For the past three years, my husband and I have enjoyed a January Facebook Fast. We have found that as we set goals and seek to establish new habits for the fresh year, it’s best to back off from social media so that we can have extra focus.
When I gave up Facebook this January, I was the most involved I’d ever been. I’d joined several writing communities where I was fairly active, I was trying to build up more of a platform for my own eventual novel, and to be honest I was just really enjoying the dopamine rush of notifications (i.e., fake attention) every time I clicked on. Thus, the effects of the Facebook fast were more dramatic than in previous years. I thought they may prove informative, possibly even life-improving, for anyone on social media. (These results will be delivered in two posts to keep them in bite-sized chunks.)
The first week, I was surprised how often I ended up on the Facebook sign-in page. One minute, I’d be inputting grades in Excel or typing an email; the next minute, without having thought about it, I’d be on Facebook’s front doorstep. My fingers seemed to have clicked their way there on their own! I would yelp, sometimes inwardly, often aloud, and quickly click away. How did I even do that? I wasn’t consciously thinking about going to Facebook at all.
One day I counted how many times Facebook “happened” to me. EIGHT TIMES, you guys.
THE POWER OF FACEBOOK
Fortunately, I had just read a book that shed some light on this phenomenon. In an effort to gain more self-discipline this year, one of my first audiobooks was Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. In it, I learned that all habits come in loops: cue-routine-reward. The brain creates these loops so that it doesn’t have to make conscious decisions throughout every single minute of the day. So it will “program” your mind, when certain cues pop up, to automatically engage in a routine. At one point, you consciously decided on this routine. Now, you run through it automatically with expectation of the reward.
So all I had to do to figure out how I ended up “accidentally” on Facebook was figure out what cue triggered my brain to go there automatically.
What were those cues? I noticed two.
One was a felt need for a “brain break.” I experienced this need for the first fifteen minutes after my kids went off to quiet times or naps. Sadly, I also experienced it each time I finished typing a paragraph, or each time a sentence felt kind of difficult get out, or each time I couldn’t immediately think of the right word to insert, or even each time I switched tasks while cooking dinner.
Only the fifteen minutes of quiet time presented a real “need” for a brain break. The other issues were not actual needs for breaks, but rather slightly difficult tasks that, as an adult, I should be able to power through, persevering until the difficult (or pretend-difficult) thing is done. It amazes me how tasks that never would have occurred to me as difficult in college, before I joined (i.e., gave in) to Facebook, had now assumed a level of insurmountability at which my once-competent brain would fizzle out and demand a few minutes of mindless newsfeed scrolling.
The other cue was stress. Once I stopped giving in to the Facebook craving, it was easy to notice that I wanted it a lot more often when I was hormonal and my kids were a flaming hot mess. I found myself drifting toward the laptop more on days when the kids were arguing with every. single. thing I said, or when I was feeling tired.
Why? I have two theories: 1) The dopamine rush of a notification or like gives me a quick pleasure burst that my kids are most definitely not giving me on those days. 2) When my life feels like it’s falling apart around me, the house is a mess, and the kids are murdering each other, Facebook is where my life still LOOKS pretty good. It looks like I always enjoy my kids there. I can present my best version of myself, and that strokes my pride on days I shouldn’t be proud of.
SAME CUES, NEW ROUTINES
My solutions to these cue-cravings during the fast are, I suppose, worthy of note. I found myself turning to Goodreads for the same quick brain break on stressful days. This was not necessarily more admirable, but it was useful because there aren’t nearly as many notifications on Goodreads. Often nothing would have changed (“Oh! Looks like Julie still wants to read that book about WWII”) and I would shrug and find something else to do. Also, Goodreads reminds me how much I like to read, and points me toward books rather than back toward itself.
Sometimes re-labeling helped. Why does my brain break have to be Facebook? Why can’t it be a fluffy YA novel on the couch for a 15 minute timer, or even cutting carrots for dinner while blasting MY favorite music instead of “Let It Go?”
I also found myself needing the brain break less, and actually being happier and engaging with my kids more readily as the month progressed. The rewards with them are harder-won, but also more substantial.
REAL PLEASURE VS. ADDICTIVE PLEASURE
So, the Facebook fast caused me to think about what sorts of things created the same sense of “ahhh what a nice break” as Facebook, to analyze what helps me take actual pleasure in the midst of messy days. Then I can pursue those things, intentionally rather than absentmindedly.
And you know what? Once I realized what helps me take ACTUAL pleasure, I realized Facebook’s pleasure is NOT actual. (It’s also not real OR satisfactual, am I right, 90s Disney Sing-Along kids?) Seriously though, Facebook is almost never as satisfying as any of the alternatives I came up with. As an addictive technology, it wants to create not only a sense of “break” but also a sense of need: a need for more Facebook. This grasping need is the opposite of relaxing. (So are screens in general, apparently.)
So now that I’m done with this post, I really am going to go cut carrots while listening to Pandora loudly. I’ll still get my brain break–AND be a little more ready for dinner. I’ve really enjoyed coming to understand myself more through this fast–and I hope that writing about it helps me maintain better self-discipline throughout the year.