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Stop wasting time on social media with these three strategies

Cal Newport is the author of four books, including the just published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Assistant professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, he created the concept of ‘deep work’ on his popular blog, Study Hacks. He has never had a social media account.


If you suspect that you might be better off spending a little less time checking your social media accounts, here are three strategies to help you break the habit.


1. Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Most social media tools come with some benefits – otherwise we wouldn’t feel the pull to spend so much of our time and attention using them. But that’s not to say that it’s worth it. To figure out what the costs and benefits actually are, grab a pen and paper. Make a list of the high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life. If you have a family, for example, your personal goals might involve parenting well and running an organized household. In the professional sphere, if you are a professor, you might pursue two important goals: being an effective teacher and mentor to your graduate students, and being an effective researcher.


You should now have a small number of goals for both spheres of your life. Next, list the two or three most important activities that support those goals – for example, a writer with the goal of authoring books that change people’s understanding of the world might say, 1) researching and 2) taking time to write every day.


Once you have your key activities, consider the network tools you currently use. Ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activities. Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if it has substantial positive impacts, and that these outweigh the negative impacts.


2. Take a Social Media Holiday

This strategy asks that you pause the social media services that you currently use for thirty days. Yes! Completely ban yourself from using Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on. Don’t formally deactivate these services, and don’t mention online that you’ll be signing off: Just stop using them, cold turkey.


After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you quit:

  1. Would this month have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did anyone care that I wasn’t using this service?


If your answer is ‘no’ to both questions, quit the service permanently.


3. Stop Using the Internet to Entertain Yourself

This strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead decide in advance how you want to spend your free time. Social media, and especially addictive websites – you know which ones! – thrive in a vacuum: If you haven’t given yourself something to do in a given moment, they’ll always beckon as an appealing option.


It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. A set program of reading, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is a good option, as are exercise or catching up with friends (in person). At this point you might worry that adding such structure to your relaxation will defeat the purpose of relaxing, but in my experience, this is not a real danger. If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.


Adapted from Deep Work by Cal Newport