In late 2016, I gave up the internet for two months. In 2017, I vowed to find a “digital-life balance” as my New Year’s Resolution. But it takes longer than a year to reform entrenched habits and expectations. Since then, I’ve been focusing on changing my habits in a sustainable way. It is an ongoing journey, full of lows and highs.
At the end of 2017, I texted someone: “I give up! I’m going to be addicted forever! Unless there’s a pill that I can take to get rid of all these impulses. They’ve won. The tech companies have won.”
But six months later, I explained, tearfully, to a group of friends that for the first in 10 years, I felt “cured”. I had “achieved” that elusive “balance” and I was free for the first time in a decade from internet compulsion.
Neither the lows nor the highs lasted, but nor were they ever as high or as low again. The aim since that moment in mid-2018 wasn’t to achieve a final ‘end state’, but to maintain healthy digital boundaries over a long period time. Here are the most important things I’ve learned so far on my personal digital wellness journey:
Trust and resilience
You’ve got to trust yourself that you can change. This sounds obvious and corny, but sometimes the idea of being ‘hijacked’ and ‘hacked’ by tech companies through dopamine feedback loops can be pretty scary. Before, I used to feel like a failure whenever I’d spend a day binge-reading tweets and refreshing Instagram. I’d see myself as an addicted rat, and get angry at myself. But now I don’t mind them for two reasons. They remind me that:
- I’ve come a long way
- There’s a reason I put boundaries in place
- I am learning about myself
I trust myself that I will get better because I’ve proven it to myself again and again.
The spaces themselves are less appealing
Engagement-maximising algorithms, wide-reaching surveillance, inadequate policies for dealing with abuse (especially towards women and POC), horrific working conditions for content moderators, trolls, online bullying, lack of diversity, biased algorithms, disinformation campaigns: all of these are powerful motivators for stepping back from social media and exploring alternatives. The spaces themselves feel compromised, and so I only want to use them when I have a purpose.
Making time for what I care about
I used to feel I was wasting time online a lot. But the phrase “wasting time” was masking a lot of different needs. I wasn’t angry about ‘wasting my time’ on social media per se as much as I was worried about it holding me back. The areas I felt it was holding me back from were creativity, wellness, activism and social connection.
So my personal focus needed to shift from the vague idea of “wasting time” to “what do I want to do instead?” That meant consuming differently, such as reading more books, listening to podcasts, going to events, doing courses. It meant actively making time for meditation and exercise.
I realised that feed-driven social media offered almost no value socially, but rewarding for side hustles and gaining visibility for creative projects. So I withdrew from posting personal updates on social media and moved towards text and messaging apps (it helps that many others in my peer group have organically evolved to do this too – a lot of changes aren’t conscious, but social). Our online habits evolve according to our social networks.
I stopped putting effort into posting on Twitter, which was more exhausting than liberating, and moved my professional efforts to Instagram. I use Instagram to clarify my thoughts, nurture my writing and design skills, and be part of a well-being community. It’s so much nicer there.
Fear is a great motivator, but a pretty poor one in the long term. When I started out in this space, I was terrified that there was no way of changing, and that Big Tech had hijacked humanity’s capacity for free will. But fear turned inwards is counter-productive. It makes it more difficult to celebrate small victories and magnify small slip-ups. Self-compassion is a much better approach. Even though boundaries are very important, when I slip-up, I try not to overreact, and just move on. I focus on my priorities instead.
Well-being is holistic
If you get enough sleep, exercise, meditate, eat nutritious food, spend time with loved ones, make time for creative projects, it’s easier to maintain digital boundaries. Conversely, if your digital habits interfere with your ability to sleep, exercise, eat nutritious food, spend time with loved ones and make time for creative projects, then they are harming your well-being.
Digital wellbeing can complement or harm other areas of wellness in your life: but it’s important to work on all of these on an ongoing basis. The elephant in the room here is work, of course. Depending on how stressful your work situation is, you may find yourself struggling to find the time or energy to do any of that.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
So much of the progress I’ve made on my digital wellness journey has come from being able to set and maintain boundaries. Unless I’m experiencing an unusual fit of inspiration, I struggle to get through the day without website blockers. It would take me a lot longer to blog if I didn’t use Cold Turkey Writer. I delete apps from my phone and then redownload them when I need them.
I used to feel like I was somehow ‘cheating’ if I relied on digital tools, like website blockers and Cold Turkey. But setting boundaries that don’t require willpower means you can channel your energy on what you want to do. They are one of the few ways that you can create a strong separation between your television, newspaper, social life, library and work desk.
But I’ve also learned to use these tools in short bursts instead of long ones. For example, I once blocked Twitter for 160 hours and I ended up downloading the app on my phone.
Change is sometimes social, not individual
I don’t get to do a noble “I’m quitting Facebook” post because most of the people I know have left it. They’ve not deleted their accounts. They’ve just abandoned it. Because of that, I don’t need to quit Facebook, or to reform my habits in any significant way.
Most people have moved onto Instagram and private WhatsApp groups. While these are still owned by Facebook, the main Facebook platform feels hollowed out. It is a weird feeling to know this given how dominant it’s been in my social life for the past 15 years. I still go on there to look at events, community news and occasionally message a friend who is difficult to get hold of outside of Messenger.
But I cannot see Facebook playing a dominant role in my social life again. It will be like checking a letterbox. While a part of me is sad that there’s no longer a centralised place where I can find everyone (it played a genuinely useful role as a directory), I feel relief. It’s less mental clutter. And the bad PR Facebook gets on a daily basis makes it difficult to want to rekindle it.
Sometimes decisions are made for you. If your main social network has moved on, so will you. Your behaviour will evolve with your social circles. If you still use it regularly, it’s because your community brings you back. I will use Facebook for professional reasons, but the social side has gone.
I don’t mind using Instagram
Perhaps it’s because I only started using Instagram when I was a lot older than when I first got FB and Twitter, I use it better. It never took root in my soul. It’s also the first social media account I’ve consistently used for a purpose – and that makes a huge difference. You are not grasping for social approval for arbitrary life choices or cultural opinions as you are for personal accounts.
While I still refresh my app for likes, I don’t spend that much time on the platform. And while I’m still drawn to social comparison and enjoy the dopamine hits that come from new likes and followers, I try to focus my attention and effort on things I can control.
I’ve learned that there’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable because I’m putting something out there, and when I’m feeling uncomfortable because it’s damaging to my self-esteem. There is an excitement that comes from growing that often resembles anxiety. I’m getting better at distinguishing between different forms of strong emotions: some of which are good, some of which are harmful.
It’s also been a year of learning and developing my skills in a way that I would not have been able to do without the internet. I use online videos for everything from exercise to wireframing, UX to the science of wellbeing.
Again, so much of this comes from making time for what is important. An hour spent on Twitter does not compare to the joy of developing a new skill, starting your own business or getting lost in writing.
While I will be disappointed in myself for checking my Insta or going on Twitter, as long as they are not holding me back from learning or spending time with loved ones, I will try not to beat myself over it.
In 2019, I’ve managed to sustain healthier habits. I’ve been able to broaden my skills and experiences using the internet in a way that I would have found difficult before. I still lose time on Twitter, but I’m better at blocking it and also giving myself some guilt-free binge time. I still get distracted, but I’m more aware of it so can catch it more often. Loved ones are infinitely more interesting than screens.
I’m learning to curtail the bad and also actively take advantage of the good. I’m not ‘perfect’ but the personal resentment and anger that I described in this blog entry has weirdly dissolved. It took upwards of 2 years to get to this state, but I’m so much happier for it. While it did require being hard on myself and self-disciplined, I find it easier to sustain the habits through self-compassion. Being able to sustain behaviour change is the most important thing.
I will write another personal review at the end of 2020 too. Hopefully I will still be optimistic. But I’m also aware that digital wellbeing is not an ‘end-state’ but a process.