“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”
This observation from Blaise Pascal, often quoted in our social media era, is all the more impactful when you consider he wrote it in the 1600s. It captures one of the challenges of the human condition – our need for constant distraction.
When I first tripped over Pascal’s insight while reading through a book about Pascal’s Pensées, I had to laugh. How did people without mobile phones or televisions distract themselves in 17th century France? Perhaps they said “I need to go out and check on our horse again”, or “I’m going to see what the candle-maker is up to”.
In our own era, the unquenchable need for distraction is as apparent to us as it was to Pascal.
In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport builds upon his earlier book to further explore the advantages of reducing our reliance upon the greatest distraction engines of all time: social networks. It is well known that the currency the social media companies vie for is our attention. Everything is created to hold our attention for as long as possible, during which time data is collected and ads are presented. How many of us are guilty of mindless scrolling, feeling as powerless to stop as it is for some people to say “no” to the next drink?
The social media companies know how to gain, hold, and manipulate our attention. The red “notification alert” you see on your social media feed isn’t that color by accident. It’s been proven to attract your attention and lure you to action.
I subscribe to Newport’s blog, and thought I’d pass along this comment from one of his readers. Background: in the book, Newport advocates a 30 day program of complete digital detox (with some allowances for work), after which users can re-enter some limited social media usage, but the idea is that they will have used the quiet time before re-entry to really think about which behaviors they wanted to continue, and which ones they would no longer continue.
As related here by Newport, a young guy named Mike wrote him to report on his newly adopted “AOB” method to address his OCD screen scrolling while on a plane:
He deployed what he called the “AOB method” with his phone (as in “Airplane mode, Off, and in my Bag”), to force himself to regularly be alone with his own thoughts and start getting in touch with what he cared about, what he was missing, and, most importantly, what he wanted to do with himself.
Reducing our social media usage is often a process of tricking ourselves. As I have written about before, I banished my Twitter app to the Siberia of my mobile phone (buried several screens away from my home screen) and that had an amazing impact.
Here’s another odd little trick I’ve adopted when I have to open Twitter to post something but want to make sure I don’t stay on Twitter: I try to post and close the app within one breath. So I open the app, take a deep breath, and type my post and then close the app. Sometimes I need to take a second breath, but the point is that I’m aware that I’m on the clock and need to move it along.
I deleted my mobile Facebook app back during the Cambridge Analytica debacle, but have now also taken to logging out of Facebook when I’m not using it. Below is an excerpt from an article by a writer who got logged out of Facebook:
So when Facebook kicked me out of every session I was logged into, I discovered this weird thing where, if I didn’t log back in, I didn’t feel compelled to check it at all. I wouldn’t even notice that I wasn’t checking it. Turning off all push notifications on my phone creates the same effect. I’d occasionally check it on my personal computer and find notifications I’d missed from days or weeks ago.
As pathetic as it sounds, it was surprising that I could go entire days without checking Facebook, revealing how much the service plays a truly unnecessary role in my life.
I’m not a super anti-social media guy. I believe they have incredible value if properly used. But we all need to be intentional about it, and allow time – as Pascal suggested – to sit alone with our thoughts. If you’re looking for some good books to read during your (newly acquired) free time, please visit a list of books I love here.