06 April 2014

What I discovered when I took a break from Facebook

 
A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a mini-break from the internet. I realized that I had become paralyzingly addicted to wasting time with the help of my laptop. But to understand why, I need to add a little background.

As many of you know, I have been without a job for almost a year now. The project I was working on had been having its budget slashed year over year and it finally caught up with my position. I have done a few freelance projects but for someone with my professional background (urban planning and historic preservation) and at my experience level, job opportunities aren't exactly thick on the ground. Especially in a region so dependent on federal spending. Thankfully, we are nowhere near destitute thanks to John's hard work, but it does mean that I have oodles of free time.

But what is the quality of that free time? At first the days seemed to be limitless. Unprogrammed hours just vibrating with potential. But over time that morphed into existential angst about my place in the world. Feelings of guilt that I am not pulling my weight at home or in society at large. Then mundane tasks began to fill my time in a way that they would not have if I were working. I don't mean that I started to add housekeeping tasks because I had additional time, but rather the same tasks I did before began to fill more and more time. Or, if not the tasks themselves, the whole downward spiral that is procrastination wherein I am neither doing what I should be, nor doing something more fun and interesting because I am thinking about what I should be doing.

And that is where the digital double-edged sword comes into play. The internet can fulfilling and it can be deadening. But let me break down the villains in this festival of procrastination.

Dramatis Personae
Facebook - Love that it keeps me in touch with friends and family in a way that I think is very positive. Hate that I find myself repeatedly refreshing the page hoping my working family and friends will say something to amuse me or respond to something I have posted.

Twitter - Love that I have connected with so many wonderful bookish people around the world. Hate that I find myself scrolling and scrolling and scrolling looking for what?

New York Times, Washington Post, and The Daily Dish - Love the fine reporting and commentary in each of these online news organs. Hate that I reflexively look at them throughout the day when FB and Twitter don't satisfy. Also, really hate how they can get me incensed about the state of the world and feeling frustrated that there is little I can do about anything.
Simon Savidge and I have chatted a few times on our podcast The Readers about the internet's impact on our reading habits. We talked about how great it can be for bookish fulfillment, but we also talked about how it can be a big time waster and keep us from actually reading books.

As I have had such a slow reading year, I thought I would give myself a partial break from the internet to see if I could reconnect with reading. So a week or two ago I decided to go five days without looking at Facebook, Twitter or any news website or blog. I didn't rule out my blogs, or other book blogs, and I didn't rule out email. Not only do I not consider those to be time wasters, they have actually been neglected in recent months because of my addiction to the others mentioned above.

So what happened during my media moratorium?

1. I realized that checking Facebook, Twitter, and news sites was so reflexive that I found myself wanting to check them after about every two pages I read in a book. I had no idea I was interrupting my reading that much for social media. HUGE revelation.

2. Oddly, I also watched less TV. I think because when I watch most TV I have my iPad in front of me and the two things together just put me in a media coma.

3.  I was more productive around the house. I discovered that BBC Radio 4 has lots of fun and interesting programmes to listen to while ironing and doing other chores.

4. I got more exercise.

5. I realized that people assume Facebook is a fail safe way to contact me. Even though I said I would be gone for a while I still got messages on FB that required answers from me. I didn't see any of those messages for five days.

6. I realized I could happily do without reading or hearing the news. In addition to avoiding news websites during this time I also avoided NPR news on the radio. Blissful. I missed nothing. Does this mean I will forever be ignorant about what is going on in the world? I doubt it, but it did prove the maxim that ignorance is bliss.

7. I felt more isolated. John was out of town and I began to feel a wee bit lonely. I realized I only have about four people in the world who wouldn't find a phone call with me to be unusual.

8. The experience made me totally rethink my recent decision to get a smart phone. I shouldn't do it in the first place just because of the expense, but I was close to taking the plunge. But now I think I really don't need or want that kind of time sucking potential to be at my side 24 hours a day. To anyone who thinks smart phones are indispensable, I get it. They can be extremely helpful and handy and fun. I know at some point I will get one, but I hope to god it doesn't become the crutch it has become to so many users.

No one will convince me that everyone needs to be connected to everything all the time. You don't. You just don't. No, I know that, but you really don't. You aren't that important. None of us are. And I will be annoyed and offended if you and I are sitting together and you need to check whatever feeds you are following. Why don't you just go somewhere else and be with your phone. You don't need me for that. And if I am so boring that you would rather be doing something else, please, by all means, go do it.

Unoriginal and not really surprising final thoughts on the experiment?
Everything in moderation.


31 comments:

  1. Hello Thomas:

    This is a very honest, and most interesting, kind of self appraisal although please forgive us if this is a misinterpretation of your intention.

    We both subscribe [if that is the correct term] to Facebook but seldom post anything and very often forget even to look. Certainly we think that one has to guard against it, or anything similar, becoming a compulsive habit. We are rather of the belief that in an age when being in touch with others has never been faster or easier, there is in reality a frightening disconnect. Look around any restaurant to observe the numbers of people engaged in one way or another on a mobile telephone rather than in talking directly to their companion(s).

    We are so glad, in response to our last comment, that you enjoyed the images of the Villa Massei. We shall very much hope to see you again, possibly even as a Follower!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Seeing a table of people on their phones is truly depressing.

      Delete
  2. I can identify with so much that you wrote about. My husband and I have been trying to wind down our tw0-person business for the last year or so, pending his retirement (I hope) in August. When I worked a full day in an outside office, before I started working with him in our business, I put in a lot of hours and still managed to do the laundry, pay the bills, clean the house, etc. Now that I have hours of free time, I'm trying to deal with the guilt and with the amazement that I run so many errands!

    I gave up on the news years ago. It usually upsets me and there's not a lot I can do to fix the world! But I do what I can. I try to stay marginally informed. I read the top stories on the front pages of the sections of the local (Philadelphia) newspaper and on the MSN homepage. The only social media I use is e-mail and blogging. (I did start my own blog a few weeks ago.) My phone is just a phone, although I was dismayed to find that I can get text and take photos. Why can't a phone just be a phone?! With my laptop in front of me, though, I can waste endless amounts of time on Mahjong. It's just too easy to feel I'm doing something rather than wasting my time reading, which I don't think is a waste and no one except my Puritan ancestors thinks is a waste.

    Good luck with finding the right balance and shucking off that guilt. I hope you find an appropriate and satisfying job soon. In my world, there should be tons of jobs in your field! Come to Philly, where the answer to fabulous old buildings is to tear them down and build soulless boxes with too much glass!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think if I were headed toward retirement I wouldn't feel the guilt I do now, but I would probably still face the challenge of doing something constructive or at least enjoyable--that is, not procrastinating. I have been a little surprised how easy it has been to give up the news.

      Delete
  3. You are right, it is scary how compulsive it becomes and how you look up and find you've just spent two hours doing nothing very much. I read the other day that it was 'screen free week' or something like that, but I have just started the A to Z challenge so that was no good. I am off on holiday in may and find myself partly looking forward from being away from all technology for a fortnight. I have been thinking of doing a screen free day every week just to try and break the time draining habit. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think planning out screen free time is a great idea. Vacations are also good for that. And I am always a little surprised when I get home to see how little I actually missed.

      Delete
  4. Yep (to all of this). I used to be on Twitter all the time. I have two Twitter accounts--a personal one that I used to follow the news and talk about everything aside from books, and an account for my blog where I discuss all the bookish stuff. I'm almost never on my personal Twitter account anymore. The news was depressing, I was getting angry every day, and it really affected my productivity.

    As far as following the news, I now follow just a few political/social justice blogs, and I just skim the article titles every day. If there is something that I think I really should know about, I'll read the post. Otherwise, I skip it. I can't stand feeling depressed and angry at the world every day. Not good.

    I've gotten more into FB again recently, but not enough to allow it to take up all my time. I just can't have my face stuck in a screen all day.

    I have a smartphone that I love, but when I want to sit and read with no interruptions, I put it on "Do Not Disturb." If someone needs to get ahold of me and it's an emergency, those people know how to do that when I'm not responding to my smartphone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Twitter is an interesting monster. Many great connections but one has to weed through so many others to get to them.

      Delete
  5. I was on Facebook for a very brief amount of time years ago, and to be honest, the whole experience creeped me out a little bit. People I didn't remember, people I would like to forget all trying to touch base in this community of artificial regard. I appreciate keeping up with folks but somehow felt the experience devalued by the necessity of doing so publicly. Also found people's "best face forward" approach to the social media outlet sad. But that is just me.

    Your honesty here is really refreshing. I hope the extra time serves you well. And you can call me anytime. But only if you want to. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My FB use has changed from the early days. After a while I stopped accepting friend requests from high school people who weren't ever my friends and/or too boring to want to be friends with now. Some I never thought I would like as friends I quite like as adults. I also unfriended anyone who was a Michelle Bachmann tea-partier. And given that my high school is in her district, this was of no small import.

      Delete
  6. I've been really rethinking my media use lately, and although I haven't taken any time off, I'm trying to cut back. I also have the bad habit of reflexively checking Facebook and Twitter far more often than I need to. And I let myself get really caught up in whatever the big brouhaha of the week is in the various communities I follow, sometimes reading articles that I know will enrage me and that don't tell me anything new. It doesn't feel healthy. I could better use the time for cooking or yoga or dusting or reading or actually paying attention to the movies or TV I have on. And even reading and commenting on friends' blogs, which I haven't been doing as much lately. So many better things to do than getting stuck in an Internet rabbit hole.

    I'll have to give some thought to how much my smartphone contributes to this. I really like it for those little bits of time in waiting rooms or in line or when the work lunchroom is too loud for proper reading. I keep the sounds off most of the time, so I'm not getting frequent alerts, and I wouldn't think to check it when talking with a friend.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes, getting caught up in online brouhahas. Perhaps the least fulfilling online activity.

      Delete
  7. I feel the need to say, "Amen!" :) I have to remind myself of this from time to time and turn off the screens. As much as I love keeping up with the book blogging world, it does tend to reduce the amount of time I actually have for reading books. I've been considering coming up with some sort of limiting plan for my blog-reading (and perhaps it would keep me from buying so many? - that may be a little wishful thinking, though).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. How crazy that book bloggers are keeping us from reading.

      Delete
  8. I just go through my list of book bloggers and read the first 5 to 8 that have updated and the rest wait until they update closer to the top of my list. News- I don't watch very often except local stuff re: arts, films, events. Facebook- I was wasting way too much time so when I check it morning or evening I only click on notifications and don't look at the news feeds. Notifications is enough to keep me in touch with family overseas. I find I'm reading more and writing more so that's good. I am tired of the world and its problems so I only work with my animal fund raising charities. I can't save them all but I can work locally. You can always come to Tasmania- that would jog you out of your electronic media.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting way of checking book blogs. Sometimes I wait too long, however, and many of the posts that interest me are way down on my blog feed. I can identify with being tired of the world and its problems. Makes me think of May Sarton's journals from the 1960s and 1970s where TV, Radio, phone, and letters were the only intrusions in her life and even then the TV and Radio was never as prominent as our use of the internet.

      Delete
  9. I've seen a lot of friends doing the same thing and I too feel that social media is eating away at my time. However, having lived in different countries from my family and friends for so many years, I love the way that it makes us feel close and that the world really is small.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be so important being able to keep close to family. However, I think when it comes to students living abroad temporarily like I did when I worked for 6 months in London right out of college, having all those electronic connections keeps them too tied to home. In 1992 we had letters and the rare telephone call and I think the experience was richer because of it. If one goes to study abroad now there are so many electronic ways to stay in touch I am not sure they are really having as complete an experience.

      Delete
  10. Loved this post, because it hit so close to home. I'm looking for a job as well and thing aren't exactly turning up in the time frame I had hoped. Which means, that I have been more reliant on social media than I would like. It has gotten to the point that I am constantly refreshing pages on certain sites, which is ridiculous. I definitely need to cut myself off from those sites - I loved that you did that for a week. Thanks for this post- I really connected with it! Cheers :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good luck finding a job. It is really starting to mess with my psyche even though there are some practical reasons why I am not looking as hard as I should be.

      Delete
  11. My mom is/was a nutritionist (non practicing now) and her mantra was 'everything in moderation'. As I've grown "older" (yes I'm only 34 but bear with me) I've grown to see the wisdom in this not just in diet but everything in life! Take anything too far and it takes over your life. I love my smart phone and it comes in handy so often when out and about (google, maps, directions, etc.) but I'm always appalled to see people in restaurants, out with friends, on the metro/bus using their device rather than connecting with the real world. Everything in moderation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Food is one area where I find moderation the hardest.

      Delete
  12. Beautifully and honestly expressed. I love that you really think about stuff, and try to make your life better. Not that many people do, you know.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Nan. Your blog always makes me want to find a farmhouse in New England and unplug from everything. (But then I wouldn't know you.)

      Delete
  13. Great thoughts! For me I found getting a smart phone actually reduced the amount of time I was on social media and reading the news. I most definitely did not expect that to happen and some weeks are worse than others. I'm just driven crazy that the idea of the unknown is no longer fascinating to people because it's at the tip of their fingers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To think we used to have to wait for a trip to a library then try and find and request the books that might help. Or even write a letter enquiring about something. Seems like ancient history.

      Delete
  14. This really resonated with me because I've realized how addicted I am to the internet -- for awhile it was the first thing I did every morning, and I was on again after dinner when I should be spending time with my kids. I just came back from a two-week vacation and didn't look at Facebook once, and I hardly missed it. It's a huge time suck. I took it off my phone last year because I needed more space for an upgrade and I've never replaced that app. I'm also thinking about giving up my blog, but I took over a year-long book challenge and quite a few people signed up, so I may stick it out through the end of the year, then that will be it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh Karen, don't stop blogging. Get rid of everything else, cut down on the blogs you really don't like, but don't stop blogging.

      Delete
  15. This post really struck a chord with me. I'm a total addict, to the extent that my teenagers tell me to put my phone away. Shaming, eh? When I wake up in the night, I check Twitter. Why?

    After reading this, and the comments, I vowed to change my ways. Result? Every time I check my Twitter/Facebook/Instagram I think of you, Thomas. But I honestly didn't ever think of taken Facebook off my phone, and that's the one I loathe the most. So thanks, Karen K, I'm going to do that right now.

    As for Instagram, that is my favourite, as I love looking at and taking pics. But I read a snippet of an interview with a psychologist who said something like: When we post on Instagram we are feeling 'up' - on holiday or with friends, but when we look at it we are usually alone and in need of stimulation, so we are looking at everyone else's good times, which makes us miserable. I found that interesting, especially with regards to young people, who cannot rationalise these things as well. My daughter just thinks 'everyone else' is having a great time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If a young person tells you you are on your phone too much, you really might have a problem. :)

      Delete
  16. Very good to read your take on this subject Thomas. I am an extremely light user of the technology, having only a dumb phone, and little or no interest in Facebook or Twitter, BUT I can still recognise the persistent pull to the screen upstairs for blog reading/ writing and checking emails, not to mention satisfying my idle curiosity on Google. I too am unemployed, and although now of an age when I could be respectably retired, I feel as though I am squandering my time and have lost the ability to self-motivate and enthuse. Too much vicarious living not enough real life. I lament loudly at the time my younger relatives spend with their eyes cast furtively down into their laps and hate the feeling of being 'the interrupt' to something more important and fascinating, but even I could do with a reassessment of my computer use.

    ReplyDelete