In the FT Weekend magazine this week, Tim Harford has set out his experiences with ‘rebooting’ his relationships with digital media and platforms. He logged out of Facebook and Twitter, closed down or deleted a wide range of distracting apps from his phone and carefully monitored how he used other information tools. I found his account of the benefits accrued and how he has sought to find a proper balance of what he really needs to connect to (he is an author and column writer after all) and what he can dispense with, insightful and very helpful; I have been doing something similar for around a month now.
The aspect of Tim’s account that really struck me was his use of behaviour economics to assess how his use of social media had an impact on his life. And right in the heart of that analysis is the idea of opportunity cost. What are we not doing when we are checking our phones, reading blogs, following click-bait, posting the same family pictures that only a handful of people will see? He gives a clear example of what he means. If offered a choice between a top-notch CD player that costs £1000 and one that is good but costs only £700 how do we decide which to purchase? It becomes a much easier choice when we think about a £700 player and £300 worth of CDs. I have also been thinking about the time freed by not checking my phone habitually. I think I have been more focused at work, and I have certainly found more time to read books and the magazines I subscribe to. Indeed, I’ve found I have recovered just simple thinking time: space in the day when I can pause and consider the best cause of action next for a tricky work problem without distraction, plan real world interactions with my friends, or just stop the busy-ness of life for a moment.
Tim points out that the period of abstinence from the digital melee is the opportunity to reassess how social media fit into our lives and to have a chance to step back and observe what things look like with them removed. What I have seen for myself is just how habitual it all is, the phone checking, the time wasting. But more I have seen how I search for ‘likes’ and retweets, rewards that someone has thought about for probably less then a second, and yet which can have an incredible disproportionate cumulative impact on well-being, both positive and negative, depending on whether they are there or not. There is a deep reward-craving-anxiety at the heart of it all that requires the hiatus of a ‘detox’ to appreciate. It’s not usually single post or pictures, it’s the long-term combined effect.
There is still a lot to explore and unpack here and I am still in the early stages of how all this will work out. As Tim discovered some things are essential for work, some things make life easier in a practical sense. But, I have come to see, as he has, that the vast majority of social media interactions are unnecessary, time consuming, and potentially troublesome. So far I have found largely only positive effects from being away from it all. Long may these benefits continue.