“We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.”
– Justin Rosenstein, The Social Dilemma
In the United States, 2020 is a presidential election year—a vote that’s happening this week, in fact … which would seem to be news only to somebody who didn’t have access to the Internet or wasn’t alive yet!
The entire world is still mid-pandemic, and there’s no shortage of natural disasters and social upheaval wherever you turn.
The point is, it doesn’t take very much time online to feel battered by the information flying at you.
And it isn’t just the news. Over 70% of Americans use social media, and that’s according to a Pew research poll taken in 2019—before COVID made online socializing the best option for many.
We all know that social media is highly addictive and deeply unsatisfying. But that doesn’t stop us from spending an average of 3 hours a DAY scrolling through our Facebook newsfeed, anyway.
Which is why we feel much busier than we truly are.
But there is good news—you have choices and the ability to do something else.
At any moment, you can choose to reclaim your time and attention. You can choose to make your attention intentional, rather than a commodity to be exploited by Silicon Valley tycoons.
Here are three simple ways to take back your life starting today, and free up time to focus on the things that matter.
#1: PRACTICE I.F. (INFORMATION FASTING)
Intermittent fasting is a popular diet craze these days. That’s because it’s one way for the body to recharge its batteries. It’s like hitting the reset button on your digestive system.
As anyone who’s ever gone too long without restarting their computer knows, finding a way to reset every once in a while keeps your systems running the way they should.
Take the same approach with your intake of information, whether it’s real-time news from major outlets or updates on how much your cousin’s best friend’s sister loves essential oils.
Your body isn’t the only temple—your mind is one, too.
This is different from “checking out.” I’m not suggesting that you necessarily avoid all news, or all social media … although you could. Handled correctly, both can be powerful and even positive tools.
And if the idea of a digital diet appeals to you, check out my friend Daniel Sieberg’s book.
Either way, when you’ve reached a point of diminishing return, it will help your anxiety levels considerably to take a day or two off from policing the news.
But when you’ve reached a point of diminishing return, it will help your anxiety levels considerably to take a day or two off from policing the news.
Put down your phone, and pick up a book instead. Go outside. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
Pick a day or two each month—or, even better, each week—when you will go on a news fast, and stick to it.
#2: BE YOUR OWN GATEKEEPER
There’s still COVID news every day, of course, but the truly new information is rare. For the most part, we know everything we need to know: COVID is still around, we should wear masks and wash our hands, and it will be a while before we can hug strangers again. If you were into that kind of thing in the first place.
This means that you really don’t have to urgently read anything. Don’t fall prey to that classic nightly news trick: “What’s a common item in your home that is probably harming you right now? Watch at 7 to find out!” Apple News might be sending you notifications, but that doesn’t mean they need your attention.
Believe me—if there’s a COVID cure, or any other huge news, you’ll hear about it.
So be the “gatekeeper” of what enters your brain, and streamline how you handle these kinds of distractions as they arise.
One great method is batching. Save all those pings and notifications until you have 20-30 minutes to review them—making sure to pick a moment that’s healthy for you—and do it all in one go.
It takes an average of 23 minutes to recover from a single interruption, so batching these kinds of tasks means that we lose just one 23-minute block of time rather than several.
For more tips on how to declutter your social media feed to minimize distraction, check out this post.
#3: FILL THE VOID
Here’s the thing about reflexively checking our newsfeeds. Over time—and less time than you might think—it becomes addictive.
And yes, I mean addictive in the same way that alcohol or cigarettes are addictive.
Studies have shown that a ping from your phone, like the kind you get from a text message or a social media notification, causes the brain to release that feel-good chemical: dopamine. This is the same chemical released when we smoke, or savor that sugary dessert.
I’m not bringing this up to lecture you like a sitcom dad in the 90s. But you should know up front that however you choose to remove those distractions in your own life, they’ll leave a void.
Nature abhors a void.
Like an alcoholic reaching for a drink because their body has been conditioned that way, you’ll find yourself yearning for just a quick peek.
You can stop any time you want, of course. It’s just that today you forgot that it was your niece’s birthday, so you need to check in and wish her happy birthday on Facebook, or you’ll ruin her life. And you haven’t checked that puppy cam lately … You’ll start tomorrow.
Plan in advance to replace unconscious clutter with inputs you consciously choose, so the unconscious choices don’t sneak in the back door.
And while you’re at it, make those inputs positive, constructive ones.
That could mean playing a game with your family, researching volunteer opportunities in your area, reading a book you enjoy, or reviving an old hobby. Whatever you choose, decide ahead of time what you’ll choose instead if you feel the urge to scroll.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. So plan ahead, and take your detox one step at a time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not enough to simply “unstuff your attention.” Decluttering your digital life is only half the battle. The other half is filling that empty space with something meaningful.
Even fasting from social media once a week will net you up to 3 hours of time to practice an instrument, write that novel, or play with your kids.
Meaningful activity means something different to everyone, and yes—news and social media have a place in a meaningful life, too.
But they are not the only way to connect and add meaning to our lives, and too much can have a decidedly negative impact on our mental health. If we aren’t careful, we can lose control over our attention altogether.
Social media companies are counting on it.
Want one more way to keep overwhelm at bay? Join us for a 90-minute masterclass on Wednesday, November 11 that will transform your relationship with technology AND get you back in control of your digital life.