Social Media Sabbatical
A few months ago I decided to try an experiment. It was a Sunday morning and the sun was starting to stream through the curtains as I gained consciousness, moving from dreams to reality. I rubbed my eyes and stretched my arms. I reached for my iPad — as I do every morning — about to open Twitter. I stopped. Why do I have to check Twitter as soon as I wake? “There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at a phone,” writes Craig Mod, “And yet so few of us choose to do so.” Can’t I have a few minutes to myself, before allowing the clutter of the stream into my mind? I had been feeling generally distracted, my mind scattered as I balanced teaching a few classes, producing a podcast, and getting a new studio up and running. My free time, I had noticed, was spent popping into Twitter to see the latest updates or mindlessly tapping on the newest Instagram Stories. The books next to my bed kept piling up yet for some reason I more frequently turned to Twitter. In that moment, I decided to stay off social media for the morning. I set the iPad down and picked up the book on my nightstand.
I got out of bed and made breakfast and coffee. I put some music on softly in the background. At lunch, I mentioned that I hadn’t been on Twitter all morning. Embarrassingly proud of myself, I decided to keep going. No Twitter the rest of the day. And the following weekend I pushed it further: no Twitter all weekend. Every weekend since, I kept pushing it further: Instagram was added to the banned list. I eventually added Friday nights: when dinner started, social media goes off. And it doesn’t come back until Monday morning.
I immediately started feeling its effects. I largely don’t miss it but I really notice it as Sunday afternoon turns to evening. It’s not a desire to come back, fantasies about what I might be missing, but a strange calmness. The mind feels quiet — it’s an absence of chatter, a missing noise, a detox for my mind.
My relationship with social media is complicated. I came of age in the early years of web 2.0. At the beginning of 2004, as a sophomore in high school, I set up my first blog. I diligently signed up for each new service as they launched. I joined Twitter in April 2007 — a few months before I graduated from high school — which means my entire adult life has been spent on the service. I tweeted through college, I tweeted about my first job, about going to graduate school.
And these interactions were almost entirely additive. I’ve met countless people I’ve since met in real life and consider friends; I got my first internship from someone I knew on Twitter; I got jobs because of Twitter connections; found apartments through Twitter. It’s been an invaluable promotional tool to get my work into the world. Too many of my career highlights would not have happened were it not for Twitter.
But over the last year, I’ve found the interactions not as nourishing as they once were. It feels more like a distraction now, instead of part of the work — a series of virtue signaling, lazy jokes, and assurance your followers know you saw the latest trending topic. The first thing I do when I wake up is look at Twitter and Instagram. I check them between projects, on breaks, while waiting for the train. It’s become too easy to put all the blame on social media. The President of the United States uses Twitter to bully and bloviate; trolls attack the underrepresented. Many people I respect have left the site altogether, their profiles a quiet ghost town. But these services, I think, are not inherently bad. It’s how we use them, our relationship to them, that can cause problems. It became a quick hit, an addiction I couldn’t quite curb. And something needed to change.
In his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes:
The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load.” When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information—when the water overflows the thimble—we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow. Because our ability to maintain our attention also depends on our working memory,—”we have to remember what it is we are to concentrate on,” as Torkel Klingberg says—a high cognitive load amplifies the distractedness we experience. When our brain is overtaxed, we find “distractions more distracting.” (Some studies link attention deficit disorder, or ADD, to the overloading of working memory.) Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data.
I felt like I could see the effects of social media on my brain. As a child, I could sit alone with a book for hours; watch a movie (or two!) uninterrupted. Summer days growing up were spent creating — painting, designing, drawing, writing — late into the night. Now that time was spend consuming.
I’d always been a curious child, someone who loved learning, but what happens when that information consumption becomes the goal and I’m left with nothing to do with it, unable to make sense of it all? To take back my attention, to curb this addiction, I realized had to put some limits on my social media intake. I couldn’t leave the service completely — it’s central to too much of my work. (It’s said that it was once a sign of privilege to be connected, but now the privilege is the ability to disconnect. We all have emails waiting for our replies.) In addition to my social media-free weekends, there’s now no social media until after lunch. Those few hours in the morning with a clear head — two write and to read, to think and to make — has become valuable creative time for me. Screens go off again an hour before bed.
There are apps that can help. I’ve installed Freedom on all my devices. Freedom allows you to block apps and websites (and the entire internet if you need it!) for set times. I have a recurring block each morning that doesn’t turn on social media until 1pm, giving me some semblance of control over where my brain goes.
Because these rules work for me doesn’t mean they’ll work for you. You might not feel the same way I do — I can only speak from my own experience. I know my weaknesses and these are my meager attempts at curbing them when I can. Attention is a muscle that needs to be trained, this is my workout.
I’ve long been interested in the Jewish tradition of Sabbath, the day of rest and the seventh day of the week in which they remember and reflect on the creation story from Genesis. In the story, God creates the earth in six days and uses the final day of the week to rest and reflect upon his creation. Sabbath is observed beginning at sunset on Friday evening until Saturday night during which they refrain from work and rigor, and engage in restful activity. The Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his 1951 book, The Sabbath: “The Sabbath does not simply come into being on Saturdays; the depth of its experience is created by how we behave the other six days.”
This is what I’ve noticed: in taking these weekend social media sabbaticals, it’s changed my relationship to the internet during the other five days. The weekends, now, are one again time of rest and reflection. When I open the app on Monday, my connection to it feels different — it’s immediately overwhelming. It feels frenetic, loud, cluttered. After a weekend with an emphasis on slowness and depth, Twitter and Instagram suddenly feel quick and shallow. I’m resistant to opening the Twitter app. I no longer feel the need to read everything. Where there once was FOMO, there’s now contentment. I can dip in and out when I please. I have my attention back and I feel, at least for a little bit, in control.