Social Media is Stealing Your Life: Here's How to Get It Back

March 2, 2021
Photo of a focused eagle

"Hello, my name is Dario and I have a problem. I’m addicted to social media and I find it hard to stop."

When I think about my digital consumption, I would love to think that I’m on top of it. That I’m too smart to be fooled by Instagram or YouTube. But if I’m honest with myself, I spent many days of the past years in a state of low-grade anxiety, obsessively checking my phone’s screen, and unconsciously giving away more and more of my precious attention, time and agency.

When I initially noticed the negative consequences that it had on my life, I took some measures: I set a time limit for some apps, I set my phone to go grayscale after a certain time, I hid some apps inside folders to make it harder to access them. But that didn’t really work.

An addict always finds his way back to the drug, no matter what. I assume you know this because, most likely, you’re an addict too.

Illustration of people in the subway being glued to their phone
Credit: Steve Cutts

Let’s get something straight: I love the Internet and its infinite potential. It changed my life for the better in more ways than I can count. However, especially when it comes to social media, I’m conflicted.

On one hand, I am grateful for all the things I’ve learned on YouTube, the inspiring Instagram posts, the thought-leaders I can follow on Twitter. On the other hand, the addictive nature of these platforms is deteriorating my concentration, altering my emotional balance, and eating away my free time. I find myself nervously craving to check what’s going on on these apps from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep.

This is not normal. This is not acceptable.

If you have watched The Social Dilemma, you know that these platforms are manipulative by design: their main interest is to make us increasingly hooked, even if that means deteriorating our emotional balance, agency, productivity, critical thinking, self-esteem and other intangible yet invaluable assets.

The most obvious and sensible thing to do would be to give up on them entirely. But to be honest, they do offer some value.

If you, like me, don’t want to quit social media for good, how do you keep using them without being at the mercy of their negative consequences? Before we answer the question, we need to get acquainted with a philosophy called Minimalism.

Minimalism 101

You’re probably already familiar with the idea of minimalism in terms of material consumption. Basically, if you are a minimalist you only buy and own things that are essential in your life. But minimalism expands much further than that.

Minimalism is a philosophy of life where you decide to focus your energy on a few, selected things that you already know will give you a lot of value, and happily miss out on everything else.

To better understand it, it’s worth making the contrast with its opposite approach, maximalism. If you are a maximalist, you spread your energy over anything you can find, hoping that at least something will give you some value.

Let’s make an example: a short trip to Rio de Janeiro.

Picture of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro
Credit: Gabriel Rissi

What philosophy you choose depends on what you value most. Both enable you to harvest different things. The maximalist might harvest more pictures to show to his friends, the minimalist might harvest more good moments to remember.

Digital consumption too can be approached either as a maximalist or as a minimalist. In fact, the minimalist approach to social media might be the only way out of its vicious dark hole.

Digital Minimalism

I became aware of this philosophy by reading the book Digital minimalism by Professor Cal Newport, who first popularized the concept in 2019. He describes Digital Minimalism as a philosophy that allows you to “focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Let’s frame it again against its opposite:

Now, let’s get practical about it. How do you go from being a Digital Maximalist to a Digital Minimalist? In his book Cal Newport proposes a Digital Declutter Process which involves taking a full 30-day break from all social media. Personally, I didn’t do it, but I created an exercise for myself based on his advice which has been just as effective.

Here is how it works: first, you have to write down what is the real trade-off of digital consumption in your life. Then you proceed to optimize your approach to it.

The Intentional Digital Consumption Matrix

To identify the real trade-off of social media you must do a cost-benefit analysis of each platform you use. I created a simple spreadsheet called Intentional Digital Consumption Matrix which you can copy and use to do this exercise.

A spreadsheet of the Intentional Digital Consumption Matrix

Start with the benefits and ask yourself: How does Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, etc. support things that I deeply value? Is it inspiration? The ability to reach people at scale? Entertainment? Staying in touch with people? Learning new things? There is value in digital consumption, identify what that is for you.

Then proceed to identify the costs of using social media. Does it make you less productive? Less present with your loved ones? Does it make you pay attention to things you don’t really care about? Does it negatively affect your self-esteem? Make you spend less time in nature? There are costs that come with digital consumption, identify what those are for you.

Once you’re done, you can have a clearer picture of what is at stake, and what are the values you want to base your social media usage on. Then you proceed to optimize how you use each platform. To do that, ask yourself: How am I going to use each and every platform to maximize the value and minimize the harm?

This is the part of the exercise where you create some constraints. If they are built on top of a philosophy, they work. For example, you might decide that you only check Facebook during the weekend, access Twitter after 8pm, and Instagram during your lunch break.

Here are some other constraints that Cal Newport recommends in his book:

On top of that, Newport points out that you should also answer the question: What activities would you like to do more of, once you regain some agency, attention and time over social media?

He suggests focusing on offline activities, such as building things with your hands or gardening. In my opinion it doesn’t need to be necessarily offline, learning how to build a website, or taking an online course can be just as valuable. It’s up to you, and how you like to spend your free time.

To better integrate this philosophy in your life, I also suggest paying more attention to your experience while using social media. Notice how it trains your mind to escape the present moment every time you’re bored, often leaving you more frustrated than you were. Notice how it distorts your reality making you think something crazy is always happening, while in fact most of life is unextraordinary. Notice how it affects your self-esteem when you compare yourself with random strangers who are simply better at marketing happiness. Notice how you end up thinking and caring about things that you don’t really care about, just because you’ve been exposed to them.  

When you become aware of how toxic certain processes are, it becomes easier to let them go. Just like smokers can quit cigarettes by observing the sensations of smoking, you can become disenchanted with social media by being more mindful about its actual (quite poor) experience.

Final thoughts

Personally, I have been integrating Digital Minimalism in my life for some time now, and it has been effective. I feel more clear-minded, productive, and more importantly, in control of my day. The days of brain fog and system overload are gone.

For example, I used to open up YouTube immediately after waking up, watching 2-3 recommended videos and already starting to feel overwhelmed because I had a lot of work to do. Now I simply don’t open YouTube until the evening. I gave up on watching videos that occasionally gave me some value, but I gained more time and mental clarity to do focused work in the morning (which I already know is fulfilling).

Maybe the real difference between a maximalist and minimalist is that the latter takes the time to question what he or she really values, because living intentionally is more fulfilling.

That’s why the ultimate goal of adapting this philosophy is to feel that, at all times, you are leveraging the technology for your own benefit and not the other way around. As Cal Newport advocates: “It’s important to approach [digital consumption] with a sense of zero-sum antagonism. You want something valuable from their networks, and they want to undermine your autonomy—to come out on the winning side of this battle requires both preparation and a ruthless commitment to avoiding exploitation.”

It’s time to take your life back. Go minimal, win the game.

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