My posts over the last few weeks have centered around the theme of getting rid of the distractions in our lives so that we can give more focus, both in quantity and quality, to the things that enrich our lives. In the last two posts, found here and here, I’ve used Cal Newport’s best-selling book, Deep Work, to present the argument that removing distraction and engaging in deeper concentration leads to more meaningful and content life and to provide some strategies on how to accomplish that goal. This week, I’m sticking with Newport to take on a topic that is vigorously defended by many users: social media.
Let me get this out of the way at the beginning, lest anyone walk away with the wrong impression: I am not saying that everyone should stay away from social media, that social media is not manly, that social media ruins your life, or that social media has no value.
Lest anyone be confused, here’s the message I want to convey today: our use of social media should be thoughtfully evaluated.
Unfortunately, as Newport points out in Deep Work, most people give no thought to their use of social media, e-mail, or the Internet in general. Instead, we just use them wherever, whenever, and however we wish, believing that because they represent advanced technology, they are good. This mode of unrestricted and mindless use of these technologies is the cause for so much of the “dependence on distraction” that I mentioned in my last post. We are cognizant that our social media news feeds and timelines are updating constantly, that our e-mail inbox is receiving new messages frequently, and that our favorite websites are updating regularly. As a result, we feel a constant pull to check those updates.
For some of us, the pull is one of obligation. We know that any new e-mail or social media update may be connected to our job, so we feel the need to stay connected to any developments and issue any needed response in a prompt manner.
For most, however, the pull is one of anticipation. In this post, I referenced how we feel the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). We anticipate that, at any moment, we could find that one cool person, post, or group on social media that will change our lives for the better. We anticipate that, at any moment, we could get that one e-mail from a client or boss that will make (or break) our careers. And we don’t want to miss it.
And the people running these social media sites are not stupid or naive. They have designed their sites to be addictive. They’ve studied human psychology to find every trick that will keep us coming back. Think about it, the first thing we look for when opening our social media is our notifications. We long to see those red numbers on Facebook or the blue numbers on Twitter, indicating that someone has responded to us in some way. Those notifications release dopamine inside our brains, making us feel good. In fact, research shows that our brains react in these situations similarly to if we were getting a hug. And despite what they say, most people like getting hugs. So we keep returning to these sites to get our hugs, just like the designers planned for us to do. They are the puppet masters, so guess what that makes us . . .
So, please recognize that when we use social media without thought and without restriction, we’re doing just what those sites were engineered to do: create addicts who mindlessly return time after time for hours on end. Now, that being said, the motivations of the designers of a product are not necessarily relevant to whether those products make our lives better or worse. In fact, my goal today is not to convince you that social media makes your life worse. Those types of sweeping generalization are rarely helpful.
Instead, my goal is to help you to recognize the deep pull of those technologies (because they were designed to have that pull) and to convince you to reconsider your use of those technologies so that your use is based on a calculated decision, rather than just mindless. That’s where Newport comes in.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Social Media
Newport points out that most people adopt what he calls The Any-Benefit Approach to social media and other websites that provide little substance but eat up significant amounts of time. The Any-Benefit Approach justifies the use of social media “if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it”. In other words, if the site provides any benefit at all, there’s no reason not to use it, since some benefit is better than no benefit.
The problem with the Any-Benefit Approach is that it only considers one side of the equation: the benefits. The assumption is that there are no costs associated with its use. While its true that there are no direct financial costs to most social media use, there are costs, with the two primary costs being time and attention.
There’s an old saying time is much more valuable than money, since time is finite and irreplaceable. You can often make more money, but you cannot make more time. While that notion is a bit simplistic and ignores some nuance, it makes the valuable point that not all costs in life are financial. In this day when everyone feels so rushed (see this post) and no one has the time to everything he needs to do, our time is more valuable than ever. According to a 2017 study, the average person will spend two hours a day on social media, which calculates out to over five years of his life.
What’s more, as we’ve learned over the last couple of posts, our attention is also a limited resource. We cannot spread it around willy-nilly and expect it not to be diminished or depleted. No, just like time and money, our attention is a resource that must be managed, lest we waste it on insignificant things. Because there are costs to using social media, the Any-Benefit Approach makes no sense.
The Craftsman Approach
The better approach to social media according to Newport is the Craftsman Approach. The Craftsman’s success is dependent upon his tools. Social media is nothing but a tool, a device that is effective for some purposes, but is not for others. A hammer is fantastic for fastening and removing nails, but it’s not much help in cutting a board. The Craftsman evaluates which tools are crucial to his success and which are not, and will adopt a tool only if its positive impact on his goals substantially outweighs its negative impact.
This, Newport argues, is how we should approach social media. We should do a careful analysis of whether the particular site (tool) provides a substantial benefit to our goals in life. If so, then we should use it. If not, then we should scrap it. The hard part, as Newport points out, is figuring out your core goals and measuring whether and to what extent they are enhanced (or not) by social media. Newport suggest three strategies to help figure it out.
Strategy No. 1 – The Law of the Vital Few
The Law of the Vital Few is typically referred to as The 80/20 Rule or The Pareto Principle. It’s based on the findings of an Italian economist who discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. Over time, researchers in other disciplines have noticed that roughly 80% of results come from 20% of inputs. For example, 80% of a business’ income comes from 20% of its clients. Newport reminds us of this principle in order to remind us that 80% (the vast majority) of our goals will be accomplished by 20% (a small minority) of our activities. So, the key is to double-down on that small minority of activities that produces the largest return.
In order to do that, Newport suggests that we identify our core goals, both personally and professionally. For each core goal, we then identify the key activities that support that goal. We don’t identify every activity that supports it, but rather the key activities. Once those key supporting activities are identified, we can proceed to attempt to evaluate whether our chosen tool (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) substantially helps, substantially hurts, or has little impact on the activity. Let’s use the example of someone looking to build friendships with other men.
Personal Goal: Build friendships with other men with similar values and interests.
Key Supporting Activities:
- Find other men with similar values and interests
- Spend time with those men
Let’s begin with the first activity, finding other men with similar values and interests. Social media is a great tool for finding others who share your values and interests. Facebook is full of groups that bring individuals together around certain shared interests: those who love certain sports or sports teams, those looking to improve their training and nutrition, those trying to be better fathers, those trying to build a business, and those generally seeking to improve their lives. Likewise, you can curate those you follow on Twitter so that your timeline is filled with those who share your interests and values. So, both tools can have a substantially positive impact on your ability to find men with similar interests and values. As a result, those tools should be used for that purpose.
Let’s now turn to the second supporting activity, spending time with men who share our interests and values. While Facebook and Twitter can both help us find such men, our ability to spend time with such men is limited on both networks. We can exchange messages with other men and get to know them a bit. However, online tools do not allow us to spend time with others in person, face to face. Yes, I understand Skype, FaceTime, and other such technologies allow us to see the person to whom we are speaking. This makes those technologies superior to text messaging, e-mail, and social media for building a relationship. However, when it comes to friendships, online interactions are a poor substitute for person-to-person, face-to-face interaction. See my post on Internet Friends for further discussion.
So, our evaluation reveals that Facebook and Twitter have limited value in our ability to spend time with friends who share our interests and values. As a result, our use of those tools for such purposes should be likewise limited. We should use those tools to find individuals who share our interests and values AND who are close to our geographic proximity.
Once we have located such individuals, our time and attention would be better used to meet up with them to have coffee or lunch, to work out, or to do some other activity together, as these person-to-person interactions have a much higher yield when it comes to building friendships. Our spectrum on this topic would be in-person interactions > Skype/FaceTime > phone calls > text messages > e-mails > social media likes/comments. Thus, the person in our hypothetical would join Facebook groups to find men nearby that he’d like to get to know better. From there, he’d take the interactions offline. He’d keep a Facebook account or Twitter profile, but his use would be very limited and would not involve constant scrolling throughout the day or for significant periods of time.
This kind of thoughtful, considered, and limited use of social media ensures that the person is using social media to achieve his goals, rather than merely being used by social media designers for their goals. What’s more, the limited nature of the use ensures that he won’t live “dependent on distraction” as a result of social media.
Strategy No. 2 – Take a Break from Social Media
Newport’s second strategy for evaluating whether social media is needed in your life is based on a strategy used by an individual, Ryan Nicodemus, who felt he needed to simplify his life. Nicodemus packed all of his belongings up in boxes. He then carried on with his normal routine. Every time he needed something, he unpacked it, used it, and put it back where it used to go. At the end of the week, realized that the vast majority of his stuff was still in the boxes. So he got rid of it.
Newport suggests we adopt a similar strategy to find out whether we “need” social media. The protocol is to simply stop using all social media for 30 days. Don’t delete your account or announce that you’re taking a break, just do it inconspicuously. After 30 days without, ask yourself the following questions:
- Would the last 30 days have been noticeably better if I’d used (the particular social media tool)?
- Did people care that I wasn’t using (the particular social media tool)?
If your answer to both questions is no, then there’s no reason to use the tool further. If you’re not sure about your answers, you should think hard about continuing to use the tool, as you’re not able to identify a clear benefit (and there are clear costs, in terms of both time and attention). This strategy, Newport argues, brings “a dose of reality” to our fear of missing out. For most, the month with social media will reveal that we haven’t missed it and it hasn’t missed us. If that’s not the case for you, then you can always start using it again, but this time you will do so because of an identified benefit that it gives you.
Strategy No. 3 – Find Better Entertainment
Newport’s final strategy is very simple: stop using social media, the Internet, and your smartphone to entertain yourself. This jibes with his earlier admonition to embrace boredom, but it goes a bit deeper. To embrace boredom is to reject the pull to check our phone, scroll through social media, or surf the web every time we lack other stimuli, whether it’s standing line, pumping gas, or drinking our coffee. Instead, we should take those times to let our mind wander, to observe our surroundings, to ponder and reflect. This is especially important for men because of our need to be aware of our situation; it’s hard to protect others when we get surprised by the attack.
But Newport is arguing for something even more in this strategy; he’s calling us to make a better use of our leisure time than just scrolling through social media or reading a random website. Instead, we need to use these times on activities that will help us to both recover our attention (i.e. low stimulus activities) and think more deeply. His suggestions: structured hobbies or set reading plans. This does not mean that you don’t leave room for spontaneity; it simply means that you don’t just float mindlessly towards whatever catches your attention.
Instead, use your leisure time to exercise, to spend time with friends and family, to read interesting books, to hunt, etc. It may very well be that part of your structured reading is web-related, as it makes sense to take advantage of the plethora of information out there. However, these sessions should be focused and you must remain vigilant not to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere, as you will be sure to encounter ads begging you to “Find Out What Jennifer Aniston Looks Like Now!” or “20 Celebrity Pics That You Won’t Believe!”, or something similar.
This is valuable advice for all of us that talk about things we’d like to do, then cop out by saying “I don’t have time.” If we’re like the average person who spends two hours a day on social media, we can free up a significant amount of time by simply staying away or limiting our time there (Yes, this is the nuance to the idea that you “cannot make more time”). So, if you’re spending significant amounts of time on social media but aren’t lifting weights, reading, spending time with your kids, going on dates with your wife, writing the book you want to write, or starting the business you want to start, you need to look in the mirror and admit the truth: you’d rather scroll through other people’s minutiae than do those things.
I’m thankful for the benefits and conveniences of technology. I’m glad to be able to communicate quickly with friends, family, clients, and business associates. I’m thankful that GPS systems supplement my wayward sense of direction. It’s nice to be able to send, revise, and receive documents electronically. I love being able to get music that I like on demand. I appreciate the loads of information that is at my fingertips. All these things are wonderful. But we must recognize that they come with a risk: the risk that we will use technology to satisfy our perpetual craving for novelty and excitement, thus leaving us in a constant state of distraction. Such a life is not satisfying, as it cannot bring us the deep meaning that men desire.
Social media is an especially guilty culprit in our quest to free ourselves from distraction because it is constantly updating and attempting to notify us of its presence. What’s more, it carries identifiable benefits: “I’ve been able to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in years” or “I’m able to meet people who share my love of ___________”. But these benefits are often, upon careful consideration, quite minor and insignificant to what actually makes us happy in life. They don’t give us the deeper connections that we need to obtain honor among men who actually know us. As a result, our use of social media should be carefully considered. There is likely no one reading this who would not benefit by living his life more in the real world and less in the digital world. Breaking free from the social media trap is a huge step in that direction.
So, I encourage you to consider your use of social media. If you are not sure of its value in your life, give the strategies suggested above a try. For many, reducing the role of social media will make your life richer, deeper, and more meaningful. This is the man’s life.
Because men everywhere need encouragement and direction, our message needs to be spread far and wide. I’d really appreciate it if you’d use the buttons below to share this article on social media. Together, we can help men find a better life experience. When men thrive, families and communities thrive. I hope you’ll join me. Godspeed.