Reclaim Your Life From Social Media
There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software — The Social Dilemma, 2020
I’m a user too.
And if you’re reading this right now, chances are you’re a user too. A user of software, social media and the whole nine yards of the infinite scrolling feature.
And yet, until a few months ago, it didn’t really matter all that much.
It was perfectly normal to start the day scrolling your Instagram feed and scroll through some news while sipping the morning coffee.
Then you had to go and watch “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix which ironically was something that was ‘trending’ on the very same social media channels it’s trying to antagonize.
All your favourite influencers are talking about it, and here you are, having caught on to the dangers of social media addiction and the manner in which the AIs optimizing our media feeds are subliminally controlling us like puppets on strings.
And what’s worse is, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
The AI isn’t going to grow a conscience overnight and neither will the companies that are paying the AI to control our attention and by extension, our very lives.
The only thing you can do is learn how to protect yourself.
It’s time to learn how to fight the genie, or better, become immune to the genie’s spells.
To fight an addiction, it is imperative to take affirmative action and also target the root of the problem.
The rest of this article is going to give you the tools to do just that.
Please note that the ideas aren’t exclusively mine and I will quote sources where I’ve borrowed the techniques of minds wiser than my own.
Please read till the very end and use whatever technique serves you best — whilst I can’t promise that the article will be as mesmerizing as the social media feeds we’re all addicted to, I can promise you that the content presented here is written wholly with the intention to help you.
May the force be with you.
Tools for the body
While The Social Dilemma talks about a few techniques to reduce the usage of social media, it’s all bundled up in the last 3 minutes of the movie along with the credits playing on the side. Simply restricting phone usage or going cold turkey and deleting all your social media accounts isn’t a viable solution for most of us. But there are a few techniques that can help you start to take back control of your social media usage.
I’ve used the following techniques to help halt the pace of my addiction over the last few years.
The ‘Out of sight’ phone
The dumbest techniques are the ones that work best for me. Back in 2017, when I was joined at the wrist with my phone, I used a ridiculously simple technique to break the habit.
I put my phone behind my computer screen / in a drawer / plugged it in for charging in a different room or slightly away from my arm’s reach. And as it turns out, I was in fact, too lazy to reach for my phone when it was out of sight/out of reach. A few hours of the phone being out of sight helped me regain some semblance of self-control. Doing this consistently for 1 week is more than enough to sow the seeds of putting the phone away and thus avoiding social media in the short term. This won’t fully solve the problem — we will explore root causes in the last section of this article.
Phone-free areas of the house
I’ve designated the kitchen and the prayer room as phone free areas at my house. It helps if you can enlist your roommates/family to join in and participate in these ‘rules’. You will inevitably have to go to these rooms/areas of the house a few times a day.
And every time that you pull your nose out from being buried in the phone, your odds of keeping your distance improve drastically.
The usage of phones is so ubiquitous at this point that, not having one in your hands almost makes you feel antsy. But doing a few things regularly without your phone close at hand helps assuage the discomfort. Pick 1–3 things in your routine where the phone is not an essential ingredient. E.g., I’ve designated eating, as a phone-free ritual. This means, I can’t scroll my feeds/ read something on my phone while I’m eating. I have to pay attention to my meals — this is harder than it looks for someone like me.
Even before I had a phone, I had the habit of eating all my meals with a book in hand so I could relish both a good meal and a good story. But, since eating is now a phone-free ritual, I am required to pay full attention to what I am eating. Doing this helps build up the will power to implement the harder techniques we will explore in the next section.
For the mind
The techniques described above can get you started on your journey to stave off excessive phone usage, but there is always a chance that within a month from now, the message of the documentary will have lost its steam and will potentially be forgotten.
If you want habits to stick, you’ll have to enlist the support of your mind too.
Why am I in your hand wall paper/ Need or escape folder
A simple technique to stop your addiction in its tracks is to have a provocative wallpaper / lock screen on your phone. By provocative, I mean a wallpaper that reminds you not to use the phone too much. Sample this wallpaper from writer, Niklas Göke — the first thing he sees when he unlocks his phone is the question “Why am I in your hand?”
Imagine that your phone is asking you why it is in your hands, what do you intend to accomplish using it? Is it a reasonable reason or are you just looking for a distraction. The trick is to answer the question before you unlock your phone — and unlock it only for meaningful reasons. If the answer to ‘Why am I in your hand?’ is weak, then maybe you need to put the phone down and walk away.
Another technique in the same vein, is to pile up all your apps in a folder called ‘Need or escape’. Whenever you are tempted to open an app , ask yourself are you using it because you need to do something productive or are you using it to escape something. Just becoming aware of your patterns can help you rewrite them.
Notifications disabled for ALL apps
Get rid of all those pop-ups. No more “XYZ reacted to your photo” and “You have 5 unread messages from 2 chats”. That has got to go. You will get around to those message and those reactions when you’re able and willing. You will not be enslaved to the phone and dance to its whims when it pings in your direction. Again, a simple technique but very powerful.
Zen Mode is a feature on my phone that locks my phone for 20 minutes straight (at a minimum). And it is auto-triggered when I am staring at the screen for over 2 hours. Find the equivalent of the Zen Mode on your phone and have it chastise you to walk away from it for a little while.
For the soul
I don’t think any of us willingly want to be seduced by the shiny posts that are served to us on a filtered platter on social media. No drug addict necessarily likes the smell and taste of the drug — apparently meth smells like burning plastic. Not exactly what I would call appetizing.
As with any addiction, what we might be trying to do is fill a void through engaging so deeply with social media.
Psychologist Lori Gottlieb likens smart phones to adult pacifiers. You reach for a fix to ease some kind of existential discomfort. And what’s unfortunate perhaps is that the AI is designed to take advantage of this basic human impulse to pacify. That’s where we fall prey to the spell.
What if you found a way to address these existential fears and worries?
Because, to be fair, using drugs or social media to suppress your existential pain isn’t a sustainable strategy.
The next level of warfare against the seduction of social media is to actually lean into your existential fears, meet your demons and go deep into your very soul to find the answer to all the uncomfortable questions you’ve been avoiding.
Follow your feelings
Alice follows a rabbit wearing a coat and a monocle to what becomes an outstanding once-in- a-lifetime adventure. She wouldn’t have done this if she had chosen to scroll her Instagram instead.
It’s almost imperceptible but, every time I’ve reached for my phone when I don’t really need it, has been to distract myself from ‘inconvenient’ feelings — anxiety, sadness, worry, frustration and anger.20 minutes of mindless conspiracy theory videos later, I’ve usually forgotten what I’m so upset about.
But the issue is, the next wave of these ‘forgotten feelings’ is stronger. These feelings are tied to deeper issues that I am probably too afraid to deal with.
One thing I’ve started to do to break the loop, is to follow the feelings using a 3 minute exercise. If I’m salty about an email I received at work — I let myself feel whatever I am feeling, for 1 whole minute, fuming and fretting and making faces at the computer screen (really), then I pay attention to my breathing for 1 minute, I usually detect shallow breaths at first but then they start to slow down into their natural rhythm.
Lastly, I notice my physical state — am I clenching my jaw, or my fists, or are my eyebrows furrowed? I smooth out all of these creases, and begin to refocus. In most cases, I feel less agitated about whatever has made me upset.
I usually decide I can move on from whatever has happened and that’s the end of it.
When I don’t do this, I find myself mindlessly scrolling social media feeds at ungodly hours of the night. I’m not letting myself be distracted by social media; I am avoiding a negative emotion.
I don’t necessarily enjoy watching 20 cat videos back to back at 2 AM, but it’s still better than having to admit that something made me angry today and feeling all the unpleasantness that accompanies that feeling.
And the reason I am so intent on running away is because don’t want to act out, and the feeling has been stewing inside me for hours now and it’s built up an unholy intensity. I don’t want to deal with it.
It is far more prudent to deal with the feelings as an when they show up. Do not use social media as a pain-killer for your emotions. That is a slippery slope.
Use your feelings and convert them to action
When the reason you use social media is to avoid taking action on your goals, you could use your social media triggers as cues to take action towards your goals.
For example, I want to lose 5 pounds, but I would rather watch fitness videos than actually exercise. I could set a goal that incorporates an atomic habit (From the book 'Atomic Habits' by James Clear) to my current cue of watching YouTube fitness videos.
For example, I could set a goal that says, before I watch a video on YouTube, I am required to do 5 jumping jacks. I know you’re thinking 5 jumping jacks isn’t much, but if you watch even 5 videos per day, that’s 25 jacks a day and 175 jacks a week. It’s better than being 100% sedentary.
And the interesting thing about habits is, the positive reinforcement you get for doing the jacks is going to train your mind to do more jacks to get the license to watch more videos. Eventually, you will be driven to do full workout routines. The effect of compounding is phenomenal.
Create before you consume
One element of social media is a desire to live vicariously — reading the work of other people, staring at the art that is presented to us. What if you decided to create some art instead — write an inspirational quote, a blog, draw a doodle, sing a song, paint something? No one needs to see it. You don’t have to post it on social media either, but create something.
Create before you consume. Creating is a rewarding process in and of itself, it will hold your attention in a way that energizes your mind rather than drains it.
Find your truth in different ways
Those of you who use Reddit or Quora infinitely can relate to the addictive feeling of being productive while also being entertained. I have spent hours on these sites learning about interesting concepts of astrophysics, evolution, history and psychology — all without having the slightest intention of doing so!
I usually use these apps to find answers to questions and end up finding answers to questions I didn’t know I had. Trying to find protein rich vegan foods led me down the rabbit hole of the origins of veganism, Neanderthals and confidential CIA files that were de-classified in the last 10 years!
I decided to do my research another way — I asked a vegan friend for advice, on the phone. I found the answer in a different way, one in which I couldn’t procrastinate forever.
Talk to someone
Sometimes the urge to hide in social media feeds is also a side effect of feeling disconnected. Isn’t it easier to like and comment on pictures of friends rather than telling your friends your deep, controversial thoughts? Who wants to be the weirdo in the friend circle?
What’s the guarantee that your friends can handle your ‘intensity’?
Maybe it’s time to give this a chance — pilot your customized sense of weirdness to one or two people to see how it lands.
It’s far more satisfying to have 1–2 friends with whom you can be fully ‘yourself’ than to have 100 friends who you cant talk deeply and freely with. If you have a crew like that, send them some love — call them up instead of texting.
Check on those homies and start a deep conversation — you’ll look back and be grateful you did. If you feel like the feelings you have are too intense and complex, it is worth seeing a therapist or a counselor. Social media can never replace a conversation with an actual person.
And that concludes the repertoire of tools to combat social media addiction.
Thank you for reading this till the very end.
You now have a set of tools at your disposal to combat social media addiction. The only thing you need to do is use them.
Resist and persist in your efforts.
Be your own person, not someone who is controlled by some nameless/faceless software.
It’s time to take the red pill.