Facebook, We Have a Problem, Part Two: Pay Attention to How You Pay Attention

Creative/ Social Media/ Thinking

Today, let’s talk a little bit about how using social media can impact your ability to use that creative brain of yours.

Long-Form Brain Activity

So let’s back up a little. (You can back up all the way to Part One by clicking here.)

I came to my realization that I needed to reassess my Facebook usage slowly, and then suddenly. Early this summer, I started to became aware of how often I would be pulled off task by an urge to check in on that Facebook tab—it was always open—and how profound an impact this was having on my work. It probably didn’t help that I was doing a contract job that I hated, but that’s just an excuse. I found that I was frequently either giving in to my desire to check in at Facebook, or trying to regain my focus after having taken a break to hit up Facebook. In this state of near constant distraction, any other stimuli would pull me off task as well: More coffee. Put the wash in the dryer. Snack. Email. And on and on. It was as if, once my concentration was broken, I was playing defense against every other competing priority or urge that, if I was staying in my work groove, would be kept safely off the field until I completed a period of focused productivity. Facebook was like a gateway drug to every other undisciplined impulse I have in me (and friends, these are legion).

But even more startling was how much it was affecting my thinking even when I wasn’t working. Gone were the days of reading for hours on end, losing myself in the web of a good novel, or an entire issue of the New Yorker. Being attached to one screen or another for so much of the day meant that I wasn’t doing the things I like to do. I wasn’t learning. My brain was, too often, in neutral, poised to pounce on anything that happened along, so instead of moving forward with the things that interest me, I was looking for distraction, either in the form of my Facebook feed, or in some other attention-diving activity.

I Found My Brain Out in the Prairie

I live on Oahu at the moment, where1) traffic is soul-crushingly terrible, all the time, and 2) you can’t drive very far for very long, what with it being a very small island and all that. So when I got into my rental car in St. Paul, Minnesota a couple of months ago, and drove it to Kansas City, Missouri and then on to Denver, this was by far the most time I’ve spent driving in a couple of years. I went hours and hours without social media, just driving through the prairie, listening to music, singing as loud as I wanted to, and letting my mind wander to wherever it wanted to go. And you know what? It felt fantastic. I had ideas! I thought about plans, and art, and stories I want to write, and things I want to do and make. I thought about my mom and my dad’s families, and their exodus from the Midwest to California 80 years ago. I thought about the working retreats I want to host, and the big, rambling craftsman I want to own someday. I thought about the interwar period in England, the aesthetes and the Bright Young Things. In other words, I thought about stuff. Then I followed one thought to another, producing long, detailed, immersive trains of thought, covering new ground, making connections between thoughts, and considering what it all meant. It was as if my brain had been let out of a box, and was stretching from horizon to horizon—like the tens of thousands of acres of wheat I saw through the windshield—with a gleeful release of pent-up creativity.

Unplugging

I didn’t act immediately. But when I got home from my trip, I posted some photos, poked around a bit in my news feed, and then took the plunge: I posted the “I’m taking a break” post, and I logged out. Then I took the Facebook app off my phone.

So what happened? To start with, I feel like I have more time available to me every day. And, based on our quick and dirty calculations in Part One, that’s entirely accurate. In addition, I have noticed several changes:

  • I’m in less of a hurry. I hadn’t realized how much the constant state of distraction Facebook kept me in was leaking out into the rest of my day. Ditching my Facebook feed means that I’m not always behind, always needing to catch up with 24/7 updates.
  • Because I’m not always in a hurry, I’m less frustrated my life’s inevitable delays. Hawai’i drivers aren’t driving me to homicide (much). When I know I’m going to have to wait in line or in a waiting room, I bring a book, or my iPad.
  • I’ve read the Sunday New York Times for hours and hours every Sunday since I quit Facebook.
  • I’ve read more books than usual.
  • I have time for myself every day, and I’ve set aside time for self-care: trips to the gym, a nap, a bath, or a bit of meditation. (Or all four.)
  • I’ve begun work on a long list of tutorials, classes and other learning resources. Though these tasks are entirely pleasant, my dependence on checking Facebook had such a negative impact on my ability to start ANYTHING else that I procrastinated even pleasant tasks.
  • I eat less, and I’m losing weight.
  • I’m in a better mood! I walk a little slower, I listen a little better, and I even manage to look past the constant traffic gridlock to see the mountains and the ocean now and then.

On the less plus (but by no means entirely negative) side: I do feel a little out of touch. But I have Messenger installed on my computer and phone, so I still have easy access to my friends on Facebook without the pure, uncut, sexy distraction of my feed.

I’ve come to realize that there’s no need for me to know every last thing my friends are thinking or doing. While I love to know that someone got a raise, or had a kid, or moved, I’m less inclined to care how close to homicide the person in the next cubicle over’s loud chewing is driving them, or how personally they’re taking the latest Chargers loss. I also don’t miss other people’s ability—even people I love!—to introduce complaints, heartbreaking stories, upsetting links, snarky comments and politics into my life. Though my friends are terrific, what are the odds, on a given day, that at least one person on my friend list isn’t going to be in a shit mood, or doesn’t self-edit well, or wants to link to some horrifying news story, or just makes a thoughtless comment? How can hundreds of people know that you’re not in the right frame of mind for aggression, or debate, or an ambiguous and unintentionally hurtful comment? I need to curate the information I funnel into my brain a little bit better than that. (More on this in Part Three.)

I also don’t miss the contextlessness (yes, I just made that word up) that’s so often a part Facebook interaction. Cut off from normal conversational context, facial expressions, or even *conversation itself*, how can anyone know how something will be interpreted?

Since Facebook feed-based communication is necessarily announcement-based, it’s more like walking into a room full of people and, without preamble, yelling, “I hate ice cream sandwiches, don’t you?!?!” or “I think everyone who likes Barry Bumblefartts is an idiot!” than it is an interaction. And I guess it’s possible to know that what you’re saying is precisely the thing that makes sense in the context of hundreds of individual feeds and hundreds of individual lives, but the odds are against it.

But Kim, you might be thinking, you can always clarify things in your comments. Fair point. But then you’re interacting with whomever your ice cream sandwich hating friend knows, including her Uncle Racistpants or her vegan neighbor who thinks that all dairy eaters are even worse than Barry Bumblefarts. Complicated! Time consuming! I want to dedicate my time to more thoughtful activity than debating ice cream sandwich politics, especially with Uncle Racistpants.

Overall Results

So, then, what’s the bottom line? Obviously I’m no expert, but here’s my take: If you take away an activity that requires constant upkeep, demands many hours a week of your time, and offers little in the way of meaningful reward, you’re going to be more relaxed, which means you’re going to be more able to focus on other things. Additionally, if you stop training your attention span to digest nothing more than a short paragraph of written communication at a time, you will inevitably find that you fall back into a more traditional adult habit of reading longer, well-developed articles and stories. And of course, having more time available means you have more time to do the things you truly enjoy, including meaningful connections with the people you aren’t seeing on Facebook anymore. Your mileage may vary, of course, but none of these conclusions seem outlandish to me in the least.

My challenge now is to find a way to use Facebook for the tool that it is, instead of as a way to prevent myself from being 1) productive, 2) focused, 3) lonely, 4) creative and 5) able to spend time working out, cooking, writing a novel, hanging out with my dog, having coffee or a drink with friends, reading a book, sleeping, feeding birds or any of a zillion other things that are much more worthy of my time.

So, readers, how do you manage social media for your personal and business needs?

Random note: I’ve started feeding the birds outside, and damn, I know it sounds weird, but watching java sparrows eat the seed I put out is entertaining and relaxing, all at once. What a cool way to use some of my reclaimed time!

Javas for Cake

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