I Ran 4 Experiments to Break My Social Media Addiction. Here’s What Worked.
Are you spending too much time on social media? If you’d like to break the habit, you can try a few different techniques. One would be to quit cold turkey for a full month. If that sounds too extreme, you can avoid social media at certain times, like after dinner or before breakfast. Blocker tools like Freedom can help you stay on track. A third approach is to try a social “happy hour” — instead of staying off social media at certain times, block out a portion of every day you can look forward to indulging in it. A fourth experiment to try is a taking a day off from social every week, like a Saturday or Sunday. This “day of rest” will help you keep your social habit in check, and make the weekend feel longer.
Social media can connect us to new ideas, help us share our work, and allow previously unheard voices to influence culture. Yet it can also be a highly addictive time-sink if we’re not careful about our goals, purpose, and usage.
Over the last two years, I conducted four different experiments to monitor my own behavior, implementing trackers and blockers in order to better understand how social media usage affected my productivity. My goal was to see if by interrupting my daily behavior I could change my “default settings” and have more time for deep, focused work.
In the end, these four experiments opened my eyes about my relationship to social platforms, and taught me effective strategies to maximize the benefit of these social tools while limiting the downsides.
The first step was collecting data. Before beginning my experiments, I tracked my daily behavior to better understand where my time and energy was going, which gave me insight into what I could change to produce more satisfying deep work. I used RescueTime for tracking my computer usage, and Moment to track my cell phone behaviors.
My first experiment was a complete removal of all social aspects from my routine: no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or LinkedIn for 30 days. Leading up to it, I raised objections—“but I need Facebook for my work!”, my brain sputtered, in a testament to the addictive power of the apps.
I logged out of each site and deleted all the apps from my phone. Then, I used Freedom, a website blocking tool, to restrict the social sites from my browser and phone. Finally, I had my partner take over my phone and install parental restrictions on browser sites with a password unknown to me. (I wasn’t taking any chances.)
The results. Once I decided to go all-in, it was surprisingly easier to do than expected. There was a relief in being offline and deciding, once and for all, to do it. Here’s what I learned:
After the experiment was over, I went back to allowing myself unlimited social media access and continued to track my usage using RescueTime. With a fresh perspective after a month away, I was able to more clearly see a pattern emerge around how I used the various sites, both for better and for worse. My key finding was the marked difference in my behaviors across devices: My laptop wasn’t the biggest culprit for addictive behavior: when I was at my desk, working, I spent the majority of my time actually working. My phone was the biggest culprit for addictive behavior.
Further, it was very clearly time-based. My social media usage (or cravings) clearly spiked at certain times. Most of my bad habits were tied up in late-night tiredness, early-morning mindlessness, and craving “The Scroll” whenever I was tired. It also became fairly predictable that I wanted a mid-morning break (around 11am) and an afternoon break (around 3 or 4pm). By far, the worst time was late evening, after dinner, when my brain felt like complete mush.
By all-out blocking the social feeds for thirty days, I saw where in the day my tiredness emerged and when I wanted to use the platforms for research or actual connection.
I wanted to learn whether or not I could limit, but not eliminate, social media and have equally effective results. This next experiment involved a daily restriction on websites based on the known “tired times” I’d identified in the first experiment.
For two weeks, I limited social access during certain periods of the day using the blocking app like Freedom. I allowed social sites on my computer in the afternoons only — not in the mornings, or after dinner. I also blocked all news websites, television sites, and installed Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook, a social plug-in that helps prevent the scrolling nature of the newsfeed.
Results: Keeping the mornings social-media and news free was a game changer. I got so much more done on my biggest projects by having dedicated focus hours, and also knowing that there was a scheduled break in my day coming up.
This proved to be a very effective strategy for me. Time-based internet blockers helped me increase my productivity. But now the reverse question came up: instead of blocking out times when I’d never use social, what if I dedicated a particular slot of time to it?
The next experiment I tried was dedicating a specific hour of my day completely for use on social sites. I set up a calendar invitation from 4-5pm: a “happy hour” at the end of the work day to connect, enjoy, and run across new people and ideas after nearly 12 hours of working or parenting.
Results: Creating a built-in stress relief hour where I know that I can slide into “social research and browsing” (“The Scroll”), helped me avoid temptation at other hours of the day. It was easier to replace a bad habit with a better one than to focus all my energy on eliminating the bad habit.
The biggest insights were that (1) social media usage dripped throughout the day drains the energy and focus I have for writing and other work, and (2) that there’s something insidiously satisfying about pressing publish on a status update, and each time I do it, I get the dopamine hit of satisfaction and response. But each tiny posting saps energy, and that adds up.
One of my favorite methods for resetting my brain is taking a full weekend day without my phone or my laptop, an idea I originally got from Tiffany Shlain’s “tech shabbat.” Back when I used to train for triathlons and open-water swims, Saturdays were spent largely outdoors, and it’s rather difficult to spend time scrolling the web while biking or swimming. So I used Freedom and a mesh wifi network to block the internet from midnight on Friday evening until Saturday at 3pm from all of my machines.
Results. Having something to do—going on a hike, going to the beach, meeting friends for coffee—helps tremendously.
Today, even with kids (and no triathlons currently), I still notice the effect of taking a Saturday away each week to disrupt the pattern of connection. A day free of the Internet is a great way to do a pattern reset if you notice (as I have) personal productivity dips by Friday.
By and large, my first experiments were based on control and elimination. Sometimes, instead of focusing on constriction and willpower, however, it’s actually a better strategy to focus on the thing I want more of: more reading, more unplugged time with my family, space to think. One of the reasons diets don’t work very well is because most of them focus what you restrict, rather than what you add. My later experiments opened my eyes to the power of addition: planning ahead for dedicated social time, or a Saturday spent outdoors.
Today, I use Freedom to block social websites and news in the mornings nearly every day. I deleted Facebook and email from my phone, I will manually re-install them from 4pm to 5pm and then delete them again (yes, daily). I take regular 24-hour breaks. And I track my usage with RescueTime, which sends me an alert when I’ve hit 45 minutes of total “distracting” time.
With social media, many of us want to reduce our consumption, but we miss an important piece of the puzzle: we’re craving something that we want, and we think that social media has a quick answer. These experiments helped me realize that at the heart of my cravings around the social internet are deep connections with friends, access to new ideas and information, or time to zone out and relax after a hard day. Each of these components can be satisfied with other things beyond social media, and more effectively. As with many tools, it’s not an all or nothing, good-versus-bad conversation. I will continue to experiment in the future, especially now that Apple has introduced it’s “Screen Time” feature. Just because the apps are available, doesn’t mean our current default behaviors are the best ways to use them or get what we want. By limiting my access to social sites, I created a pattern disrupt that allowed me to reach out to more friends, read more books, and go deeper into work that mattered.
Sarah K. Peck is an author and startup advisor based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family, and host of the Startup Pregnant Podcast.
I Ran 4 Experiments to Break My Social Media Addiction. Here’s What Worked.
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