In the age of social media, what happens to the anti-social - or just the un-social - part of us, which may be our deepest part? Pico Lyer
You may have heard somewhere that it takes 21 days to change or form a new habit. It’s an interesting concept, but how much truth lies behind it?
In recent years, we have psychologist Jeremy Dean to thank for the assumption. His research did indeed find that on average, it takes 21 days to form a new habit. As long as all you want to do is drink more water. It doesn't stand up too well if you have a more challenging change in mind.
I recently took a digital break. I wanted to leave behind social media and the burning desire to check my emails every hour. I think I also wanted to understand more the impact social media and digital has on our lives, from a personal perspective. I've previously taken digital breaks, but only for a week and found it all too easy to slip back into old habits.
This time around I decided to take a break for a longer period. I decided to test the 21 days idea - well, 28 days to be exact. I wanted to see if I could reduce my digital attachment right down to its minimum and stick to it beyond my mini 'experiment'.
I learnt from my previous digital break that deleting apps from my phone was the most effective method to follow. I reinstated some of the other ground rules I’d set previously including:
Turning off notifications for my emails and messages
Allowing a set time once a day to check emails
Removing unnecessary apps (anything that I used as a boredom buster
The one thing I didn’t remove was Twitter. I know. I’m behind the times, but I do love Twitter - I use it to keep up to date with latest developments in my industry and network. I also run the Twitter account for one of the companies I consult for so I decided that Twitter could stay.
My first week went pretty much the same as my prior experience. Although I had removed apps from my phone, I still found myself reaching for it. I had to think very consciously about not turning to my phone as a distraction. Although I kept Twitter, I quickly realised it was becoming a bit of a crutch for all the other social media I’d removed.
I knew if this was going to be successful I had to up my game.
For my second week I decided to enlist some back up. I downloaded the app Moment.
If you’re not familiar with Moment it’s a handy little thing to have. Essentially it monitors your screen time and app use, and sends you a daily report for how much of your life you’re spending on your phone. Which can be equal parts enlightening and devastating.
I realised one of the problems I was having involved my awareness for how much I was turning to my phone. It was such an ingrained habit to pick up my phone and turn to one app or another for some distraction, that half the time I didn’t realise I was doing it.
With Moment, I could help build my awareness and then work on reducing the habit.
A nifty component of Moment is that it registers your phone ‘pick-ups’ - how many times you pick up your phone in a day. At the start of the week I was averaging around 48 pickups a day (!!!) by the end of the week I’d managed to get that down to the low 30s, but I still had some work to do.
It also has a free 7 day coaching program to help you proactively reduce your screen time. Each day it sets you little tasks and challenges. On day three I was told I had to delete my most used app, which at this point was Twitter.
After a brief mourning period, I deleted Twitter.
One of the hardest things about taking a digital break is getting other people on board with the fact you’re not currently using social media.
It’s quickly become the main way we communicate with friends and demonstrate our affection for them. Myself and my group will regularly swap memes, share cute outfit inspo we’ve found on Instagram, and tag each other in fun stuff to do. For three weeks I’ve had to deal with ‘Didn’t you see the photo I sent you?’ and ‘I left you a message on Facebook, why didn’t you reply?’
I’ll admit, it was making me want to cave.
Our digital lives are so ingrained with everything we do. It’s not just the way we communicate with our close circle, it’s also a valuable way to connect with new people and develop new friendships. As a freelancer who spends much of her time minus the everyday office environment, it was difficult to forego my substitute daily interactions.
On the plus side, I did notice that my work output has increased and I managed to finally finish a couple of online courses I’d been dwindling with.
So not all bad.
One of the reasons I took a break previously, was for emotional health benefits. I did some research for a client around mobile phone use, social media and young people and the results were alarming.
Although I consider myself to be a highly resilient individual, the more I was reading about young people’s accounts of how social media made them feel, the more I could identify with some of my own experiences and feelings.
A week off helped me break some of that negative emotional cycle, and so by week 4 on this challenge, I have to admit I’m feeling pretty chipper!
I’ve managed to get my phone picks up down to around 10-12 a day. At the start of this challenge, Moment was telling I spent between 3 and 4 hours a day on my phone. It’s now down to under 2 hours on weekdays, and less than an hour on the weekend.
I'm not concerned about comparing myself to others across social media. I feel much more positive and focused. It's a healthy place to be.
Before we jump ahead to celebrating the success of changing a habit within the 28 day time frame, let me throw some psychology at you.
The truth is, it takes so much more than a set time frame to change a habit.
In order to enact a change in your life you need a mixture of things:
Belief that you are capable to making the change.
Motivation that the change is going to benefit you.
Experience that acts as positive reinforcement to plough ahead with the change.
Psychologists know that habit change takes so much more than time, but time does play a key role in how we face change.
The key thing when looking at time as a factor, is to ensure you set realistic expectations. Getting over a painful break-up is always going to take time. Creating a new fitness habit is an equally challenging change to master. In both of these examples, it’s likely we will ‘fall off the wagon’ numerous times. But that doesn’t mean the change won’t come. As long as we believe it, are motivated to achieve it, and have positive reinforcement.
In terms of what happens next for me with my digital challenges, I’m hoping that some of the take-aways from this little challenge will stick. I’m confident they will and I’ve also set some new ground rules for the home for both me and my partner around our screen times.
I’m sure we’ll find other ways to fill our time.