It was Labor Day weekend, leading to a truncated workweek here in America, and I made a personal and business decision: I was going to unplug from social media until the following weekend. It was the perfect time, as I had just wrapped up a year leading my startup Cuddlr to acquisition, finished my first semester as a media professor at JFK University, and finally readjusted after experimenting with a grueling 3:15 a.m. wake-up schedule. In short, I was tired, and more importantly, had the space to be tired.
We've talked about the physical baggage entrepreneurs create with office clutter and the emotional fatigue we endure when we tell one lie too many to get through the business day. But what about the mental weight we shoulder with every Facebook check, disruptive push notification, or unnecessary Tweet? I wrote a whole book on the issues with modern social media, but it's much more complicated for entrepreneurs. What if I don't spend every moment promoting my service? What if I miss a message? There are no clear-cut answers for us since, most of the time, we can't afford to unplug. But now I was given a gift: The completed projects and brief work week were permission to hang up my constant connection to the Matrix.
So I deleted all my social apps, killed all the push notifications, and logged off my favorite sites. By Monday night, I was radio silent. I also made the risky decision not to tell anyone, as I wanted it to be an undeterred experience. Again, I knew I had a rare moment to be off social for six days, and that most people wouldn’t be fully engaged online post-holiday.
Here's where it hurt:
- Missing the news in the morning: Seriously, I had no idea how much social media, and Twitter in particular, transformed how I get my news. What happened with the Apple event? Let me hop to The New York Times, but I remembered it was behind on the news compared to the Silicon Valley folks, so let me go to...wait, which sites are my friends and favorite people sharing? I don't know! Instead, I'm going from piecemeal coverage to piecemeal coverage, patching together what happened, because there is no perfect source anymore. I'll put it this way: Social media is like a newsreel and context and commentary all rolled into one. We take it for granted now.
- Texting/calling/annoying: By the third day (Thursday), I found myself sending more group texts. In fact, they felt very similar to status updates (sorry, friends). I also ended emails more openly, like "If you want to talk about it, I'm available." I realized social media feeds a part of my social needs, which sounds obvious at first, but tech-aided communication is usually quarantined off (along with letter writing) as a second-class method. Nothing beats meeting face-to-face. Today, however, social media is a regular part of our communication diet, and I'm positive I would miss it even if I had all the people I care about within physical reach, since social media allows me to connect even beyond my regular communities.
- Supporting others, myself: I know people who had just launched Kickstarter campaigns, new books, and other projects. And I couldn't support any of them this week. Perhaps worse, I could not share any new articles or features profiling my own business--and, true to Murphy's Law, two significant ones came out this week without me knowing ahead of time. The damage, if any, was minimal, but the whole week felt like I had entrepreneurial laryngitis.
And here's why it was worth it:
- I saw how social media keeps you on: The social-media break was pretty uneventful until the third morning, when someone started emailing me: Facebook. "Damon, you have 8 new notifications!" the message shouted. By that afternoon, it was another email saying 11 notifications. By the fourth morning, an email with 16 notifications, followed by "Your fans miss you!" delivered from my business page. It continued three times a day until Saturday night. My favorite one? "You have more friends on Facebook than you think!" I got similar emails from Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. If you consider Friendster the beginning, today's social media is built on two decades worth of psychology. Having a hard time unplugging? It's not just you. It is designed to draw you back in.
- I didn't miss anything: I was excited and nervous to get online on day six...and 90 percent of my notifications were worthless, including tags to cat videos. FOMO (fear of missing out) usually outweighs any real urgency in responding on social media.
- Restless boredom...: I also got bored quite a bit. It wasn't a wide-sweeping boredom, since my young family, current work, and general curiosity mean that I have very little time to actually be bored. No, it was the boredom within the minutia of daily life: The minutes between going to bed and actually being relaxed enough to sleep; the space between ordering a meal and having it served to the table; the brief time sitting somewhere waiting for a phone appointment. I had one phone meeting no-show that week, and I swear I spent the 15 minutes I waited by constantly refreshing my email browser. By later in the week, I was almost embarrassed by the number of times I reached for Facebook or Twitter--probably within the hundreds.
- ...and quiet insight: I began learning how to just sit there. The twilight before sleeping and after waking up was spent silently looking at the ceiling or, at most, doing a quick email check before resuming the silence. Sitting at a restaurant felt like a longer, but more intimate, process, as I became super aware of everything around me. And those brief, quiet moments gave my brain a chance to chew on lingering ideas and even give me insights: I had a flash of what I should put on my new business cards, how I could better plan my financial goals this year, and where I should actually be spending my limited entrepreneurial time. I was getting my bearings, something that is absolutely crucial for a boss, but much more difficult when you have a proverbial virtual finger constantly tapping you on the shoulder.
It's absolutely unrealistic to think that you can just unplug for days on end anytime, which is the very reason why I jumped at the opportunity. It doesn't mean, though, that a smart, preplanned hour or two of unplugging is a foolish endeavor (walking is my favorite route). It's not only possible, but necessary.
When was the last time you turned off the social-media spigot? Remember that your business will always value your presence more than Facebook.