Last month I was on sabbatical, as you know. But what I didn’t really announce — or plan, officially, for that matter — was that I also completely walked away from social media after July 5 (so, exactly a month ago today). I didn’t permanently quit anything, I simply deleted all social media apps, as well as apps for email, Slack, and Voxer — all communication apps as well, basically.
It was sort-of a modern way to go off the grid, making myself unfindable except for the few I trusted to connect with me if it was an emergency. I did this for work, as part of my sabbatical, but I did it mostly as a human who just needed a break from the frenzy.
And guess what? As you may suspect, it was glorious. Wonderful. Fantastic. Words really don’t do it justice. But here, I’ll try to explain the benefits I enjoyed by taking a full, complete screen break for a month — some I suspected, some surprising.
This is one I suspected would happen, but it was still a surprise what it was like to remember what it was like to be more fully present without the pull of what was happening on my phone. At first, I thought I could just ignore my apps and leave them on, but that proved …unsuccessful. So the evening of July 5, after a few minutes of innocently scrolling Instagram and telling myself, I’ll just keep the app on to keep in touch with others, but I won’t post, I stopped and asked myself— What in the world? Why? Why do I feel the need to do this?
It’s only for a month. I don’t need to keep up with what others are doing. I need to pay attention to my here and now, with whatever’s going on in front of me. So, I deleted Instagram and Twitter, and I instantly felt better. Within seconds I felt happier. It was weird, actually, how immediate.
Forgetting social media existed made time slow down for the month, not marked by other events happening far away. I’d be fully somewhere without thinking whether something was post-able — because who cares? The world doesn’t need my take on this lake, this tree, this taco.
By the second half, there were even times I was immersed in gorgeous places and not even taking photos, choosing instead to just savor the beauty in front of me in real-time. It was like I’d remember it better with a mental snapshot over a real one.
A week in, and I better noticed wood grain in floors, veins on leaves, birdsong, creaks in chairs as someone sat in them, smells of books. Everything was more vivid.
2. Focus on People In Front of Me
Because of this presence, it felt easier to fully engage with the people right across the campfire from me instead of letting my mind wander to what so-and-so is doing in such-and-such a place. I talked with more strangers at cafes and shops than I have in a long while. I sat across tables with friends and didn’t take my phone out of my purse the entire time. I had sacred-ordinary moments with my family.
Kyle and I had great conversations without the pull of anywhere else but right where we were. The kids and I played together — it felt like forever since I just played. The family time wasn’t always deep and meaningful; in fact, some of my favorite highlights were little chats here and there with my kids one-on-one, a few minutes at a time.
(I’m not sure if those moments were more to do with taking a break from work than not being on social media, but not feeling the pull of my phone most definitely helped.)
(Also, related: I’m currently writing this in my neighborhood coffee shop, here in Georgetown, and between the time I wrote the paragraphs above, I had a lovely, long conversation with the coffee shop owner. She was curious where I’d been for six weeks, so we chatted about travel, summer, family, work. A few months ago, I’m pretty sure I would have tried to shorten the chat so I could get back to work. This morning, I felt pulled to stay present and linger in the chat. It was lovely.)
3. Less Stress
I’ve come to accept that I’m more sensitive to the pitfalls of social media than other people. Certain things that simply don’t bother my colleagues and friends affect me deeply, and I’m to the point now where I’m officially okay with saying, “Good for them, not for me” when it comes to certain parts of this weird online world.
Instagram does funny things with my head. Twitter less so, but it still affects my emotions. (Other than one or two Groups, I’m no longer on Facebook.) By not engaging even a little bit for a month, it felt like my stress melted away.
This is fascinating, interesting takeaway for me that I’ve been analyzing for the past few weeks, and if you follow my work at all, you know I’ve already been thinking about what it means to not be addicted to screens, thanks to work like Digital Minimalism and more (books I read during my sabbatical, in fact, which I’ll tell you about soon). As of this writing, I still haven’t put social media apps back on my phone, and I’m not sure when I will.
My health — mental, emotional, even physical — was much better social media-free.
4. More Concentration
It took a few days of me replacing time on social media apps with dumb game apps to realize, What I was doing? — my brain was still pulled toward a screen. Once I stopped those (again, why did I feel the need to tap on my phone?), time slowed down and I could focus in ways I hadn’t in a long time.
I read 10-and-a-half books and loved it. I was always reading before, but in nooks and crannies of my time instead of as my primary way to spend free moments. And I surprised myself how many non-fiction books I read, after several years now of preferring fiction many times over. It was like I could concentrate on learning instead of feeling preached to during my slivers of reading time. I wasn’t just reading to escape, I was reading to engage.
By the end of the month, I was noticing how few of us can sit without pulling out our screens — it felt like everyone around me was on their phone. For the first time in awhile, I was able to just sit with my thoughts without feeling like I needed to distract myself.
Ultimately, this month was about seeing my life from a different point of view. It was only a month, and being off social media affected me this much? Wow. It really does have a pull. It really is addictive in its very infrastructure (I have many thoughts on this, which I’ll save for later). And it really is possible to be the boss of it, to tell it, No thank you, I’m good right now and to walk away.
It was also perspective-shifting for my work, which I’ll share more about next week. In short, though, it helped me better see what actually matters in my work, what doesn’t, and how I want to actually spend the best of my time, creativity, and energy.
All this surprisingly helped me remember the good side of social media. I missed connecting with friends, reading the things that make my life brighter, and engaging with things important to me. I didn’t miss being sold to, watching people brand themselves past the point of recognition, or Silicon Valley companies trying their best to suck me in to scrolling into time-waste oblivion. But I missed seeing faces I love, and that’s the best, most redeeming part of social media, by far.
Social media isn’t all bad, but they are services purposely created to be addictive and manipulative, and after this month, I’ve decided that regular breaks from social media are officially necessary for me to keep social media in its proper place in my life. (More thoughts on this soon.)
Overall — my screen break was utterly delightful, and I can’t wait until the next one. For now, I’m toeing the water gradually, first prioritizing the world around me and staying fully engaged in the present as I wade back in to the screened waters. There’s no reason to cannonball back in. Possibly ever.
How’s your summer been?