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Focusing

Replacing Twitter with Phone Calls: An Adventure in Unplugging

Who is to blame for your internet addictions? You? Or the tools you use?


I suppose things hit a low point when my girlfriend caught me reading Twitter at a Christmas market she’d asked me to visit with her. (Let’s just say that I don’t much like shopping, and my indulgence landed me in a lot of trouble). Realizing the grip it had on my lizard brain made me feel sick. How did I get so addicted to this content maelstrom in the first place?

In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains how our brains get hooked on social media: 

Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially… and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.

When I stumbled across this quote in a newspaper article, I realized that willpower alone wasn’t going to be enough. And I finally understood why it was so hard to disconnect; why my brain formulated imaginary search queries and tweets even when I was miles away from a computer. Although I’d used it jokingly up until that point, it turned out that “addiction” was a wholly accurate term for my problem. 

My brain formulated imaginary search queries and tweets even when I was miles away from a computer. 

After 12,000 or so tweets, Twitter was taking over my life. I was compulsively checking my feed—from bed in the morning, in covert browser tabs at work, whenever and wherever I had a spare moment—and I didn’t like it. 

So in the spirit of Tina Roth Eisenberg’s “Don’t complain, create” mantra, I decided it was time to do something constructive about my habit, instead of… um… moaning about it on Twitter. I was a social media junkie, and I needed to cut off my supply at the source. I devised a two part plan: to quit Twitter for a month, and invite people to talk with me by phone or Skype instead.

After announcing my intentions in a tweet, and posting a link on my blog that people could use to schedule a call, I shut the lid on my laptop, wondering if anyone would take me up on the offer.

Going Cold Turkey

At the start of my experiment I had deleted the Twitter app from all of my devices. The remaining weak spot, of course, was my web browser. So I went all out, and edited the hosts file on my Mac to block it from Twitter (and Facebook too, for good measure). 

Once that was completely locked out, I started to feel withdrawal symptoms. There was a power outage at work, and I found myself wishing I could search Twitter for updates on the situation. Support requests to services I used, usually fired off in a quick tweet, became infuriatingly slow emails. And I remember spending one lunch time in particular really craving an aggregated news source that wasn’t a newspaper.

But by the start of my third week without Twitter, something clicked, and my brain seemed to switch into a slower gear. I banished electronics from my bedside and sat down for the first time in years to read books and listen to albums in their entirety. All without my fingers twitching for status updates.

It wasn’t completely plain sailing from this point though.

After one particularly tough day, I found myself manically tapping through Twitter, the same way you might binge on ice-cream or cookies. Yikes! The “Ship Your Enemies Glitter” website had been sold a week ago for $85k, and I had no idea! But when I shared the story at work, no one had heard about it yet. I realized that much of the “information” I was consuming on Twitter was pretty low in nutritional value.

I realized that much of the “information” I was consuming on Twitter was pretty low in nutritional value.

Maybe I didn’t need to have my finger so on the pulse after all?

Hanging on the Telephone 

Meanwhile, requests for telephone calls were coming in faster than expected, and after back-to-back calls on the first night, I cut the daily appointment slots to just one. As something of an introvert, talking on the phone is not something I often do by choice, so I was a little apprehensive about this part of the experiment. 

On one call, I could hear the wind whistling somewhere in Texas as I talked with a fellow designer about the merits of this or that software. On another, I joked with someone just down the road in London, whilst his wife chuckled in the background. 

Not everyone wanted to talk with video turned on, which was fine with me, but when someone asked if we could chat via instant messaging instead of talking, I realized something else; it was so easy to become distracted. Oftentimes, the person at the other end of the “conversation” was reduced to a closable browser window, and I could treat them like any other website which didn’t have my full attention. 

A Communication Paradox

The use of the telephone gives little room for reflection, it does not improve the temper, and it engenders a feverishness which does not make for domestic happiness and comfort. 
—”The Telephone,” Chambers Journal 76, 1899

Sounds familiar, right? From the telegraph, to the telephone, to the internet, communication at a distance (and the subsequent questioning of its psychological footprint) has long been a part of modern life.

So I don’t want to point a finger solely at Twitter here. And I’ll still be using it, albeit slightly less often, as part of my daily routine. But I am planning to set aside one afternoon a month for phone calls with my readers from now on. The thing I’d been worried about—the directness of the conversations—turned out to be the most refreshing difference from Twitter.

If Twitter compresses communication into uniform rectangles, telephone calls do the opposite. I felt like I could get a real sense of who people were, and what made them tick. I felt like I was connecting with real, live human beings again.

All this said though, my girlfriend caught me stealing late night glances at Twitter yesterday, and it made me feel like a jerk. For some reason I told her I was looking at myself in my phone’s camera as a joke, but either way, I’d been holding a mirror up to myself. Twitter isn’t addictive—I was just addicted to it.

How to break your social media habit:

  • Set yourself a 30-day challenge. Decide what you want to quit for the month, and announce your intentions as publicly as possible: this will maximise accountability. (Ironically, Facebook and Twitter might be the best places to do this). Log your progress in a diary or spreadsheet: keeping a calendar where you X out each day is a great incentive to keep going. You can even set a fine to be paid to a charity any day that you stray off track: not too high, but enough to sting your wallet. (This worked wonders for me during a 30-day writing experiment).
  • Keep your phone at a distance. A designated tray or shelf in your home (anywhere that isn’t your bedroom) will make it easier to stay disconnected.
  • Don’t expect instant results. Even without visual cues from app notifications, the reward-seeking part of your brain takes a while to readjust.
  • Swap social media activity for real life activities. Telephone calls, jogging with a friend, or perhaps some old-fashioned letter writing… anything which doesn’t involved a screen. (Calendly is great for scheduling calls).
  • Put internet blinders on. Use an app like SelfControl or Freedom (Mac) or Cold Turkey (PC) to limit your access to the web.

It’s almost a week since I started using social media again (“using” being the operative word), and I can’t see myself reinstalling the Twitter or Facebook apps any time soon.

How about you?

Do you find yourself on social media more than you’d like? How do you fight the addiction?

James Greig

James is a graphic designer, author, and rider of bicycles. He writes about design, creativity and entrepreneurship on his blog, and teaches 7 Things You Should Do Before Going Freelance, a free course for anyone considering self-employment. Follow him @j_greig.

Comments (11)
  • Michele

    I’ve started to unplug more recently. It bothered me that I couldn’t even sit through watching a DVD without checking my phone multiple time. I have turned notifications off for a lot of apps so that little red dot doesn’t entice me more. It is far more difficult than I anticipated but I’m going to keep at it.

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  • joncwriter

    As a writer of fiction (sf in particular), I have to force myself to do this quite a bit. I’ll find myself writing something for about twenty minutes, and without thinking, sneak over to a browser to see what’s going on. It frustrates the hell out of me because I stop myself five minutes later and get back to my work. Suffice it to say, my current project is being done via longhand in a notebook and I’m sitting across the room from the PC (which I’m only using to play background music).

    I’ve found the biggest driver for me is to remind myself: Is it really that important? Do I *need* to be connected at this time? This is especially important when my feed happens to be filled with the latest political talk–something I’m actively backing away from for various reasons. I know how I’ll react to things, so perhaps it’s better for me to unplug rather than see it through.

    That said…it’s still a long road and I still find myself distracted. Funny how I used to think back in 2000 my main distraction was playing too many hands of FreeCell! 😉

  • Win

    I have no cell phone or TV and do not answer the wired phone. Scam calls have made telephones useless. I take messages and if I like the person I may call back. Electronic leaches are for slaves.

  • Dave

    I found a similar issue with repeatedly checking emails and facebook. I have removed emails and facebook apps from my phone, and make a point to leave the phone at home when popping out for a short time. On the computer I use SelfControl (ironic name, huh?) to block the timewasting websites and social media. Now I amuse myself with music and long books on the kindle (with no browser). I’m down to checking social media once per day in a 15 minute block, and have so much more focus and productivity.

  • Samuel Gentoku McCree

    The only problem is I know lots of people who don’t seem to return phone calls for days but will message me back instantly on facebook. I used to call people more, but eventually I just gave in.

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  • Andreas

    Great realization. The moment it hits us the enlightment is profound. Techoligical addiction is real. It has removed nearly any emotion from people. It has opened the gates of any sort of intrusion in anyone’s lives. Great as it seems for now we must be able to separate real people encounter with virtual. Illucination of another kind, yet legal. Thank you

  • Leonardo Pedreros

    I have done this very thing with video games, my phone, and facebook. I broke my phone and sent it back in, it would take nearly three weeks to get it back. At first, I really missed it, but after three or four days, I didn’t even care.

    You don’t realize the amount of time you waste on every device, thinking that you’re being clever or learning something new, but really, you are not. Try it yourself, you will see that memorable times happen with physical (unplugged) experiences. You are also allowing your brain to take a break for easier learning later on when you plug back in. It’s a basic studying technique.

  • Angela Moy Young

    I haven’t yet figured out the magical allure of twitter (God help me when I do) but I have definitely struggled with pulling out the Facebook IV. What motivates me is my desire to not have children who are constantly staring at screens. Lead by example, right? Thanks for the great article.

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