before I knew it, I’d been on for a half hour, with nothing to show for it except a certain level of mental exhaustion.
Now, if I have downtime, I’ll work on a blog post, read something insightful, or work on a project.
The more I read, the more I learn, the more I have to share.
As I mentioned above, during the month of July, I challenged myself to blog every single day. Admittedly, none of these posts were New York Times Bestseller material; they were simply a reflection of my thoughts, and encouraged me to examine each day more closely, rather than let them float by in a haze of forgotten minutes.
This practice also encouraged me to transform my ideas into action and worry less about how my creative work was received.
My days are more focused now. Even my worst days are never “zero” days. I always have something to show.
Examining My Value
One of the reasons we get on social media is because everyone tells us we need it to sell our books, or our course, or our whatever.
And maybe that’s true. It’s entirely possible that I just haven’t been using social media in the right way.
Gary Vaynerchuk says that the reason most of us fail at social media is because our posts do not provide value. We create an account with selfish motives, in order to get followers and subscribers.
The most valuable posts about any creative subject are made by those who know their craft. They have devoted years to becoming exceptional and are able to present value because they are valuable. They did not spend all those years trying to get the most likes, comments or subscribers. They instead invested that time in themselves.
So, I am following their example. Each step I take away from social media is a step toward increasing my value as a writer and creative.
If I really wanted to, I could probably balance social media with the rest of my life, but the truth is, I just don’t want to. My plate is full enough as it is, and I don’t want it to tip over.
I may come back to it, someday, but at this point it just slows me down.
These are my thoughts now that I’m not frothing at the mouth for more likes, comments, and distraction. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had with my creative projects, and have no idea where all this will ultimately lead, but I’m having fun figuring it out.
And maybe that’s all I can really ask for.