If the mere idea of quitting social media gives you what teens refer to as FOMO, or fear or missing out, listen up. Cal Newport makes an excellent case that you’ll be coming out ahead in his book Deep Work.
The Main Time Drain
Before we tackle social media, let’s start with that enormous time drain: email. Look back on your last full week of work, and including checking email at night, tally up how much time you’ve spent on email. How much of that time, if any, was truly productive? How often did you make something worthwhile and lasting versus take care of logistics?
Newport acknowledges that we can’t escape email, but we can set up constraints to protect ourselves. One counterintuitive suggestion he has is to do more work when you email someone. Newport asserts we can save ourselves time in the long run by putting more work in upfront.
For instance, rather than email back and forth about when to meet and what to talk about, send the person a short, specific agenda, along with several potential times and dates that you could meet. Or rather than forward an email to your colleagues with just “What do you think?” added at the top, craft specific questions and insights about the original message for colleagues to respond to. Doing this work upfront can save you several email exchanges that would fragment your time.
The more controversial advice he gives is to not respond at all if the email meets certain criteria. If 1) the email is vague, 2) it has nothing that interests you, and 3) nothing very good would happen if you respond and nothing very bad would happen if you don’t, then simply do not reply. The last criterion requires some judgment. However, the more you practice, the more you’ll get a feel for when not to reply.
Social Media: A Cost-Benefit Analysis
Newport proposes a radical experiment. He urges us to quit social media for 30 days and assess the impact. At the end of the experiment, we can analyze what we lost and what we gained. Based on those who’ve tried it, he suggests we will find our lives are more peaceful and productive without social media, and we will have missed out on very little of actual importance.
Such a strategy might not be possible for everyone. However, at the very least, we need to consider the cost and benefit of each and every piece of social media we use. He argues that the cost of social media is much higher than we realize: not only is there opportunity cost through time lost, but also our attention becomes increasingly fragmented. We lose the ability to concentrate deeply for long periods of time, which is essential to producing valuable work.
Thus, each tool we select, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, needs to fulfill a specific, worthwhile purpose. We should use this tool only for this purpose and not for entertainment.
One suggestion I’ll add to Newport’s is to practice mindfulness daily. Practicing mindfulness strengthens our attention, counteracting some of the ill effects of social media. (Be careful about mindfulness apps, however, as they can exacerbate some of the very problems they’re attempting to solve.) Mindfulness will also sharpen your awareness of what the true costs and benefits of social media are.
Although you don’t need to go cold turkey, try easing back on social media and email, and discover what a difference it makes.