When Nir Eyal published his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life in August of 2019, the world was relatively safe. The economy in mid to late summer was pumping on all cylinders (the GDP increased by 2.1 percent1), the unemployment rate had dropped to 3.5 percent, and no major wars were raging around the world.
That fall, his book became a national bestseller, and Eyal, an author and speaker who has taught university courses and consulted with major companies such as Google and Microsoft, became more famous. He was an outspoken critic of how apps like Facebook and Instagram use techniques that are not that dissimilar from how a Las Vegas slot machine works to make sure we keep clicking, liking, sharing, and scrolling. (Another expert, Tristan Harris, uses the same slot machine analogy.)
Eyal used a term for how social media apps tend to form bad habits and become obsessed. He called it the infinite scroll. (I prefer the phrase doom scroll.) Imagine a full-grown adult standing in the line at Starbucks flipping through countless photos of people celebrating birthdays and posing in front of beaches, and you’ll know exactly what it’s like. Our brains are constantly seeking these feedback loops and microrewards, even if they involve pictures of cute babies and teenagers showing off a new hairstyle. Eyal spoke about 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 of 2020. The first reported cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, took everyone by surprise. Some of us, including myself, dismissed it as a minor outbreak. It would subside. It would not make a global impact. We were wrong. A pandemic ensued. Unemployment rates skyrocketed to over 11 percent in the United States, which means about 23 million people were unemployed by August 2020. The economy crashed and burned, dropping by nearly 40 percent according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
As you can imagine, this created a whole new level of stress. Eyal told me by phone that he noticed a quick spike in book sales during this time period, surprising everyone involved—especially his publisher.
“We all started searching for some form of escape,” he told me, explaining how the normal methods of managing our time, controlling our tech urges, and even scheduling our time tend to blow up during periods when our mental well-being is under attack from all angles. We lack consistency during these times, and we tend to use social media as a salve. “We all have internal triggers,” he says. “When we’re suffering and more anxious, we turn to social media to relieve the pain.”
I noticed this change in myself. When I was writing a book, the United States experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in places like Texas, California, Florida, and even the Midwest. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter, Katherine, was planning a wedding, I changed roles, we had problems with our house, and . . . I was writing a book. When stress happens, as it always does, we look for quick fixes. All it takes is moving your finger a few inches across the screen of your phone. Eyal told me distraction starts inside of us, in our hearts and minds, when we look for quick relief. We experience minor discomfort and click on Instagram.
My thoughts turned negative at times. I wasn’t alone. One study found that people around the world send six thousand tweets every second. The most interesting discovery 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, distraction, and setbacks, we devolve.
Author and researcher Angela Duckworth has talked about how negativity is like a virus. It spreads faster and infects more people than positive thoughts. We can’t seem to help it. We’re prone to be negative.
My Story of Constant Social Media Use
The pandemic started in the spring of 2020, forcing many of us to work remotely. Meetings on Zoom became an exercise in futility because they are a poor replacement for human contact.
When we experience disappointment, we have a tendency to satiate ourselves with tech. We fill the void of unproductivity with constant clicking and scrolling on websites and social media. We call scrolling through 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 digress into a doom scroll. Because our work starts to slip, we then experience even more stress; we hurry up and complete more tasks, which makes us look for more quick fixes. The cycle continues. Eyal calls this learned helplessness. I call it a vicious cycle of tech obsession.
What if we broke the cycle? My solution is to limit how long we use social media to about seven minutes at a time, to put parameters on your social media use and help you avoid constant scrolling.
A productivity tip only carries you along for so long. You might turn off the notifications on your phone, delete a few apps for a while, or even do a social media fast. These are all good things. But they only work for a while. Let’s say you turn notifications off for a month. Great! You haven’t really set parameters on how you use social media. You haven’t determined why you are using social media in the first place. You delayed the obsession.
One reason setting time limits on social media is that, instead of firing up your Twitter feed and checking in on the Kardashian family or reading about the latest political crisis, you deal with distraction head-on. My seven-minute social media routine takes a similar approach. You set parameters for how often you use apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn and decide what you want to accomplish.
There’s no reason to completely abandon social media, since these apps help us connect with one another. Using them effectively means you define the purpose of the apps and learn how to control your impulses.
Measuring Your Usage
One reason we use social media so often is that we don’t know how to relax and take breaks. So we get 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. The social media companies know what we’re seeing has to be random, because then it’s elusive and unpredictable. We keep chasing our tails, but we don’t even know we have a tail.
The dangers go deeper than you might think. One example is from World War II when Adolf Hitler used similar techniques of throttling information and propaganda to foster allegiance. As John Mark Comer notes in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, the Nazi propaganda machine centered on wants and fears—a double-edged sword. The goal was always to entice, allure, and withhold in order to maintain interest.
My son-in-law is Austrian, and he’s told me stories about people who lived during that era. When prisoners escaped from concentration camps, the locals would try to ignore them and not assist their escape. Why is that? They believed in the propaganda machine of want and fear. Citizens knew the only way to buy groceries (the want) was to obey. They knew any deviation from the Nazi ideology would result in swift punishment, imprisonment, or far worse (the fear). Being caught aiding and abetting an escapee from a concentration camp was dangerous. I once visited a concertation 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 want and fear because that’s what worked.
In recent years, teen suicide rates in the United States have risen by 150 percent according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He blames social media, and the reasons seem to mirror the Hitler propaganda machine.
First, the want. Teens crave the attention and how it makes them feel when they see comments and likes on social media. Adults are not immune to this. Second, the fear. In a podcast with human rights advocate Tristan Harris called Your Undivided Attention, Haidt explained how social media is not optional. Even if a teen decides to delete their accounts, everyone else participates. Not being on social media, especially apps like Instagram and TikTok, makes you an outcast. Nielson Group estimates we check our phones about ninety-six times per day. We live on our plastic devices, doom scrolling to the bitter end.
What’s the answer to this dire situation? As with any obsession, it’s in controlling our behavior and setting limits.
Excerpt from my book The 7-Minute Productivity Solution.