A case for going cold turkey on social media this New Year

It’s a new year, and with it the obligation to try and pursue some form of self improvement. I came across this piece on the New York Times about one computer scientist, Cal Newport, who shuns social media in an attempt to maintain his concentration skills and it struck me as something worth looking into.

I’ve always seen social media as a harmless activity that can help develop your personal brand online and keep you up-to-date on news and trends, but Newton highlights some all too familiar downsides that certainly hit home. Mainly, the effect on ones ability to concentrate on a certain topic for a prolonged period of time. In work, this can manifest itself in jumping from task to task looking for quick wins and making it difficult to focus on one thing to completion.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found that messaging apps like WhatsApp are actually much worse at encouraging this habit than traditional social media channels, triggering an urge to check your phone every minute or two and tripping you up in whatever task you are trying to concentrate on at the time.

Newport outlines the side effects of this below:

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate — the skill on which I make my living.

Maybe putting a limit on messaging & social media app usage might not be the worst New Year’s resolution to make. Food for thought.