Reset: The Benefits of a Social Media Detox

A social media detox can bring about renewed focus and clarity. Here are the steps, the benefits and the takeaways from my own experience.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” my boss says as he tries to explain the dud output from our shiny new predictive analytics tool.

We are entering what I like to call the “pre-automation phase”. It’s where the overexuberant expect the world to change overnight and the complacent don’t realise that in a couple of years their jobs will be on the guillotine unless they rapidly pivot or reskill.

Like almost all multimillion-dollar corporate technology investments, it will eventually be followed by job losses. But like any system, the quality of this technology’s output depends inextricably on the quality of its input: in this case, its data sources and its assumptions.

Human beings might feel excited or threatened by the emerging role of “machines”, but we’re not entirely different to our artificial friends or foes. That’s to say, we function, in large part, on our inputs.

Put more exactly, what we feed our bodies and brains – and the systems by which we feed them – determines the quality of our health outcomes, our habits, our relationships, our decisions and the quality of our thinking. The garbage-in-garbage-out rule is almost universally applicable.

Identifying the Rut

I’ve recently been giving this idea some actionable thought. While my personal social media use is at the bare professional minimum, this blog has emerged as the leading candidate for my consumption of social media information on platforms like Twitter.

Social media is quite the lure. There are the online communities that think similarly, the accounts that share useful information, the memes to brighten a day. What’s not to like? And besides, a blog must have a social media presence, right?

Trouble is, all these things can become toxic if we don’t regulate them. Online communities can become an echo chamber that restricts wider, conflicting thinking. That useful information can become the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, and sometimes we just end up enjoying the comfort of the hay.

And then there’s the stuff we put out there. Without genuine enthusiasm to be there, being present because it ticks a box doesn’t usually have a productive ending. Even less so when the platforms you are using are addictive by design, crafted to tickle our dopamine receptors into submission.

In short, poorly managed social media has a significant opportunity cost.

And so, I took a break.

I worked, I read, I walked, I ran, I wrote, I built, I thought. And none of these things were divided by the interlude of a social media feed.

Put in millennial lingo, I took a “digital detox”. Or as I’ll call it here for the benefit of specificity, I took a “social media detox”.

The Steps of a Social Media Detox

Loosely based on the approach set out by Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism, the social media detox has three simple steps:

  1. Stop using social media platforms: delete the apps, block the notifications, and use commitment devices like social contracts if you’re still struggling. I recommend a period of 30 days.
  2. Take time to pursue more meaningful activities: e.g. reflect, write, socialise, build, learn, brainstorm.
  3. Reintroduce social media use, only if it brings value, and under stricter rules to optimise that value (more on this shortly).

The Benefits of a Social Media Detox

As it turns out, the benefits of a social media detox are wide-ranging. Here are six of these benefits, supported by research and/or common sense.

#1: Fewer distractions. Time and time again, research has pointed to the distraction residue of digital notifications. In one study, researchers found that it took more than 20 minutes to get back on task after an interruption. Of course, we can put our phones on silent, but an obvious quick win is the elimination of this nagging distraction.

#2: Renewed clarity and focus. Social media platforms are addictive by design. Likes, retweets and statuses feed off an evolutionary need for social approval. Feedback loops then serve up an addictive dopamine hit that keeps us coming back for more. It goes without saying that stepping away from this addictive lure can bring with it renewed mental focus, not to mention a heightened appreciation for delayed gratification and solitude.

#3: Improved mood. While the impact of social media on mental health remains unclear, some research suggests an association between social media use and increased rates of depression. A social media detox might therefore be expected to improve mood, compounded by the positive effects on focus and productivity.

#4: Increased gratitude. As our eyes shift to the horizon, we’ll likely spend more time engaging in meaningful leisure activities and with meaningful connections. This will foster a renewed appreciation for the things we are evolutionarily built for: face-to-face social connections, building, independent thinking. And as I’ve written before, increased gratitude may have a wide range of benefits for our overall well-being.

#5: Time to reassess the value and think. A social media detox also leaves us with newfound time. As we explore more meaningful activities, we’ll have more time to reflect on what brings us value and what doesn’t. We’ll have time to do uncluttered thinking. Replacing social media time with simple activities like walking outdoors and meditation can transform the quality of this thinking.

#6: Future intentionality. Last but not least, a period of reflection can give us the clarity we need to take back control of our digital habits. The whole point of a social media detox is that if we decide to return to social media, we do so more intentionally.

How to Reintroduce Social Media

Which brings me nicely to the next point.

The idea of the third step of the social media detox is that we start from zero use and reintroduce only what brings us value. Having reflected on this during the detox, it would be wise to think about some rules for use if we decide to return.

“Rules” may sound an extreme take, but it’s about not undoing the work we’ve done, not allowing things to drift back to the default.

As an example, here are my rules for the reintroduction of social media:

  1. 15 minutes of social media use per day (maximum). Unless you’re running a social media account as a business, there simply isn’t value in spending more time on it. And even then, there are a wide range of options for automation.
  2. Follow no more than 150 selected accounts. A hat tip to Robin Dunbar’s research on this one. In the social media sphere this figure may be a little arbitrary, but it seems to me to be a sensible limit to extract value from the accounts I’m following.
  3. Unfollow non-value adding accounts, e.g. serial retweeters and auctioneers.
  4. No more than 2-3 main tweets per day. If I feel like I have something relevant and value-adding to say, I will say it. But I’ll do so with respect for others pondering their social media use.

In short, these rules aim to do three things: filter for quality information, save time, and respect the time of others.

If you choose to return to social media, think carefully about your operating rules for its reintroduction. Bottom line: How will you design your new social media space to optimise value and minimise opportunity cost? Your experience over the preceding 30 days should help you answer this.

What Now?

Of course, I accept that some people get the social media balance right without such a blanket intervention. It’s not for everyone. I also accept that not everyone will experience all the aforementioned benefits.

But if you have appraised your social media use honestly and concluded that you are spending too much time on it and not getting enough from it, then perhaps this article will sound the alarm bells required. Perhaps it will at least have you pondering the value of a brief break from social media.

As for me, the world didn’t stop. My blog traffic didn’t tank. There was no mass exodus of followers.

I took a month off social media. I read, I socialised, I wrote, I thought, I built, and I exercised instead. And now I can reset.

Maybe you should, too.

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