It’s a great day outside. The sun is up.
The weather is good and you are enjoying this relaxing day.
Suddenly, you hear a beeping sound. It’s your phone notifying you of a new message. You text back and you put your phone back in your pocket.
Another sound. Yay! Someone new followed you on Twitter. “Let’s see who this is!” You tell yourself. You open the app and start scrolling. 30 minutes go by and the sun is starting to go down. You missed it.
Now it is Wednesday morning and you are working from home. You open Instagram to check new messages very quickly. Someone commented on your photo! You start scrolling but you stop when you see an ad about those shoes. The shoes you were looking for online yesterday. You click.
Your attention and focus have just been hijacked.
If you have watched “The social dilemma” on Netflix, you already know what I am going to say.
All the popular applications we are daily using (Instagram, Gmail, News websites) are built upon attention engineering.
The main trick used is the following: every time you open the app, you may or may not find something interesting.
It is the same reason slot machines are addicting. You never know when you are going to win. This is what keeps you trying and waiting for the next dopamine hit.
There are studies practically proving that social media have all the characteristics which can lead to an addiction. So why are we using applications designed by these principles?
Unfortunately, I am not the right person to answer that.
Although many studies are pointing to the harmful effects of social media on our mental health, I never had a big issue with that. I never fell into the spiral of comparing myself to other people’s perfectly portrayed online lives.
However, since I started using them, my concentration and productivity took a big hit. One of today’s great thinkers on this topic - Cal Newport - explains this phenomenon with the term “Hyperactive Hive Mind”.
Our minds are made to focus on one thing at a time. The back-and-forth messaging forced by these internet applications, and the constant interruptions lead to constant context switching.
It is known that context switching requires a lot of energy and in further leads to a so-called attention residue.
When you move to your next task you are still thinking of your previous one. This makes fully concentrating on your next task impossible for a few minutes. The state of mind, where you are constantly context switching and leaving mental residues is called “Hyperactive Hive Mind”.
To simply put it, this state kills your ability to focus. It definitely destroyed mine. And this does not affect only work. It affects our personal lives as well.
Over the last years, I am occasionally taking some time off social media, smartphones, and what we call “non-essential technologies”.
Usually, this lasts for a week. Sometimes a month. I logout out of all social media account on every device I own. I replace my phone with a Nokia dumb phone I have for my detoxes. I am trying to avoid binge-watching YouTube and reading random or irrelevant stuff on the internet. I am trying to spend more time offline - read books, walk without my earbuds plugged in.
In general, take some time to reflect, think and enjoy the real world.
To be honest, not scrolling on social media is not a big challenge for me. What is challenging is not carrying a smartphone with me, since there is resistance from my environment. People are not willing to accept that in 2021 you will not be 24/7 available. That they cannot contact you on Facebook.
That they may have to call you to reach you. It adds some additional friction.
I know. People who care or are in an emergency will go all the way to reach you. They will call you or appear on your doorstep. But if you try this, do not expect people to be understandable and supportive. You may even miss socializing opportunities.
In short, yes. Social media and related technologies have their benefits. They can help you find a job, build your brand, find new friends, and have low-friction communication.
But I have my doubts that -although their benefits- they are the best tools for these tasks. And they are not worth sacrificing the control of our attention or our mental health.
I recommend you take some time off. You will get a feeling of freedom and will feel more focused and aligned with what is happening around you. You will also get some space to realize which of these technologies are useful to you, and ways you can use them more mindfully and purposefully.
How I am writing this piece. Real life can be good.