This isn't going to be one of those "I haven't used Twitter or Facebook for over two years and managed to learn 4 new languages, launched 2 companies, became a Zen master and tending my own vegetable garden" blog posts. That being said, I have been out of the mainstream social media social media ecosystem for a while now, life is pretty good and so I wanted to share some of my learnings those of you who are either interested, curious or asking me about it.
The last time I posted on Facebook was around 2018 and I can't remember when was the last time I saw what my Twitter feed looks like, at least on a browser - we'll get to that. Up until several years ago I self identified as a digital maximalist: Picked up and tinkered around with every new product on Product Hunt, raced to get my vanity user name on different services and generally spent a lot of time building this perfect system to consume, organize and keep track of the huge amount of information I was exposed to.
At some point I probably crossed a threshold that made me feel overwhelmed. I'm not entirely sure whether it was the amount of emails from different services or losing track of the amount of time I spend scrolling through feeds. I remember being anxious about retaining Twitter followers and having this inherent pressure and thinking "I should probably post something" and "I haven't responded to this person in a while" and even "I need this person to follow me so I'll engage with their content". All this got me questioning my relationship with technology in general, but also curious about what exactly am I trying to achieve.
Let's talk habit loops and use cases for a second: if you read any modern book about habit forming you are probably familiar with the habit loop (here's a quick rundown if you don't). When I first started to use social media more than a decade ago my core use case was aligned with the social media company's mission - we both wanted me to connect with my friends, getting unmediated access to thought leaders and getting inspired. On top of that, social media services made it super easy and approachable to do it, so whenever I had a need for human connection or inspiration, social media was the answer and habits were formed.
Above, a simple habit loop: cue - working on my computer at the office, looking for human connection, routine - checking Twitter, reward - seeing profile pictures of people who share common interest as me, feel connected. result - checking Twitter is now associated with working at the office
Over time two things happened: Social media and I started to have differences about how to best solve for my use case. My original intent stayed the same - connecting with friends, getting inspired. On the social media side of things companies figured out that in order to financially sustain themselves they needed me engaged and retained in what people refer to as the attention economy 1 (or in layman's terms, spending a lot of time on the website engaging with things). So instead of a feed that serves my needs, my social media content stream became full of controversial stuff I don't care for from people I wouldn't want to engage with.
Instead of going on social media trying to maintain a large number of low-intensity relationships, I chose to invest in a handful of meaningful relationship to solve for my need for human connection.
On the inspiration end side of things, I figured that if there is someone I value their opinion and would love to hear their perspective of the world, I'll just read their book. So instead of following someone on a social media website trying to fish for a good insight amongst the huge amount of mundane information, I get an edited, long-form perspective. Obviously, there are some people who I'm interested in their opinion who did not publish a book - for them I had to tailor a special solution that also fit my consumption habits, we'll get to it shortly.
By looking closely into my relationship with technology, I was able to think about the things that matter to me the most and build solutions that fulfill those needs. What I found out in the process is that there are a handful of sites and services I really need and got me towards what I'm trying to achieve while the majority are a distraction.
Missing out on things
The first thing people ask me about staying outside the social media ecosystem is "how are you handling missing out on things?". Fair question. In the age of ephemeral content there is a lot of platforms that will blast you with information and even more information to stay on top of: The latest story, the latest meme, the cool video about the latest show everyone watches or the vacation photos that got posed in the team's Snapchat account off-work.
When it comes to "missing out" on information, I think about this quote from Cal Newport 2:
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it
The amount of mental effort and cognitive I have to spend to process raw information is very high and when outcome is "not missing out", the reward isn't worth the investment. When a lot of content nowadays is that's considered "missing out" is ephemeral or time sensitive, being constantly on top feels to me like drinking from a firehose. Sure, I can optimize my information consumption but the water pressure of the firehose is still the same, and the end result is the endless chase after the next thing I shouldn't be missing out on.
Sitting outside the cannot-miss-out ecosystem has two interesting side effects: People I'm communicating with are sharing with me their own processed information (so I do get to see our teammates' baby photos after all). More importantly, I learned to moderate my news consumption so I'm less mentally taxed by current events that are mostly out of my control (I wrote a bit about that when talking about mental health during the first weeks on COVID).
The key to handling "missing out on things" is intentionality: If there is something that's important enough to be tracked ,I'll design a system around how and when I'm consuming it. If it's not important enough, I rather spend my "life currency" on things that get me towards where I want to be.
Staying professionally up-to-date through community
Staying professionally up-to-date requires, among other things, getting communally involved. This means joining slack groups, participating in online forums and tinkering around with different services, some of them have attention economy components to them. Unlike missing out on mundane things, improving my craft through the product management community has value and I find it a good add-on to reading books and my product management solo-practice (which is a good idea for a future post).
When it comes to engaging on social networks for the purpose of improving, I always ask myself - is the group I'm looking at has values that are close to mine? And if it does, can our relationship help inspire and elevate me in my craft.
If both boxes are checked, I join the group with two rules set in place: The first one is being intentional about "product practice time". Just like anything else, I set aside time that is meant for group participation. This could be hard sometimes as there are some interesting rolling discussions and when I check the platform I find that the discussion is over or a good point I had is no longer relevant. When this happens and I feel that I'm missing out on stuff, I remind myself that I really don't.
My second rule is not giving away (or asking for) internet points (likes, hearts, bulbs, claps, cheers or fistbumps). Personally, giving away internet points reinforces that fact that content that I create online needs recognition and assign my self-validation to a feature that's designed to keep my engaged on a website. So if you are reading this post on a shared social website, don't feel obligated to give me internet points - we're cool.
The social network that got me the longest to tweak was Twitter because here's the thing - twitter's kinda fun! But it's also a huge time suck for me. What I ended up doing is programming my own read-only twitter interface that get original tweets (closest to my original use case - getting inspired by thought leaders) from people I'm interested in professionally and puts links they shared on a separate list. I'm checking my "mindful twitter" program once a day-ish and it's definitely less taxing than the alternative I used to have.
My mindful Twitter interface, hard at work
What do I do with all that free time
When I settled into a cadence of habits that doesn't include social media I found out that suddenly I have time; more like an ocean of time. It got really weird early on and I found myself sitting on my chair staring into the void after finishing everything I had planned for the day - and it felt really refreshing!
Part of today's #hustle culture (that got slightly worse due to COVID because everyone needs to come out of this pandemic skilled up not really) is spending a vast majority of our time absorbing input from all over the place in the form of podcasts, books, articles, social media feeds and whatnot. The major benefit I got from both focusing my input on fewer, more impactful sources is allowing myself time to process.
I have enough mental mindspace to take in what other people created, think of ways to retain the most important pieces of information and embedding them into my thought process. Practically speaking, I collect notes from books, articles and conversations through rapid logging (so my mind isn't encumbered by information, I just write it down). The important learnings go into the computer at the end of each day and the morning of the next I have a program that sends me an email with one thought or quote from me to think about. I then use this quote to think about the source, the context and how does that apply to things I'm doing that day.
Input-free time is also a good opportunity to getting curious about myself and ask all the hard 'why's. Drowning in a sea os input was a great way for me to numb and turn my brain into a "read, sort, optimize" machine, but things got really interesting once the machine was off and it was just me and my thoughts.
And there's also downtime. In preparation for writing this post I was looking at the 16 basic desires theory 3 and was delighted to find to out that having true downtime isn't related to any of the sixteen human basic desires: It's not about power, acceptance, individuality or (arguably) not even the need to be safe. Downtime is the time when I allow myself to do nothing, mentally reset and not worry about progressing towards the next goal (it's all about systems anyways).
The last thing I'm doing in my free time is exploring things outside of my comfort zone. Don't get me wrong, I love my comfort zone but I'm also curious about challenges that wait outside of it - like handy work around the house, or skateboarding, installing light fixtures or learning a complicated board game. I would say that very few things outside of my comfort zone stuck around but the fact that I could tie my learnings back to my personal and professional life is pretty great. Oh, and I can install a ceiling light fixture now so there's that.
how do I start?
Reducing the intensity of my relationship with social media is a net positive and if you read all the way through here and thinking about doing the same, that's awesome. Honestly, I can tell you all about the planning phase: evaluating your relationship with technology, write down use cases, think about your values and how technology benefit them, read books, but looking at my journey retrospectively the best way to start is by doing.
You want to get to a point where habits that are in line with things you want to achieve take precedence over your social media time. So how about picking something positive, blocking some uninterrupted time on your calendar and do it. Put your devices on 'Do not disturb' (or some place out of your reach) and do your thing. At some point during this journey you would probably find out that you have better things to do than feed-scrolling anyways.
Good luck, have fun!