Don’t #DeleteFacebook. Take back control with digital minimalism

Mathew Lowry
May 31, 2018 · 11 min read

To #DeleteFacebook is to throw the baby out with the bathwater without solving the underlying problem.

This is not another post on the benefits or evils of Facebook — you can figure that out for yourself. If you can’t, I’ve curated 250+ resources here, going back to 2013. Almost all of them are negative, but still…

(update, 14 October 2019: within a year of this post I had in fact deleted FB from my phone, and now use the account only when I need to experiment with Messenger chatbots.)

Early this year - after There’s more to life than Tweets, and other advice for 2018, but before Cambridge Analytica and the stream of people boasting on Facebook about their plan to #deletefacebook - I decided to reinforce my digital minimalism programme. I started working on this post back then; ironically enough, digital minimalism reduced the pressure to finish it.

allow me to benefit from social media while shielding me from its worst effects

Part of my overall productivity system, the idea is to allow me to benefit from social media while shielding me from its worst effects. I’m sharing it in case others find it useful and/or can suggest improvements. But first:

Why digital minimalism over #deletefacebook?

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, but it was never my favoured platform, and I might delete my account eventually. I started limiting its impact years ago, particularly since late 2015, when I realised how social media does more than make everyone narcissistic and unhappy — it risks driving us all so deep into identity politics that public discourse may become impossible:

If I’m not deleting Facebook,Twitter or LinkedIn (yet), it’s partly because:

  • Social media is like electricity or fire: useful, if handled carefully, and its ability to surface interesting content is unsurpassed, if used correctly
  • Deleting it won’t change anything for anyone else (cf Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It)
  • It’s just one (albeit the biggest) player in the attention economy — deleting Facebook while using the rest is hypocrisy, ignorance or both.
  • While individual platforms can wax and wane (remember MySpace?), social media itself is here to stay, and so far they all exploit your cognitive weaknesses. Better to tackle your weaknesses than simply swapping one exploitative tool for another.
  • Blogging without social media is like making a speech without a mike.

So I thought I’d start the second inning by further inoculating myself, allowing me to benefit from social media without becoming sheeple — an easily manipulated product, onsold to advertisers.

Better to tackle your weaknesses than simply swapping one exploitative tool for another

I started by taking a week off when I took my family on holiday last April. It was easier than I thought, so I followed up in early May and — with one exception — easily resisted the constant reflex to check my phone every 5 minutes. After all, the less you post, the less skin you have in the game, and the more time you have for people you care about in Real Life.

Here’s how this guide is structured:

Curate your inboxes

There’s no point even trying to withstand the pull of social media if you don’t stop their clamour for your attention.

This is part and parcel of inbox curation — making sure you control what stuff reaches your brain and when, rather than inscrutable algorithms, outrage merchants, corporations and political movements.

Few notifications are worth the disruption, but no social media notifications are — they’re specifically designed to hook you on your own dopamine. So:

  • turn off notifications on your smartphone and PCs
  • turn off as many email notifications from your social platforms as possible (we’ll limit the damage of those you keep with Inbox Rules, below).

While on the topic of email, now is a great time to unsubscribe to newsletters you no longer read, but GDPR probably did that for you already.

But what about the newsletters you want to read? And maybe you find it useful to have a searchable email record of, for example, your Twitter followers (I do)? No problem — keep them. But don’t let them distract you.

Instead, use inbox rules to stop the ‘unread email’ symbol appearing, particularly in Gmail’s ‘Social’ tab. For every email notification or enewsletter I keep, there’s:

  • a Gmail filter auto-setting it to ‘Already Read’ and adding a label so I can find it when I want to find it.
  • a recurring task in my GTD system ensuring I check those emails only when I decide I need to.

For example: while I subscribe to many enewsletters, only a few are high priority - I consciously decide to spend time on them, and not the others:

  • an inbox rule auto-sets all newsletters to ‘Already Read’, but each edition of the high priority newsletters is also labelled ‘Subscribe/High’
  • a recurring task reminds me to check my ‘Subscribe/High’ queue twice a week
  • another reminds me once every quarter to swap out some of the enewsletters on the high priority list by editing some Inbox rules.

More: these tactics are integral to Managing the Firehose and designing an intentional Personal Content Strategy — see Get Organised, below.

Since joining Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in 2007, I must have kicked the tyres of most of the other platforms that have jostled for my attention since. I’ve not adopted any of them. Cal Newport explains this best:

- Missing out is not negative…There’s an infinite selection of activities in the world that might bring some value. If you insist on labeling every activity avoided as value lost… then no matter how frantically you fill your time… your daily experience will be infinitely negative…
- Less can be more… focus on the much smaller number of activities that return the most value for your life. This is a basic 80/20 analysis…
- Be wary of tools that solve a problem that didn’t exist… GPS helped solve a problem that existed … so did Google… Snapchat, by contrast, did not…
- On Digital Minimalism

So this is for you if you’re on too many platforms. It might result in you Deleting Facebook. Does each platform you’re on add so much value that it’s worth keeping in your life, given it’s designed to addict you?

Out of reach, out of mind

Introduce a little friction between you and the ‘frictionless sharing’ Facebook slid into your life.

Image for post
Image for post
HumaneTech partnered with Moment to ask how much screen time in apps left people feeling happy, and how much time left them in regret.

Ideally, uninstall Facebook et al from your phone. If you can’t, then take them off your homescreen — or better, leave them in ‘All Apps’.

You might want to check out where your favourite apps sit on the list, left. Put the ones that do most damage furthest from Home. That’ll give you a chance to stop yourself. HumaneTech has more tips and a community.

It’s even easier to stop yourself reaching for your phone if it’s not within reach.

All clutter sucks for your productivity, which is why we file papers and other stuff out of sight. But that little chunk of technology is much, much worse — being in the same room as your phone, even when it’s turned off, can reduce your ability to concentrate, enjoy the moment, or create.

being in the same room as your phone, even when it’s turned off, will reduce your ability to concentrate

So, in office and home, designate somewhere out of sight to leave your phone, ideally as soon as you walk through the door. Make placing your phone there a mini-ritual. Don’t worry: it’s not going anywhere; you’ll hear it ring.

And never, ever, take your phone to bed. You’ll feed your addiction and ruin your sleep. So don’t install a bluelight filter — that lets you off the hook. If you lapse and turn on your phone in bed, you’ll know it’s hurting you, and so might turn it off faster.

Putting your phone out of reach when you get home helps ringfence family & friend time, ensuring you’re actually with them when you’re with them.

ringfence family & friend time

But you can extend this idea to your working day, when you presumably should be focusing on your work.

Your mind is probably capable of focusing for an hour or so. Interrupting that hour by glancing at social media will destroy your productivity, but on the other hand not taking a mental break every hour or so will exhaust you.

So use your calendar or task management system to pace yourself. If you use the Pomodoro technique, for example, allow yourself to glance at social media only when your timer rings. Personally I find Pomodoro’s 25 minute cycle too short, so I’ve allocated social media time to three specific spots in my Daily Routine (see Get Organised, below), although I frequently skip them.

As I mentioned earlier, I took my family for a week’s holiday in the Netherlands a month or two after starting on this post, and decided to see if I could go without posting photos of tulips to social media. I succeeded, probably because I announced the goal on social media and didn’t want to embarrass myself by posting.

I was surprised how easy it was to resist checking my accounts

But I was surprised how easy it was to resist checking my accounts for days at a stretch. Of course, not posting reduces the incentive. The real benefit, however, is that since then I found my social media consumption much easier to control, so I launched a second experiment which is still underway.

Give your mind something better to do

It’s not enough to deprive your brain of its dopamine shot. You need to give it something else it wants to turn to, particularly after work.

Have you forgotten how much you used to enjoy a good novel?

Tweak the algorithm all you want. It will never be a worthy substitute for a good book, a healthy debate or an honest friendship. As long as we trust software to shape our interaction with the world, life will be a disappointing, chaotic, infinite scroll
- The Day the Algorithm Died

Borrow too many books to read before you have to hand them back. That’ll set up mental pressure to reach for your book rather than your phone.

Have one book in your bag, and another by your bedside. That’ll help ensure you won’t take your phone to bed.

I’ve heard people argue that social media is just the evolution of blogging. Wrong. The blogosphere was home to plenty of crap content, but none of that shit went viral, because people had to think back then before pushing it on.

shit didn’t go viral because people had to think… Instead of mindlessly sharing … engage your brain first

‘Tap to like/share’ removed the conscious, aware mind from the process of interacting with content and led to profit-driven virality, manufactured outrage, value signalling, tribe-fed polarisation and all the rest. So:

  • Engage your brain first: write about what you’re reading, instead of mindlessly liking it and moving on. Writing forces you to think about the content. When you realise how empty of value it probably is, maybe you’ll toss your phone aside and reach for a book. And if it’s not, writing about it is the best way you’ll retain it, and probably the only way you’ll ever come up with something original. Either way you’re no longer part of the herd.
  • Never signal outrage: don’t like something? Then don’t reward it with that angry Facebook reaction. You’re just rewarding the author at the expense of your mental energy and inner peace.

More (blogplug): Get a process: Read before you Share!, May 2014

This depends on your job, of course, but for most people the daily news cycle is unnecessary. Most daily news simply update yesterday’s news about events I have no control over, so I prefer longread, in-depth insights and analyses.

This is part of weaning yourself off FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), but there’s nothing I can add to what Clay Johnson wrote in The Information Diet, so check out this review in the Atlantic by BrainPickings’ creator Maria Popova, who knows something about consuming quality content.

blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity…. Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

More: The Information Diet toolbox

To continue Johnson’s metaphor, reducing your news consumption is like going on a diet — don’t just consume less, consume intentionally:

  • ensure diversity: relying on friends on social media for news risks living in a filter bubble, so like/follow sources outside your comfort zone, subscribe to their newsletters, set up Lists, etc. A healthy diet is diverse.
  • be selective: the law of diminishing returns applies to news consumption — reading 10 sources on the same topic is not 10x better than reading one. Choose the best, ignore the rest. Life’s too short.
  • pay for quality: I currently subscribe to the NYT and am a Medium Member, and buy associated products from solopreneur content creators. Putting your money where your mouth is helps you be selective — why read a 2nd article on something when you’ve read one you paid for?

Get organised

A well designed personal productivity system will help you control and benefit from social media while shielding you from its worst effects.

I could not do this without firm control over my Inbox, Calendar and ToDo list. In fact, many of the above ideas - inbox curation, distraction-free calendar zones, etc. — are integral to my GTD-based Daily Routine, which drives my Personal Content Strategy, which encompasses my social media strategy.

It comes down to this: take control, or be controlled

It comes down to this: take control, or be controlled by master manipulators with almost direct access to your adrenal glands. There’s no way I can summarise my entire personal productivity system here, but you’ll find the most accessible starting point here:

More: almost 100 resources tagged #productivity on my Hub.

More Resources

My Hub is the place where I put everything I recommend reading, so you might find the #minimalist tag useful, too.

Of those resources, I’d like to highlight recommend Niklas Göke’s “Anti-Tech” series of almost a dozen posts, which I’m still absorbing:

One of the core ideas of Stoicism… is to focus only on what you can control. Two of the most important things we do control are our time and attention … only when we fight the overwhelm of technology can we put these two resources back into our own hands. Ironically, we can achieve this by using technology, but only a select few tools… The only tools worth using are the tools not using you.

If Technology Doesn’t Make Your Life Better, It Makes It Worse

But while the intro is free-to-read, you’ll need to be a Medium Member to access the rest. Which you should be, because we all need to #PayforContent.

If you found this interesting, your Applause will help others find it.

My Hub curates 100s of annotated resources about social media, productivity and much more. Subscribe to get my next posts, plus the best of all the Stuff I Curate, in your Inbox, or get the High3lights via my CuratorBot. It can also put us in touch, or we can connect via my awful brochureware site.

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Mathew Lowry

Written by

Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: medium.com/Knowledge4Policy. Founder: MyHub.ai. Personal Hub: https://myhub.ai/@mathewlowry/

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Mathew Lowry

Written by

Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: medium.com/Knowledge4Policy. Founder: MyHub.ai. Personal Hub: https://myhub.ai/@mathewlowry/

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

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