The benefits of social media are major: global reach, worldwide friendships, unlimited and instant access to people you care about. Of course, with the pros come a long list of cons, including the wide array of idiots you’ll encounter and, perhaps most disturbing, the huge amounts of time you can lose without even realizing it.
I could easily solve these social media problems by simply withdrawing from social media altogether.
The truth is, however, that social media has simplified and improved my life in a lot of ways. I can invite friends to a party and set up playdates for my kids with minimum effort. I can share photos with relatives, stay in touch with long-distance friends, and explore article ideas.
Social media is easy, accessible, and instant; those traits, which make it so usable and efficient, also make it distracting. If I can send invitations easier, I can also procrastinate, get lost in pointless discussions, and give in to the lure of instant gratification instead of working on something more difficult but more fulfilling.
Anybody who’s ever found themselves neck-deep in a pointless Twitter argument or researching the mating habits of penguins to answer a forum question knows what I’m talking about.
What’s the solution?
If we want to access the benefits of social media, we must learn to use it without losing our productivity and dignity. We have to use social media as a tool, not succumb to it as an addiction. I’m convinced that the successes of the future will be those who can take advantage of all that technology offers while maintaining full control and autonomy of their thinking, their time use, and their priorities. It’s a combination of being aware, self-disciplined, and purposeful.
This is still an area I’m working on. My advice is not from the peak of Productive Social Media Mountain; it’s from the trenches of Trying Not to Get Distracted.
The first step to take toward productive social media use is awareness. We need to look honestly at how much time we put into social media, and how little we often get back from it in real benefits or usefulness. Let me reiterate that this is not because social media is inherently evil; the abuse or misuse of social media is simply a possibility, one among many. An equally valid possibility is wise use. It just takes a little more effort. Our job, first, is to see the need for that effort.
There are great tools to help us document our social media use. RescueTime (the Lite version is free) will track how you spend your time on your computer and give you detailed reports. It only takes a few minutes to get it set up.
For tracking social media time on your mobile devices, check out QualityTime for Android devices. For iPhone users, Hours can help you become aware of how you use your time by tracking it, and Moment will show you how much time you spend on your phone, let you set limits, and give you warnings when you’re close to your limit.
Aptrax for Android was designed to track which apps you use and how much you use them, for the purpose of eliminating the ones you never open. You can use it to keep an eye on which ones might be eating up too much of your time. I can’t find a comparable app for iPhone; if you know of one, please let us know in the comments.
Being self-disciplined is difficult. Or it becomes difficult, especially if you’re someone who has high standards, tries to be productive, works to establish good habits, and so on. Our willpower gets depleted one decision after another. By the end of the afternoon, saying no to a mindless scroll through the newsfeed or yet another check of Instagram becomes harder and harder.
There are ways to require less willpower of ourselves. We can establish rituals, so that the best choices become our automatic choices. And we can establish obstacles, so that the poor choices become the most difficult choices. The high number of apps and tools available for blocking sites and apps tells me that a lot of people need help coming up with the willpower to limit their social media use. Here’s a short list:
- ColdTurkey (Windows computers)
- SelfControl (Mac OS X)
- Freedom (Windows, Mac OS X, iPad, iPhone, Android)
- Anti-Social (Windows, Mac OS X)
- StayFocusd (Chrome extension)
- OurPact (iPhone, Android) (Intended for parents to use with their childrens’ devices; don’t see why you couldn’t use it on yourself!)
- Focusbooster (Windows, Mac OS X)
Personally, I’ve found it really helpful to use SelfControl or StayFocusd in my browser. Since I work at my computer, it’s most tempting to procrastinate with social media when the next paragraph is just not coming together easily. I’m going to try Freedom on my mobile devices now; in the past, I’ve simply removed my social media apps when I find myself distracted too much by them. I’m interested to try simply limiting my usage time, instead, so I can still share and interact, but not mindlessly check in and get lost.
The final key to productive social media use is purpose. I’ve found that even if I’m aware and self-limiting of my time on social media, I can still use it pointlessly or poorly. For example, do I really need to know the political opinions of all my high school friends? Do I want to see the 75 daily photos of that acquaintance’s miracle product? Can I find a better use for social media? Do I have one?
I do, in fact: I love keeping up with long-distance friends. I love hearing from people who are inspiring and positive. I love quickly and easily sharing photos and news with people who are important to me.
I love cultivating little tribes of like-minded friends, finding people who share my weird sense of humor or encourage me to write more or share productivity insights or help me think about ideas and bigger perspectives or lead me to my next great read. These people add value to my life, and I hope I add some value to theirs.
So I try to remember that, and, in the time I do spend on social media, focus on those purposes. Encouraging people. Connecting with people. Growing. Learning. To that purpose, I unfollow, unfriend, or otherwise unsocial, with zest and abandon, anyone who doesn’t fit that purpose. I do so without malice, but also without guilt.
My time is precious. My hours are full. I assume theirs are, as well, and I’m doing us all a favor when our purposes for social media are, obviously, at odds.
What’s your social media plan? Do you use social media, and, if so, how do you keep it limited and positive? We can all use more insight about how to use the technology we have for better and more productive lives. This entire issue is fairly new, so let’s share what we learn and get better at using our tools without losing our focus.
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