I’m writing this as I sit outside my local favorite coffee joint enjoying an unseasonably warm March afternoon. As I pause to think over a sentence, my hand drifts to my phone. I want to pick it up and give Instagram a quick glance-over—just while I think, I tell myself. Instead of sitting in silence, present to my own thoughts and the people working on either side of me, my brain drifts to the easy source of stimulation and distraction sitting just below my gaze. But I put it in my pocket, out of sight, and keep writing.
We all experience social media saturation—or, perhaps more accurately, the social media hijacking of our time and imaginations. These apps are designed to tap into our natural human desires and are fiercely habit-forming. Studies show the adverse effects of task-switching on productivity; one study at the University of Irvine indicates that 23 minutes of productivity are lost every time we task-switch. If we want to avoid being manipulated by these apps, it’s vital to perform some kind of detox. Cal Newport, computer scientist, professor, and author of Deep Work, argues compellingly that social media is inherently contrary to productivity and even detrimental to professional success, and therefore we should all quit social media. Business Insider reports that your phone can distract you even when you’re not using it.
But, for better or for worse, most of us opt to keep our phones and our social media apps in our lives as valuable instruments of inspiration, information, and connection. And, if we make this choice, we need to consistently fight to remain in control of these devices designed to control us. Whether your goal is to increase productivity, to foster self-awareness, to develop deeper friendships, or simply to limit your screen time, the first step to regaining (or to maintaining) control is to honestly evaluate our social media habits. To that end, here is a series of questions to help determine where you’ve lost control and begin to assess how to regain it.
01. QUANTITY: How often do you check your social media?
Be specific in your calculations: note how many times you use each particular app. I know that once I started using the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I was astonished to see how quickly I used up my time on my favorite apps. You’ll need to assess for yourself how much time is right to spend on each app given your career and your state in life. If you do want to cut down your social media time, try gradually diminishing your time rather than doing a huge cut immediately.
02. CONTENT: What do you look at?
Which apps do you go to first? Are you catching up on the lives of friends or family? Browsing at random? Which apps do you stay on longest? How long do you use them at a time?
If you’re using apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, as well as gaming apps, then you’re primarily using social media as entertainment. So make sure you’re treating it as such— deliberately, and with moderation. If you’re using apps like Slack, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Hangouts, or any kind of email app, then you’re likely using social media in relation to work—so make sure you evaluate whether you’re letting work invade your life.
03. CONTEXT: When do you use social media?
The goal here is to determine what external “triggers” make you pull out your phone. Are particular times of day pitfalls for you? Particular activities? Is it more a matter of where you are? Of whom you’re with?
Noting these external triggers and situations that motivate phone usage can help you evaluate whether and when you need to cut back your usage. I’ve learned, for example, that I pull out my phone when standing in lines. Long or short, it doesn’t matter—I reach for it all the same. So I am no longer “allowed” to look at my phone then. See if you can find a similar opportunity for yourself!
04. MOTIVATION: Why are you using it?
While we know that dopamine is pushing us to open these apps, investigate what more particular desires are involved: what is motivating you to open each app? Is it just a thoughtless habit? Are you bored? Are you hungry? Looking for companionship? Desiring intellectual stimulation? Getting family updates? Avoiding an unpleasant task or potentially awkward social interaction? Desiring creative stimulation? Looking for an answer to a real question or for help solving a problem?
If you’re looking for intellectual or creative stimulation, or networking with others, you’re using social media for its purpose. However, if you find that much of your social media usage is motivated by boredom or avoidance (of people, or responsibilities, or even just loneliness), you may want to try developing new habits of control. Instead of checking your phone, read an article or a book, or start a craft; reward yourself for doing the task at hand (maybe with some social media time!); text a friend or arrange a coffee date (or just compliment the woman sitting next to you at the coffee shop!). You could try making yourself a list of “Quick Alternative Activities” to fill those moments of vulnerable boredom.
Family updates fall into a gray area: while keeping up with my nieces on Insta Stories is one of the greatest joys of my daily life, it doesn’t compare to a ten-minute FaceTime with one of them or a quick chat with my mom. Make sure that you’re mixing and matching your social media time with real conversations.
05. RESULTS: How do you feel after using social media?
Do your feelings change based on the particular app? On the time of day? On the content of your usage? Have you accomplished whatever you set out to do? If you were looking for relaxation, do you feel refreshed? For inspiration, do you have ideas for moving forward? For questions answered, do you feel at peace?
If you feel refreshed and inspired after your time on an app, then you’ve likely used it well. If you feel drained, discouraged, de-energized, or just downright out of sorts, then something is certainly “off.” See if you can make sense of your reactions; look for patterns in your habits and for opportunities to develop more intentionality.
While the conflict with social media seems to be universal, the particulars of that conflict vary from person to person based on your state in life, your career, and your temperament. By honestly evaluating your habits, you can make social media once again a useful tool rather than a timesuck. Enjoy the detoxing!