Last week, after I signed out of Instagram for good, I have to admit that I spent the first four days wondering if my audience was thinking of me or trying to reach me. Perhaps they had sent me messages or left comments on my posts or tagged me in a story. I’d never know now. There was a niggling feeling of discomfort when this awareness came to the surface.
I don’t remember feeling this way during my 60-day social media sabbatical, not even once and it’s only now that I am realizing why that could have been the case. You see, when the sabbatical happened, it was with the knowledge that I’d be coming back to the platform. That means all of those messages and notifications would be waiting for me when I logged back in.
But this time, when I put up my last ever Instagram post, it was only just occurring to me that this was permanent. I’d never log in again. Instead of beating myself up, I tried something a bit different. I decided to sit with this discomfort and see where it took me. In deep silence and profound stillness was born the answer –
What you’re experiencing is a sense of loss; You’re finally learning to say No when it truly matters and that always brings with it a sense of guilt. But more importantly, every time you say No to something, you inadvertently say Yes to something else.
My meditation sessions are usually like that. They yield unexpected answers to unasked questions.
So, what am I saying ‘Yes’ to when I choose to say ‘No’ to social media?
A Newfound Awareness of Distraction
In the last week, being off social media has been educational in a few different ways. Since I wasn’t actively creating content for Instagram, there was a lull or space that opened up in my day. Even though I was very intentional about how I spent my time on social media, this complete pause brought a new awareness to the idea of time itself. You see, I used to have a very simple system when it comes to creating content, especially on social media. 90% of my content is usually repurposed from a longer blog post or an episode on my podcast. That means content creation for social media each day would effectively take me just 15 minutes. This included designing the graphic that went up on my Instagram grid.
And then, later in the day, I’d come back to the platform to engage with comments on the content, respond to direct messages from people, and briefly scroll through content from other accounts. Since I only used the desktop version of Instagram, I was never shown Instagram ads, suggested content or reels that auto-played when you opened the app.
In other words, my intentional use of Instagram was not only effective but it kept me away from the distracting nature of the platform. Or so I believed. But there was something that I hadn’t accounted for in all of this strategy.
While I had effectively broken away from the external forces of distraction — the app, the infinite scroll mechanism and the concept of ads — it was only in the past week that I learnt to confront my internal forces of distraction.
Nir Eyal explains this with a bit more clarity in his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, but let me try and put it into words here.
Distraction is not just due to outside forces; it also stems from a space of inner unrest. Even if I switched off Instagram during the day, a part of my mind lingers with the platform, thinking about the content I put up there, the comments I may have received and the messages that might be waiting for me. So while I could turn off the external triggers that lead me down the rabbit hole, it is only when I confront my inner source of unrest that I can comfortably come to terms with not being distracted at all.
When I decided to say No to Instagram, I was learning to say Yes to a deeper awareness of distraction’s role in my life.
Leaving Instagram for good was like the proverbial last nail in the coffin and it shut the door on any possibility of me ever returning to check out comments and messages. Why was this uncomfortable? That brings us to the next level of awareness.
The Idea of Detachment
All of us are attached to something or someone, in varying degrees and there’s nothing wrong with that, by itself. But what if that attachment impairs functioning in the different roles that we don?
Let’s stick with the Instagram situation for the purposes of this experiment. If my mind is thinking about who was commenting on my posts or leaving me messages while I wasn’t around, what was I attached to? Not the addictive nature of the platform; we’ve already established that.
But I was definitely attached to the relationships I’d built up over the course of my 3 years as a content creator on this platform. Deciding to leave the platform meant that I was severing those connections at some level. I was aware that not all those beautiful connections would follow me off Instagram. Even without verbalising it, this was what I was silently grieving – not the follower numbers but the inevitable loss of incredible connections.
My mind and soul needed time to come to terms with this acceptance and that’s why it went through that roller coaster of emotions in the days following my exit from social media. However, within a few days, a newer awareness was born.
By not tying them to my work on Instagram, I was giving them the space and freedom to decide where they wanted to invest their energy. Whether that meant more time to follow other people on Instagram, stay in touch with my work on my blog or reflect on their time itself on Instagram, the choice and autonomy was now completely their own. Instead of thinking about it as severing ties, I understood that I had gently untied the knot that held people’s attention and given them the liberty to decide where that attention had to be directed. If they did choose to follow my work on my website or my newsletter, that was now completely their choice. Beautiful, isn’t it?
In other words, they are saying Yes to staying in touch with me in their own way.
Embracing of Depth During the Day
While I had effectively removed 30 minutes of social media time from my day, I had unwittingly opened up a far larger chunk of time without realising it. This takes us into the realm of context switching and the costs that add up as a result of it,
Context switching, as explained in this article from The Atlassian, clarifies it thus:
Context-switching is a proven drag on productivity. According to a joint report by Qatalog and Cornell University’s Idea Lab:
- On average, people take nine and a half minutes to get back into a productive workflow after switching between digital apps.
- 45% of people say context-switching makes them less productive.
- 43% of people say switching between tasks causes fatigue.
Nine and a half minutes to get back into a productive workflow. Just think about that for one second. Is it any wonder that we feel scattered and unproductive at the end of the day, especially when our attention keeps getting fragmented in this manner?
I always ask people to try and remember a time before the internet and instant access to news – a time when answers to everything weren’t just a click or swipe away. Deep work was not only pleasurable; it was the norm. There was no option for people to be drawn into the digital context switching model because it, quite literally, did not exist. Needed something in a hurry? You’d have to look it up in a book. That was the default response.
The reason so many knowledge workers and content creators today are particularly subjected to the nature of context switching is because so much of our work is in the digital space. We can barely write an entire, 2000-word article on our blogs or websites without being sidetracked by open tabs on our browsers, that quick itch to check email or the need to just confirm one research idea within the space of 30 seconds. Any wonder that we have to consciously re-train our brains to learn the power of patience? It’s challenging, to put it mildly.
*Factual Aside: If you are a mom and have very talkative kids, you’re probably context switching all the time between how to write a peerless report and listening to why the wheels on the bus go round and round. Don’t worry; it gets better (slightly).
The less context switching I do, the more I say Yes to space and depth in my day. The fewer pulls (traction) I have on my mind, the easier it is to say no to distractions and focus on depth of purpose.
Longer Attention Span
Social media is built on the principle of instant gratification. By default, a lot of creators are forced to confine their thoughts to a limitation of character counts and shorter pieces of content. The worst offender of the lot in this scenario is Twitter with its emphasis on snappy 280-character tweets.
Have you heard social media marketing experts tell you to create content that ‘hooks, baits and holds’ people’s attention in less than 10 seconds? Yes; it’s exactly like comparing people to fish.
They ask you to do this with enticing headlines, scroll-stopping videos, and eyeball-grabbing content. Their logic is that people have short attention spans and you need to do everything to ‘seize’ their limited attention. No wonder reels are aggressively promoted on the Instagram platform or ‘shorts’ on YouTube are constantly pushed into people’s feeds. They back this up with a study done in 2015 that compared the attention of people online to that of a goldfish, saying it lasts less than 9 seconds. (There’s a reason that story isn’t factually correct, but mostly, let’s stop blaming innocent fish so that people can sell their products or services!)
But what if you didn’t do anything of the sort? What if you were to write thoughtful content that people enjoyed reading, irrespective of how long it was? When you follow this strategy of truly serving your audience, you’d observe that something fascinating happens.
- Your true audience connects with your work.
- They stick around to read your work.
- They search for your content, if they can’t find it, to ensure that they stay connected to your work.
That’s why I deliberately write long-form content, mostly on my website. It’s why I even listen to podcasts that last for 2 hours or more. I don’t listen to them at 2x or 4x speed either. Where’s the joy in that? What earthly purpose do we gain from listening to a podcast at 4x speed? Perhaps a tick mark on an imaginary to-do list that says you’ve listened to a podcast today. But is it worth it? There’s a value and purpose in deep work and long attention spans, but most of it isn’t given enough coverage in the mainstream media.
Let us not feed the illusion that content has to be short, grabby, and brief to engage with people. It’s perpetuating a myth that people are always distracted and unwilling to focus on anything long enough. If that were true, nobody would read a book or spend their days watching a slow movie that is all about storytelling or sit through a two-hour performance at their local theatre.
Yet, people do it, don’t they? The truth is that people will pay attention to something or someone if the work deeply resonates with them. The more you follow the conventional path of marketing to short attention spans, the more you feed the beast of short attention.
Saying Yes to Life
The biggest lesson for me through this decision to say No to social media was that I can now choose to say Yes to life.
There was this idea that I could truly learn to make something with my hands. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of drawing kolam or rangoli outside my front door. I grew up watching my mother do it every morning. My sister took to it very instinctively while I always struggled with getting the lines straight or getting them to curve in the right direction. I’ve given up so many times in the past. But this time was different. I knew I wanted to give it a go with all my heart. So I found a good YouTube channel that would teach me from scratch and started with simple designs. Taking out a drawing pad, I sketched the pattern over and over again until I was confident I could do a decent job of it. Now it was time to do it with the rice flour. I learnt how my hand would shake if I followed a particular pattern but would stay steady if I changed my technique. I didn’t give up and slowly, surely, I can see the distinct, if very marginal, improvement in the daily design outside my door.
It’s the tiny wins that make all the difference and you know the best part? Each day’s kolam lasts for just 24 hours. And then we wash it away and start all over again. What a beautiful metaphor for life: Appreciate this moment but don’t stay attached to it.
This also meant I now had more time than ever to read books, which I’d already been doing for a while now. I was also saying ‘Yes’ to energetic walks, better workouts, newer and healthier experiments in my kitchen, more leisurely laps in the pool and longer conversations with my family over the phone.
Perhaps you don’t need to quit social media and I am not saying that you should, either. But here’s a gentle reminder that every time you say ‘Yes’ to social media, your work or your business you are effectively saying ‘No’ to something else in your life.
The real question is:
What Are You Saying Yes To?