Taking a conscious step back from social media/your cell phone/other technology

Last summer, I read a book called How to Break Up With Your Cell Phone in Thirty Days. It had a thirty-day plan I followed, where you took steps to address unhealthy cell phone behaviors and stop them. Then in September, I got off of social media (still used Facebook messenger, but no posting or reacting to other people’s posts).

I was just curious if anyone else had ever done something like that – essentially recognizing some unhealthy habits with technology and trying to replace them with better ones. What did you discover about yourself, and what did you learn?

These are the three things that stood out to me the most:

  1. Mistaking a hit of dopamine for a sense of fulfillment or happiness. I read about how heavy cell phone/social media use can lead to a sense of compulsiveness, where you’re constantly cycling through the apps on your phone looking for something new. You check your email to see if you have any new messages, then Facebook to see if anyone commented on your post, then YouTube to see if any of the channels you subscribed to have posted a new video, then Instagram to see if anyone liked your post there. Then you go back to your email, because maybe in the 45 seconds that you were checking your other apps someone emailed you. I realized that I was starting to get drawn into a mindless cycle that was eating up my time and wasn’t adding any value to my life.

  2. It was messing with my ability to focus on a topic and go in-depth. So much of the content on the Internet can be digested in just a few seconds, that it was starting to get harder to focus on something for more than a few seconds. I’ve always loved reading, but it was nice to see a way that reading could actually be a beneficial way to train my brain to focus, and not just something fun. Since I discovered this, I’ve been making an effort to not go on social media unless I have the time to sit down and absorb what I’m reading and properly respond to it. No sitting at a red light scrolling through a feed until the light changes. I’ve also started watching YouTube videos in full screen and waiting until the video is done to read the comments, because I noticed my attention would flit back and forth when I would try to simultaneously watch a video and read comments.

  3. I’ve paid attention to how much more fulfilling it feels when someone explicitly starts a conversation with you, or vice versa. If you’re having a one-on-one conversation with a friend and she tells you she started a new job, you can really dive into a good conversation where she talks about why she left her job, what she’s looking for in a new one, and just in general what she values and what direction she’s hoping to take her life in. You find out a friend switched jobs via a social media post, and you pretty much just Like it, say congratulations, and then the interaction is over. I’m trying to value and prioritize one-on-one interactions.

I have not read that book but I have engaged in the same self-enforced social media and frankly internet shutdown in my own time during the past eighteen months. Essentially ever since the Coronavirus pandemic began and working from home became the new routine it was finally an opportunity for me to do the self-reflection I had always said I would but never found the time and/or inclination to follow through.

Having to work from home is what kicked me into gear. I’ve always done my best to maintain as much a work/life balance as was possible. It is impossible to never have to take your work home with you but to the extent that at the end of the day I was free to unwind I did so. This meant after spending hours on the computer at work staring at charts and numbers, writing up reports and creating spreadsheets, responding to emails and waiting for emails, I would often go home just to get back on a computer for recreational purposes. Before the pandemic started it never subconsciously hit me hard enough that this was a poor way to live. Because before the pandemic subconsciously I had the work/life balance mentality whereby on a work computer I was doing what I was expected to do, what I was paid to do, what was my duty and responsibility as a professional. On my home computer I was doing what I wanted to do. And yet now I look back and feel that was a zombie lifestyle.

When the pandemic hit that all changed. Now my home computer became my work computer. And when my working day was over the last thing I wanted to do was stay on the computer. At that point it became an objective for me to turn off the wifi and find other hobbies and activities to do. Now I want to make clear I was never someone who spent all day behind a screen. I was always an avid reader. I went to the gym when I could and rode my bike outdoors several times a week. With my family I liked to go out to the park or the library or to just go outdoors and enjoy nature. With friends I’d like to enjoy drinks. But even if my level of addiction to sitting behind a screen was less than a lot of people it was still an addiction nonetheless.

So what I did was change habits. I used to commute to work using public transport and would carry whatever book I was reading with me to read on that journey and the return leg. This meant the time taken to read a chapter and ultimately complete a novel was a little lengthier than if I was allowed to be still because the movement of being among people was a constant distraction. Of course there are times when there were not many people so on those occasions I could go faster and without bother. However for the last year and a half I now set a target of trying to complete 50 pages a day of a particular novel which usually means for me reserving 90 minutes to reading. Doesn’t have to be all in one go. Mostly it is spread over the day. But it is a habit I am happy with. Other people are quicker readers but that’s usually what it takes me to finish 50 pages. This has proved successful and I mix up what I read much more than before whereas before I was primarily interested in a narrow set of subjects. For example I’ve always loved crime fiction and detective stories but now I also take an interest in historical fiction. I watch less TV to accommodate this. In fact I would rather read a great thriller from start to finish in one day than binge-watch a TV series. The amount of time is the same but reading is what gives me satisfaction.

I also have used the time freed up by not being behind a screen so much to devise some more household routines. When gyms were closed it became vitally important to maintain physical activity in the comfort of your own home. There are a load of fantastic exercise plans out there for you to follow inside your house or in your garden. Expensive equipment is not required. I happened to print off what is known as the 5BX plan which was used by the Canadian Air Force in the 1950s. It is not complicated at all and I found quite productive and became habitual because it was so easy to do in your own space at your own time. Obviously these exercises veer on the basic side and getting in a gym workout with the equipment and larger space is far more rigorous and effective for bigger ambitions however at that point in time there was not much alternative unless you wanted to set up your own little gym. I did not want to do that. I kept on riding my bike and going on a run after a while anyway but the 5BX plan is something I keep on doing.

I also decided to learn some new crafts. The thing about Youtube is you can watch others do something and sit in awe, like the video, subscribe for more. But how many of us are so inspired to take it up ourselves. My wife loves cooking and she is an excellent cook always exploring new recipes and cultures. I was always a little more basic. If I had a long day at work I would shrug my shoulders and resort to easy meals just because they didn’t take long or much effort. But with the time at home it was time for me to participate more and broaden out. And now I have the bug. I am more willing to make the time to prepare higher quality food, healthier food, better tasting and a variety of food because that is now something I consider fun. It took participating in it to like it. It took giving up something else to make up that time. The amount of time is the same but the satisfaction is far greater.

Similarly I liked to watch the Bob Ross tapes of him producing magnificent paintings (and his easy going, calm, fun commentary) but over the lockdown I decided to finally have a go at it myself. Firstly by following him then by just copying images from Google with no creative input on my own. But now I feel relatively confident I can freestyle to some degree and not make a mess of the canvas. As Bob liked to say, the painting is your world and in your world anything goes. And finally I’ve decided to get into old hobbies that faded away as I got older. When I was younger I was quite adept at chess and also liked to play card games with friends and also at a volunteering scheme where young people would spend time with elderly people at a home to give them company when their own family was too far away. I enjoyed that and it is something I would like to do again. Volunteering in general is a wonderful thing to do and particularly that kind of friendship based activity. So that is something I plan to venture more in. For now the one voluntary scheme I am in is something a little more practical and convenient because it is a once a fortnight bike repair scheme where a group of us working with a bike shop help out for a couple of hours in the morning with people whose bike needs fixing. This has been a venture I have been doing that predates the pandemic. Once a month we hold a morning event which is free for people to join us on a cycle journey across open spaces and natural parks. It’s great fun and I’d recommend anyone to get involved in volunteering because the friendships and skills you learn is priceless.

So that’s my response to this thread. I concur with everything OP makes in their three points. I think now with so much craziness in the world and negative consequences of the internet and social media particularly a little break will do everyone an enormous amount of good. I use forums like this much more than Twitter, Facebook and Instagram anyway as part of my online experience. I think those three sites are toxic and have done an awful lot to damage discourse and attitudes.

I agree with all of this; reducing the hours spent mindlessly clicking around on social media means more time to do other, more productive stuff.

One thing I want to add is the value in simply letting your mind wander. One quote in the book on How to Break Up With Your Phone that jumped out at me is “Creativity is often sparked by boredom, which is another mental state that our phones are great at helping us avoid.” I have been making an effort to resist reaching for my phone any time I’m in a situation that requires being alone with my thoughts for a few minutes – in line at the grocery store, for example, or sitting at a table in a restaurant while your partner has gone to the restroom. It does make me feel antsy (and sometimes I do cave in and take out my phone), but I also feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in training myself back to a point where I can be alone with my thoughts and feel content. There’s something soothing about not having to fill every stretch of time with some sort of distraction.

I’ve never engaged in social media like Facebook, Twitter or any other similar digital time sink. My worst social media habit over the years has been this message board, and while I’ve been away for extended periods from time time, I have been here more than not. That said I feel like the cost/benefit is delivering diminishing positive returns. I find myself more annoyed by pedantry/inanity than positively engaged and enlightened. I guess it’s run its course for me.

I miss that a lot. I just spent a week sailing, completely unplugged except the boat nav and the occasional text to provide status. It was hours of simply paying attention to the wind and sails and boat feel and whatever sundry thoughts would pop into my head. Add to that the pleasure of looking into the distance rather than some device at the end of my arms. Reading in the evenings was the only other entertainment to occupy my mind.

The irony of sharing this on social media is not lost on me.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had an unhealthy addiction to Risk Online. For two or three months it was soaking up all of my spare time and even interfering with my homework (although not extracurriculars, which involved going somewhere in person and thus were immune). I stopped that cold turkey by throwing it out with that year’s tashlikh.

Coincidentally that was the last tashlikh I remember participating in, as I shrunk from religious life around that age.

During my short stint in college I had an unhealthy habit of playing my electric keyboard. I would sit down to play and time ceased to exist. I might look at my watch and find that three, eight, twelve, or one time even sixteen hours had passed. At no point was it unpleasant, but I lost significant weight and missed classes (thus automatically failing).

The difference between then and now, is that I use an acoustic piano in the common area of the house. People in my household can hear me playing and I will notice when they say goodnight / shut off the lights, or call me to a meal / to make a meal, &etc.

Sometimes, I go into deep thought about some subject. Sometimes I stop thinking and imagine music. For me it’s always been one of the two. Both are pleasant.

But, if I am imagining music, and if I haven’t played recently enough (< 2wks), my hands will tend to mimic the art of piano playing. If/when I catch myself, it freaks me out.


I’ve loosely attempted to do so once or twice, but at least for me, I feel my unhealthy habits connected to my phone (or the internet in general) are mostly coping mechanisms to avoid changing other bad habits.

IOW, excessive time online feels more like a symptom than a cause.

The ease with which I can ignore my phone is directly corelated to things like: how connected/motivated I am with tasks on my plate, or how willing I am to connect intentionally with the people around me, or how much I am avoiding emotionally difficult chores or conversations.

Trying to manage phone usage without managing those other things is a sisyphean task (as an aside, for me, bad food habits follow a similar pattern).