At the moment I’m teaching an online course called Calm In the Storm, which is about finding peace in the midst of our turbulent and contentious times. I often benefit from teaching because it focuses my attention on particular aspects of practice, and as Seneca the Younger noted, “Men learn while they teach.”
This course has forced me to become more conscious of my relationship to the news, to social media, and the technology that delivers those things to me. And it’s this, more than anything I’ve said about mindfulness or equanimity, that’s had the most powerful effect on my sense of wellbeing over the last few weeks. In fact, the result of changing my relationship with technology, the news, and social media has been astonishing. I feel much calmer and more at peace than I did even just two weeks ago. I’m less anxious. I have more of a sense of clarity and purpose. I’m getting more done and consequently I’m feeling more of a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
Before I discuss what changes I’ve made, I want to say a little about my social media use, which is probably a little unusual. I’ve already been withdrawing a lot. I was a big Google Plus user, but Google is pulling the plug on that soon, and so I’m barely there these days. I’ve already withdrawn from Facebook since I find that there are too many argumentative people there. I recently stopped using Instagram, partly because it’s owned by Facebook (who can’t be trusted with personal information) and partly because I found that it my use of it was caught up with an unhealth desire to be acknowledged by means of “views” and “likes” and whatnot. So Twitter is the only social media service I currently use heavily. But you can probably apply what I’m going to talk about to any social media site.
Social Media Addiction
I had been finding myself spending too much time on Twitter. And it didn’t have a good effect on my emotional life. Much of the content there is fueled by outrage. The short format does not exactly encourage deep thought, and tends to promote sloganizing, blaming, shaming, and arguing.
My mind kept turning to Twitter over and over again during the day. I spent a lot of time reading discussions, and following links to articles that people had shared. I experienced FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out. If I’d been away from Twitter for any length of time, I’d feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Even while I was on the app or the website, I’d see those notifications of new tweets, and feel the need to what they were about. Click. Twitter is designed to be compulsive: you “like” and “share” counts on popular posts tick upwards as you watch, and notifications keep appearing to announce the arrival of new tweets. There are always new tweets.
My Twitter addiction overlapped with a news addiction. There’s a sense of crisis unfolding around us, both in my native Britain and in my adopted home, the US. It felt important on the one hand to stay informed, but also I was aware that the news can create anxiety, and anxiety can create a compulsion to stay in touch with the news. This is an unhealthy vicious circle.
So here are some steps I’ve taken to find some sanity and calmness in the midst of the current state of crisis.
Step 1: Reducing Access to the News
I get my news online. And again this can be compulsive, so I needed to reduce my access to that form of stimulation. (I don’t have cable or an antenna, so I already don’t watch the news on TV. When I’ve seen the TV news while visiting family, I’ve been shocked by how visceral, urgent, and unpleasant the experience is.) The Chrome browser on my iPhone had been creating a custom list of news articles that appeared every time I opened a new tab. I’d often spend too much time browsing those, so I switched off that feature. My phone came with the Apple News app installed, and headlines from that would appear in the notifications center. So I deleted that app. Both those changes have saved me a lot of time.
I still glance at the news. Often just reading the headlines and a brief description of a news story tells me what I need to know. The rest is needless detail. I do delve into some articles when they really interest me. Usually those are about science or psychology.
Step 2: Limiting Access to My Phone
I no longer sleep with my phone by my bed. It used to function as my bedside clock, and so it would be the first thing I’d touch in the morning. And as soon as I’d picked my phone up I’d be aware of emails, text messages, and app notifications that had come in overnight, so I’d get sucked into work and social media as soon as I woke up.
Now I charge my phone overnight in the living room, and leave my Apple Watch charging by my bedside overnight so that I can tell the time or set an alarm. If I didn’t have that I’d go buy myself a simple alarm clock, which would work just as well.
Step 3: Improving My Following Habits
I’ve often been astonished by the grace with which Chelsea Clinton and Cory Booker in particular deal with critics. They’re invariably kind. If there are more people like that, please let me know. I want to drink in and fill myself with their positivity. I’ve unfollowed or blocked people who I find are simply interested in attacking others, or who post nothing but insults. I deliberately choose to follow some people I disagree with, but not with the purpose of arguing with them; I just like to be exposed to a different way of thinking. I don’t want to exist in a bubble.
Step 4: Deleting the Twitter App
I wanted to cut down on my Twitter use, but it was remarkably hard to do so. I deleted the app from my iPhone, but I could still access it on my computer, or on my phone’s browser (I use Chrome and sometimes Safari). In fact Chrome on my iPhone had conveniently created an icon for accessing Twitter, because it was a site I visited often. Merely deleting the Twitter app didn’t make much difference in my usage. But it was an important thing to do in combination with the following two steps
Step 5: Blocking the Twitter Website On My iPhone
I wanted to make it even harder to access Twitter on my phone and I wondered if it might be possible to block an individual site. I discovered that it was. By going to Settings > Screen Time > Content and Privacy Options, I could toggle on the “Content and Privacy Restrictions” at the top of the screen. I could then, on the same screen, go to Content Restrictions > Web Content and tap on “Limit Adult Websites.” And then under “Never Allow” I could enter the URL for Twitter. Yes, I’m treating Twitter as if it were a porn site!
Now I can’t access Twitter on my phone at all, unless I undo those changes. But I don’t need it to be impossible for me to access Twitter. I just need there to be some friction in the process so that it’s easier to avoid it. If you’re on an Android device, I imagine there are similar settings.
This left my computer as the only way to access Twitter. Of course I’m on my computer a lot, so that had to be dealt with.
Step 6: Limiting Twitter On My Computer
Enter, Stayfocusd. This is a browser plugin for Chrome that allows you to limit the amount of time you spend on certain sites. It will even let you block them altogether. I decided to go with a 20 minute daily limit for Twitter. Once the 20 minutes has expired, I can’t visit the site at all, and just see a screen that says “Shouldn’t you be working?” You can’t extend the time limit once it’s expired. No cheating! (There’s an equivalent for Firefox and no doubt for other browsers too.)
This has led to me being much more selective in what I pay attention to on Twitter. I visit two to three times a day, and knowing that I don’t have much time I focus my attention on what seems particularly meaningful. I find that my mind now skips over snark and outrage, and tends to focus on more substantive contributions. I’ll open a couple of articles in new tabs, and then close Twitter.
Step 7: Reducing Other Notifications
Your brain is a hot commodity. Marketers spend billions of dollars to try to attract your attention, because attention is time, and time, as we know, is money. So in an effort to reclaim my attention, I’ve turned off notifications where possible. Essentially I’m down to silent email notifications (I don’t want to be disrupted while I’m working) and audible alerts for calendar events (since those are things I need to be interrupted by), text messages, and phone calls. When I really want to focus my phone goes on Do Not Disturb mode. Life on my phone is pretty quiet. It’s now 3:00 in the afternoon, and my phone tells me I’ve used it for a total of 16 minutes so far today.
From FOMO to JOMO
There have been some withdrawal symptoms. I’ve sometimes restlessly picked up my phone and stared at it, feeling the emptiness that comes when you expect to see something but find nothing. And for a while I felt drawn to check Twitter, over and over. But that is passing. This morning I found myself looking at my phone and thinking, You can’t bring me happiness. You’re a tool for me to use. My mind is not a tool for you to use.
The benefits have vastly outweighed the discomfort of these minor withdrawal symptoms. The results of these changes, as I’ve said, have been powerful. I’m much calmer, happier, and more focused. I’m getting more work done, which pleases me. I’ve also been reading more. I’m now almost finished a novel that I started about a week ago. That is satisfying. I feel that my mind is my own again. I feel free.
One of the participants in the course wrote, “Anything that stimulates my solar plexus when I read it, I am going to notice, breathe, then make a decision regarding whether this enhances or detracts from my quality of life. It feels good and empowering to be making these decisions.” Simple practice; deep results.
The changes that I’ve described have in fact had more effect on my wellbeing than my daily meditation practice. My daily life has more of the simplicity and joy of a meditation retreat.
Am I missing out? Yes. I’m missing out on stress, anxiety, and overstimulation. “Missing out” is wonderful. I invite you to join me, perhaps in some of the ways I’ve suggested, and perhaps in ways of your own, in moving from the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) to the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO).
- If you find this article helpful, perhaps you’ll be interested in making a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.
- And it’s still possible to enroll in my online course, Calm In the Storm. One couple who are participating wrote this morning, “Our mood and productivity is way up, as is emotional resiliency … We both thought that we would experience more withdrawal than we actually are, and are feeling more relief and release from the firehoses of negativity than expected.”