When Nir Eyal published his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life in August 2019, the world was relatively safe. By mid to late summer, the economy was running at full steam (GDP grew by 2.1%1), the unemployment rate had fallen to 3.5%, and no major wars were raging in the world.
That fall, his book became a national bestseller, and Eyal, an author and lecturer who taught college courses and consulted for big companies like Google and Microsoft, rose to fame. He was a vocal critic of how apps like Facebook and Instagram use techniques not unlike how a Las Vegas slot machine works to make sure we keep clicking, liking, sharing. and scroll. (Another expert, Tristan Harris, uses the same analogy with slot machines.)
Eyal used a term to describe how social media apps tend to pick up bad habits and become obsessed. He called him the Infinite Scroll. (I prefer the expression doom scroll.) Imagine a grown adult standing in line at Starbucks, flipping through countless photos of people celebrating birthdays and posing in front of beaches, and you’ll know exactly what that looks like. Our brains are constantly searching for those feedback loops and micro-rewards, even if it’s images of cute babies and teens showing off a new hairstyle. Eyal explained how these apps hook the user. His solution was to develop new routines and habits that help us become more disciplined in our use.
And then everything changed in January 2020. The first reported cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China took everyone by surprise. Some of us, myself included, dismissed it as a minor epidemic. It would subside. It would have no global impact. We were wrong. A pandemic ensued. The unemployment rate skyrocketed to over 11% in the United States, meaning around 23 million people were unemployed in August 2020. The economy collapsed and burned, falling sharply 40% according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
As you can imagine, this created a whole new level of stress. Eyal told me over the phone that he noticed a rapid increase in book sales during this period, surprising everyone involved, especially his publisher.
“We all started looking for some form of escape,” he told me, explaining how normal methods of managing our time, controlling our technological urges, and even planning our time tend to break down. explode during times when our mental well-being is under attack from all angles. We lack consistency during these times and tend to use social media as a balm. “We all have internal triggers,” he says. “When we are in pain and more anxious, we turn to social media for pain relief.”
I noticed this change in me. When I was writing a book, the United States saw an increase in coronavirus cases in places like Texas, California, Florida, and even the Midwest. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter, Katherine, was planning a wedding, I switched roles, we had issues with our house, and . . . I was writing a book. When stress arises, as it always does, we look for quick fixes. Just move your finger a few centimeters on your phone screen. Eyal told me that distraction starts inside of us, in our hearts and minds, when we seek quick relief. We feel a slight discomfort and click on Instagram.
My thoughts sometimes turned negative. I was not alone. A study found that people around the world send six thousand tweets every second. The most interesting finding is that tweets are more positive in the morning and then slowly become more and more negative. As the day progresses and we experience stress, distractions, and setbacks, we delegate.
Author and researcher Angela Duckworth explained how negativity is like a virus. It spreads faster and infects more people than positive thoughts. We can’t seem to help it. We are inclined to be negative.
My history of constant social media use
The pandemic started in the spring of 2020, forcing many of us to work remotely. Meetings on Zoom have become an exercise in futility as they are a poor substitute for human contact.
When we are disappointed, we tend to get fed up with technology. We fill the void of unproductivity with constant clicks and scrolls on websites and social media. We call scrolling Facebook the facebook feed because that’s exactly what it does. It feeds us.
As Eyal explained to me and covered in his book Indistractable, distraction is another form of procrastination. We know we have work to do, but we are straying into a doom scroll. Because our work begins to slip, we then feel even more stress; we rush and do more tasks, which forces us to look for faster solutions. The cycle continues. Eyal calls it learned helplessness. I call it a vicious circle of technological obsession.
What if we broke the cycle? My solution is to limit social media usage time to about seven minutes at a time, pare down your social media usage, and help you avoid the constant scrolling.
A productivity tip only stays with you for so long. You can turn off notifications on your phone, delete a few apps for a while, or even do a social media quick. These are all good things. But they only work for a while. Let’s say you turn off notifications for a month. Great! You haven’t really set any parameters on how you use social media. You haven’t determined why you use social media in the first place. You delayed the obsession.
One of the reasons why setting time limits on social media is that instead of kicking off your Twitter feed and learning about the Kardashian family or reading about the latest political crisis, you face the distraction of forehead. My seven-minute social media routine takes a similar approach. You set parameters for how often you use apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn and decide what you want to accomplish.
There is no reason to ditch social media altogether, as these apps help us connect with each other. Using them effectively means you define the purpose of the apps and learn to control your impulses.
Measure your usage
One of the reasons we use social media so often is that we don’t know how to relax and take breaks. So we connect on Facebook. When we refresh the screen to see if we have more likes on a post, we experience immediate, short-term gratification with bits and bytes. Social media companies know that what we see has to be random, because then it’s elusive and unpredictable. We keep chasing after our tails, but we don’t even know we have a tail.
The dangers are deeper than you think. An example is World War II, when Adolf Hitler used similar information and propaganda strangulation techniques to promote allegiance. As John Mark Comer notes in his book The ruthless elimination of haste, the Nazi propaganda machine centered on desires and fears – a double-edged sword. The goal was always to attract, seduce and retain in order to maintain interest.
My son-in-law is Austrian and he told me stories about people who lived at that time. When prisoners escaped from concentration camps, locals tried to ignore them and not help them escape. Why is that? They believed in the propaganda machine of need and fear. Citizens knew that the only way to buy groceries (need) was to obey. They knew that any deviation from Nazi ideology would result in quick punishment, imprisonment or worse (fear). Getting caught aiding and abetting a concentration camp escapee was dangerous. I once visited a concerted camp in Mauthausen, Austria, and could almost hear the echoes of torture and abuse emanating from the stone walls and barred windows. Hitler focused on need and fear because that’s what worked.
In recent years, the teenage suicide rate in the United States has increased by 150% according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He blames social media, and the reasons seem to mirror Hitler’s propaganda machine.
First, desire. Teens crave attention and how they feel when they see comments and likes on social media. Adults are not spared. Second, fear. In a podcast with human rights defender Tristan Harris called Your full attention, Haidt explained that social media is not optional. Even if a teenager decides to delete their account, everyone else participates. Not being on social media, especially apps like Instagram and TikTok, makes you an outcast. Nielson Group estimates that we check our phones about ninety-six times a day. We live on our plastic devices, fate scrolling to the end.
What is the answer to this disastrous situation? As with any obsession, it’s about controlling our behavior and setting boundaries.
Excerpt from my book The productivity solution in 7 minutes.