Fire with Fire: Use Technology to Break Your Social Media Habit

The Problem

Maybe I just have a more addictive personality than I'd like to admit, but I feel like I can't be the only one who has been in this situation: you're humming along, knocking out items on your to-do list, or maybe researching something on the web. You've just completed a task, or you hit a lull in your browsing... and then it just seems to happen automatically.

Open new tab. Type in (or Twitter, or Reddit, or whatever your drug of choice is). Tap the enter key.

A half an hour later - or longer, depending on how deeply these services have burrowed into your subconscious - you stumble out of the haze of frivolous political arguments, pictures of peoples' food/vacation/cats, and pithy but ultimately inconsequential observations - you're lost and confused, like some 19th century sailor who had a few too many to drink in port and wakes up in an opium den on the other side of the world.

Congratulations: you've been shanghaied by social media.

The Acceptance

If the above sounds familiar, it's important to recognize that there's nothing inherently bad about social media, just as there's nothing inherently bad about television, ice cream, or a bottle of scotch. It's up to you to choose how you engage with the world around you - including those things that can be fun to overindulge in, in the moment at least.

And make no mistake - social media is one of the most ingeniously designed addiction machines ever devised. There is a whole profile of you that's been built up over time, based on your browsing habits, shopping habits, the types of emails you receive and read... the list goes on.

And all of that data is used to try and pull you into a never-ending reward loop, feeding you the stories that they know will keep your attention.

But as I said above, social media is not bad by itself - it's in many ways a marvelous invention, just like the rest of the web.

You can be instantly connected to anybody around the world. You can gain insight into entire communities and cultures that you might not ever interact with in person. For better or for worse, the whole world (or at least, a representation of the world) is right there on the other side of your screen.

So maybe you recognize that social media is eating into your free time, or distracting you from getting things done, but you don't want to just shut down your accounts. You've got a little database of old friends, family members, and other acquaintances that you'd prefer to keep handy, or maybe you've got an online community or news source that you really do like to keep up with - you just need moderation, nothing drastic.

The Remedy

The trick is to redirect your undesirable behavior towards something constructive. And this redirection has to be automated - you can't be trusted to remember.

Fortunately, there are many browser extensions and other tools out there to help you.

I personally am a fan of LeechBlock. Here's how I have it set up:

  1. I added the worst of my personal time-wasters to a block list. For me, it was facebook and a few subreddits that are more useful for chuckling at memes than they are for any useful research purpose.
  2. In my case, I dropped the hammer: everything on my block list is blocked 100% of the time. But the cool thing about LeechBlock is that you can set up multiple block lists, each with their own set of rules. So if, for instance, you're cool with allowing yourself to indulge in some YouTube surfing on the weekend, simply create a separate list that only blocks sites on week days.
  3. And lastly, the most important step for my own success: Set your block lists to redirect you towards something useful. This is how you start to modify your habits and behaviors!

It can be wildly demotivating to just land on a screen that is essentially screaming at you: "Haha! Loser! You were trying to do something you weren't supposed to! I caught you!" So I told LeechBlock to immediately redirect me to Pocket.

If you're not familiar with Pocket, do check it out. It's a very well-designed "read later" app, made all the more useful for me by the fact that its now directly integrated with my favorite browser, Firefox. I use pocket to capture all of the articles that I really do want to read when I have the time - articles about my true interests: software development, education and ed tech, business and entrepreneurship, and all those other topics in which breadth of knowledge can actually inspire me and move me closer to my goals.

I have literally thousands of articles saved, despite my best efforts to read a few whenever I have a spare moment. There's more than enough productive reading sitting there waiting for me - so why should I let social media get in the way?

The other cool thing about Pocket is, like most read later apps, it has the approximate reading time listed with the article right there as you're flicking through your list.

So usually, my encounter with LeechBlock goes something like this:

  1. Mindlessly type in some website on my block list.
  2. Land on
  3. "Huh, I didn't even realize what I was doing there."
  4. Choose an interesting looking article that will take me about 5-10 mins (or less) to read.
  5. Feel better about myself for doing something mentally stimulating, and get back to work.

The key is to make impossible for you to fail. Don't rely on your willpower. Instead of letting your computer control your meandering attention, teach your computer to nudge you towards the right thing.

You'll be amazed at how quickly it starts to work.

I'm sure you can think of how you would build similar workflows on your smartphone, if that's where your normal time sinks start to creep in - maybe you could move a "good" app, like Pocket, into the space on your home screen where your "bad" app usually is (Did you know there are apps outs there that let you make custom shortcuts to other apps on your phone? You could even "camouflage" your good app as a bad app to trick yourself into opening it!).

Thanks for reading - I'll be writing more in the future about how to make social media work for you - instead of the other way around. So don't delete all your accounts just yet! Remember, you control how you choose to engage with the world around you, and how you let it affect you.

But humans are creatures of habit - and sometimes we need a little training. Good luck!