The tipping point was 2008. I was content playing MMO RPG games from my large bedroom that I shared with my two brothers in our family home located in the back streets of Adana, Turkey.
We had one computer that we begged my father to buy for ‘homework’ and it quickly became our collective battle station. I fondly remember having Windows Messenger open with the entire clan IM-ing all night, raiding dungeons and looting crates.
This was quite the addiction in itself but it wasn’t until my friends in middle-school introduced me to Facebook, that I started to diversify my addictions.
Facebook was the whole package. I could IM people, I could post pictures, I could satisfy my lust for attention by writing things on my wall and having my friends ‘like’ it. And I loved it. I loved getting notifications about people liking my posts, comments and pictures, as well as seeing what others posted.
My video game addiction was still the heavy-weight champion though. Facebook was great for being open in the background and practically replaced Windows Messenger for chatting late at night. The other features it had was just a bonus for me.
It was just apart of my nightly ritual and it truly was an environment that I could divert my full attention to. The conversations that were had in that time, you would never hear in 2018. In 2008, my friends would say something like “I’ll see you on Facebook tonight” — as if Facebook was a virtual reality that we could hook into and enjoy each others company. Nobody ever says that anymore. Why is that?
The New World
Fast forward to early 2010. I’m now back in what I’d consider my home town of Gold Coast, Australia. After living in Turkey for a while, the culture shock was quite intense as I hadn’t been back in quite a long time. All the kids in High School had a thing called an iPod Touch? Some of the kids had the cooler iPhone’s.
Being the tech nerd I am, I always (for the past year) wanted a thin touchscreen phone, and before moving, the phone that was advertised in Turkey that I really wanted was some Nokia phone. I had no idea what an iPhone was.
You could download programs on this new thing from the phone itself! If I wanted any games on my old Samsung E250, I would have to go to some phone shop in Adana, pay the guy 2 TL (1 AUD at the time) per game and wait for him to hook my phone to the computer and download them onto my 512mb SD card. The iPhone on the other hand… it was revolutionary. I needed one.
Coincidentally, with no motif at all, I got a job that year… I started working and my take home was about $50 a week. An iPhone 3GS at the time, was $80 a month on a plan. I decided to make an ‘investment’ and get one by sacrificing 40% of my monthly income.
My gaming addiction had reached peak levels. Classic iOS games like Fieldrunners, Paper Toss and that classic car parking game became what I used my idle time for. Note that I said idle time, not free time.
The concept of idle time is how social media and mobile platforms took my addiction (and probably yours) to the next level. You see, Facebook for me like I said before, was an environment, a digital place where my friends and I would go to spend time and exchange bits of media. This slowly started to change…
Making The Switch And Embracing The New
Between 2010 and 2013, I started being introduced to more and more social media platforms. Social media had taken the center stage of my addiction. I slowly started to disregard the desktop versions of a lot of platforms. Twitter and Facebook had perfectly good in-browser applications but it was much more convenient to just use your phone. I mean, who could deny that?
I started using these apps on my way to school, in class, at recess, on the train and while talking to other people — Previously considered rude, now considered a part of the social standard.
This was just the beginning. Although I was using all of this, it seemed OK. I didn’t feel drained, I could multitask, my concentration and productivity seemed unshaped by my new behavior.
New apps started popping up like Instagram, Snapchat and the rest. I initially resisted jumping on the bandwagon but it became difficult when the rest of my social circle was using it. Sound familiar?
So I eventual found myself making a new folder on my phone. The folder that contained all the applications that were hindering my ability to effectively communicate with people. The folder that contained all the apps that halted the development of my interpersonal skills.
The folder that I named Social.
The Problem Materializes
Video games were fine, I would allocate some time to them. They had a clear start time and a clear end time. Social media on the other hand would just mesh into any idle time that I had. Social media had no beginning or end. If all the activities that took up my time were represented by billiard balls in a bucket that we’ll name time — social media was like pouring water in that bucket to fill all the empty space between the balls. Which may as well be the analogy for my life because it felt like I was drowning in all of this.
At this point I was in university. I had a Samsung Galaxy S4. The Play Store as well as the App Store were saturated with social media applications. Hundreds of copy cats, plenty of new concepts, all competing for my attention.
This competition fueled by the chase for millions of dollars in venture capital, potential for multi billion dollar exits and the data of billions of users made these applications optimize for addiction.
And that isn’t me trying to pitch good UX design as being addictive. I’m talking intricate habit-forming technologies, use of badges, sounds, streaks and algorithms to keep you coming back.
The Snapchat streak became my nightmare.
It had the four components of internal triggers mastered. Trigger, action, variable reward and commitment. All neatly packed into this feature.
I’d get a notification. *Ding* — Already instinctively reaching for my phone, I look and see that I’ve got a snap from someone. The addictive habit has already been triggered. To see the Snap I needed to tap on it. Once I tapped on it and saw it, I had already performed the action. Not only that but this chained a number of other actions. I was then compelled to reply because not only has the person seen that I’ve opened and viewed the snap, but I have a streak with this person. I need to keep that going, because heaven forbid I lose that fire emoji with that number next to it! And the smiley face or heart emoji! I need to keep that! That’s my reward, for this commitment.
I want to vomit thinking about it. It got to the point where people were sending no interesting photos at all. Literally photos of emptiness with the word ‘streak’ as the caption. So much so that Snapchat caught wind and decided to make stickers for this purpose…
The Problem Peaks And The Solution Arises
I’m a university graduate now, working full time and wondering where all my personal time is disappearing. Sure the 40 hour work week is converting huge chunks of my time on this planet into currency but what about the rest of my time? I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t know where it was going.
The realisations began when I felt that my brain was turning into mashed potatoes. I couldn’t concentrate. Meditation, exercise and great food will undoubtedly push you so far in the right direction that it’s impossible to not improve, but when you’re checking your phone every few minutes, a few things happen.
- You never achieve a state of deep work. Your attention is always broken and divided, cutting into productivity and fucking with you in unforeseen ways.
- You stop being observant of the world around you. You’re on the bus ride to work, you’re in the middle of a conversation, you’re on a stroll, all the while not paying any attention. You miss out on noticing opportunity. You miss out on developing a stronger emotional/social intelligence. You become stuck in a world that isn’t real.
- You stop thinking. The mind wondering and natural curiosity is a blessing to the human species and here you are, avoiding all of that and looking at your screen, browsing through content that really isn’t that interesting, funny or relevant. Look up, it’s a beautiful day .
- You become drained and lazy. Aimlessly browsing Facebook or Reddit will take it’s toll. Eye strain, mental fatigue and the realisation of ‘Where the fuck did my day go?”
You might as well replace ‘You’ with ‘Me’ because this was exactly what happened to me. And I needed to have this realisation and I needed to re-engineer my behaviour for this to stop. So what did I do?
Firstly, I didn’t delete all my social media accounts and revert back to the stone age. This isn’t the solution. As addictive as they are, that’s only due to the way they’re engineered, hence the term “re-engineering behaviour.” To make use of them, you have to break the Internal Triggers that are so eloquently engineered into each application.
Secondly, I made a list of all the useful things about each social media application that was taking up my time.
Facebook — Messenger for IM communication, Events for real world activities, Videos for occasional entertainment.
Reddit — News, Education related subreddits and Entertainment related subreddits.
Linked In — Professional development/networking, job browsing and articles.
Instagram — Keeping updated with friends and content creators (questionably useful).
Snapchat — Entertainment.
Twitter — News.
Thirdly, I individually devised ways to extract these benefits and throw away the rest through deliberate changes to my behaviour.
For instance, the various feeds of Facebook, Linked In and Twitter were useless to me. The notifications were addictive and the easy access through my phone caused me to constantly go back to these. I wanted to rid myself of this behaviour. So the golden rule arose. If there was a desktop alternative for the application in question (barring Messenger), I’d delete the mobile application. I would have a specific time in my day where I would use the application on my computer and that would be the end of it. Boom, Facebook just got knocked back to 2008 and the rest followed suit.
I would still see all the events I wanted to see, the news I wanted to read and the networking I wanted to take part in. But the quick access was demolished, boundaries were set, and what became the water in the bucket, became billiard ball aka. a specific chuck of time dedicated to the useful things.
For this to happen I had to delete the mobile apps initially. Once you get in the groove and have some discipline, you can re-download them, bunch them all up in a folder, name it ‘anti-social’, turn off notifications, and treat them like desktop alternatives. If you don’t have the discipline, just don’t.
Other rules were placed on apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Messenger. Some examples:
- If you want to consume stories/snaps/Instagram photos, have a specific time to do it.
- Bulk reply to messages on Messenger. If it’s a back and forth, the point of Messenger is gone and it’s a real time conversation. Call.
- Only Snap things that are genuinely interesting or funny — Ignore streaks, if you find you can’t, take a break every 2 days.
- Don’t use Snapchat for chatting unless it’s a part of your entertainment time.
Fourth and finally, I broke down my passive mobile phone behaviour and made it deliberate.
How many times do you reach for your phone when you don’t even have a reason to do so?
Every time I reach for it now, I stop, I think about why I’m reaching for it. Is there a specific reason? Do I need to check something? Am I trying to avoid being idle? I think about the thing that I’m going to do and then I either proceed or put my hand away.
Quite similar to thinking of what you want from the fridge before opening the fridge.
This will take time, but if you do it, I promise you will feel clarity in your thinking. You’ll enjoy deeper work, you’ll appreciate entertainment and you’ll suddenly realise how much time you really have.
It took me 10 years of bad behaviour and realisations to get to this point. Making the change didn’t take all that long. It’s still a gradual process but it works.
What’s the rest of your 2018 going to look like?
*Lifts head up from phone*
“Shit, it looks pretty good” — You