It seems as though social media was made for just this moment: We’re all working from home, social distancing, and staying the hell away from public spaces. Where’s a stressed-out parent going to find friendship, commiseration, and camaraderie these days? To their social feeds, of course. Whether you’re viewing pics of your cousin’s kids on Instagram or Facebooking with your former college roommate who now lives in Sao Paulo, social media can make these times of self-isolation feel remarkably connected. Unfortunately, that feeling is fleeting. “It’s like eating cotton candy,” says Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and author of Never Check Email in the Morning. “The satisfaction doesn’t last, so you keep coming back for more.”
The downside of social media, as no one needs to tell you, is that 20 minutes online turns into 40 minutes and 40 turns into more than an hour of time you’ll never get back — time you could have used to fix the garbage disposal, paint your home-office cabinets, or just hang with your kids. “There’s no question, social media is a huge time suck — it’s not strategic, it’s not planned,” says Morgenstern. “In addition to being the world’s most convenient way to connect, it’s also the world’s most convenient procrastination device.”
Even in non-COVID times, parents admit to social media overload: 39 percent of parents in a Pew Research survey say they often or sometimes got distracted during work because they are on their phones. (FYI, that’s double the number of teens who say phones cause them to lose focus at school.) And more than 75 percent of parents are regular Facebookers according to another report — with over half of them logging on multiple times a day. While that’s not necessarily bad news (79 percent of parents say they get useful info from their social networks), it’s still stealing time away from more productive activities.
So how to get what you need from social media, without letting it swallow up hours of your day? These steps will set you on the right path.
1. Be Mindful
Yeah, that word gets tossed around far too much these days. But it’s particularly appropriate in the context of social media, which can be about as mindless as it gets. To practice mindful use of social media, schedule a time or times of day when you’ll check your various feeds, and establish exactly how long you’ll spend doing it. “Don’t go on for more than 15 to 30 minutes, tops,” cautions Morgenstern. “There’s nothing social media can offer you that requires more than half an hour of your time.”
2. Know Why You’re Using It
Are you constantly checking your phone because you are trying to build business connections? Maintain your social network? Gather information? Or is it because you don’t feel like cleaning the kitchen or finishing that report? “Social media has a way of making you feel like you’re getting something done, when really, you’re escaping the thing you don’t want to do,” says Morgenstern. Identifying the reason you’re going on social media in the first place can keep you from spiraling from one click to another (and another).
3. Time Yourself
There’s nothing like an old-fashioned countdown clock to force you to use your time more efficiently. Use the alarm on your phone or an app like e.ggtimer.com to set a timer for the number of minutes you’ve allotted to social media. “We tend to change behavior we measure, once we have something to calculate against,” says Morgenstern. “Think of it as, you used up 20 minutes checking Facebook yesterday, let’s see if you can do it in 19 minutes today.” Don’t just set a finish time — set an alarm to indicate when it’s time to start using social media, too. That prevents you from hopping on any time you need a distraction. “Taking away the option of jumping on social media every time you hit a roadblock at work forces you to focus on the problem, rather than escape it,” says Morgenstern.
4. Park It
For 30 minutes a day, vow to go device-free. Set up a docking station in your front hallway and leave your phone there while you do something else that demands your full focus (think: dinner with the family or a bike ride in your neighborhood). A large part of social media “addiction” is due to never building the discipline muscles that help wean us off it. To get the most of this strategy, synchronize your screen/non-screen time with the rest of your family. “Getting everyone to be off their devices at the same time is a really big part of realizing the benefits of taking a social media break,” says Morgenstern.
5. Make It Less Sexy
“If you go into a jumbo-size supermarket without a list, what happens?” asks Morgenstern. “You buy way more than you ever wanted because the store is designed to entice and distract you. It’s the same with social media—it’s designed to keep you there.” So it’s up to you to find ways to dodge the social media seduction. Devices like the LightPhone offer a streamlined mobile experience that basically allows you to call or text—that’s it. You can’t waste time clicking through Instagram when your phone doesn’t have it! Morgenstern also suggests turning your home screen to black and white — colorful displays are more appealing and therefore make you more likely to engage.
6. Focus on the End Game
You’d never give a presentation at your job or a toast at someone’s wedding without having at least a vague sense of where the plot would take you. Same with social media. Before going on every day, jot down what you want to get out of that time. “I advise clients to do this regardless of the activity on their schedule,” says Morgenstern. “If it’s a work meeting, what are you hoping to leave the meeting with? If it’s time spent on LinkedIn, who are you aiming to connect with?” Outcome-based activities pull you into the present and make you focus, she explains. “By nature, humans are task-oriented. So make sure every time you’re on social media, there’s an outcome that you’re working toward.” Can’t think of one? Skip Facebook time and try face-to-face with your family instead.