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My Favorite Tools For Escaping Social Media and Taking Back Attention

Social media is addictive. That it’s addictive is not an accident: Social media is built to be addictive. In the same way casinos design slot machines, the companies behind services like Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, and BuzzFeed spend billions of dollars researching how to maximize your time spent on and continued use of their products. After all, more time on their sites = more advertisements served = more profits – it’s just good business.

But what’s good for Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is not what is good for our lives. Social media habits can rob us of our ability to concentrate, to get sh*t done and even disrupt our relationships.

The good news is there are new tools that can help you take control of both how you use social media and your ability to focus. After a few weeks of experimenting with a number of these tools, I’ve achieved a level of social media use that lets me get the most out of what good these services do offer while maintaining control over my attention during the most productive hours of my day.

Here’s what I’m using:

Freedom App (Paid) 

An app called Freedom is the best tool I’ve found for taking control of media use and attention. Using VPN technology, Freedom allows you to control when and what you can access, across all your devices. Freedom lets you to block not only apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat but also specific websites, as well.

What really makes Freedom powerful is the level of control it gives you. It allows you to create customized lists of blocked services and then associate those lists with schedules that can be specified to times of day, days of the week and different devices.

For example, I created the above Blocklist titled “SansGmail” to block a number of social media services. I then associated that Blocklist with the below schedule to restrict those services from  6:30am to 8:00pm, Monday through Saturday, just on my phone.

 

By scheduling blocked-out times in advance Freedom allows you to stop relying on your finite supply of willpower to change. I made progress changing my social media use before using Freedom, but this app is what has allowed me to automate those changes to the point that they now feel like a habit

Strict Workflow Chrome Extension (Free)

The Strict Workflow chrome extension is a simple but effective tool for re-training yourself to focus and avoid mindless content while working. The app inserts a timer icon into your browser that will block any websites you specify for a set amount of “work time”, followed by an interval of “break time”, when nothing is blocked. For example, you would set the timer to block Facebook, Twitter and other news sites for a 45 minute work interval, followed by a 15 minute break interval.

After just a few months of using this extension, my ability to concentrate has improved dramatically. That said, at least once a week I still find myself reflexively going to Facebook or Bloomberg and I’m happy that all I have to do is press the timer to cut me off and keep me focused.

Turn Off Notifications (Free)

For anyone who wants to decrease their social media use turning off all notifications is an easy first step. Let’s face it, there’s no reason for your phone to buzz every time someone likes the latest photo of your lunch.

Similarly, moving social media apps from the first page into the depths of your phone can make it easier for you to resist the urge to sign into these services. If nothing else, having to swipe or click through numerous screens will make you more aware of how often, and how much time you spend reaching for social media dopamine hits.

Deleting Apps Method (Free)

Ok kids… time to turn off the Instagram……

Do you remember when your parents would tell you to turn off the TV for the night? I do. And I’ve adopted a similar strategy for tuning out habit forming apps like Instagram. I delete the app every evening, reinstalling it during my approved viewing hours at night, then delete it again before going to sleep.

I started doing this because I became so disgusted at how reflexively I checked Instagram. I realized that just seeing the Instagram app on my screen increased the likelihood that I’d try to open it, whether it was blocked or not.   

Airplane Mode (Free)

When I first started to take control of my ability to focus I used a combination of the Strict Workflow app and my phones airplane mode. Many people will balk at the idea of being completely cut off from their cell-phones. But if you do any kind of thoughtful work it’s more important for your career that you find a way to keep your attention on producing quality then it is to take every call the instant it arrives.

Placing your phone on airplane mode and setting a timer for 30 minutes is a great way to begin practicing attention and deep work habits.

One Day At A Time  

Habits are hard to change. It’s a rare person who can go to sleep one night saying they are going to be different and jump out of bed the next morning a changed man or woman. In reality we change incrementally: Bad habit’s don’t just stop, instead they are modified or replaced with more benign ones – one day at time.

I wrote this post because using these tools to change my social media use and take back my attention has changed my life. Being free of the mindless urge to look at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is like having a whole other compartment of your brain freed up. I couldn’t be happier with the results and I think you will be too.

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So… have you tried to quit or change your social media use? If so please share your experience in the comments.

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Brett Victor – Building Technology to Human Dimensions & Being Conscious of The Adjacent Horizon

The Humane Representation of Thought from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

 

At almost 1 hour the above talk by Brett Victor is both long and incredibly thought provoking. In it he explains how our current technological landscape utilizes only a narrow band of humanity’s capacity for thought.

People like to talk about where technology is going and what it will do for us but as Mr. Victor demonstrates, technology doesn’t move towards its highest expression by improvements in processing power or market forces alone. Instead it requires people equipped with the intentionality to design technology that work with and across the scope of human capabilities.

 

For me his point about the needs for intentionality in how we design technology speaks to a larger issue in our society. That is, the misguided assumption that outcomes are driven by market forces through a competitive evolution towards their most useful and desirable incarnation. This is naive, many things are shaped almost irrevocably by the design decisions at their beginnings, or to use the technical term they exhibit path dependency. The way that cities are designed is a good example of this.

This is worth talking about because only once we acknowledge this reality that things won’t take care of themselves can we begin to look at the edges of what might have been, and what better future might be on the adjacent horizon, but only with our help. As Mr. Victor eloquently ends his talk:

Humane won’t just happen. This not just like Sussman’s technology that is going to happen because there’s already really powerful forces at play. Humane is never a default. And humane only ever comes out of deliberate and conscious design work. If you do the incremental thing, and just ride the current wave of technology and let technology lead you wherever it leads you it’s going to lead you to a tighter and tighter cage…

 

 



Built to Lie to You – Learning About Media Manipulation From Ryan Holiday

 

I like to think I’m skeptical but after reading Ryan Holiday’s media tell all, Trust Me I’m Lying, I realize I have not been skeptical enough. Ryan Holiday, the self-proclaimed media manipulator, has worked in public relations for the fashion brand American Apparel, as well as the bestselling authors Robert Greene, and Tucker Max. In Trust Me I’m Lying (TMIL), Holiday takes the reader through the mechanics of the modern media cycle and it’s ugly. But it’s also eye-opening; the best thing about Trust Me I’m Lying’s is how it has forced me to examine and reconsider many of my assumptions about the media. Here are a few of them.

Assumption 1 –  Blogs Have Standards like Newspapers  

I can say that before reading Holiday’s book I knew there was a difference between the New York Times and The New York Post and yet somehow when it came to the world of digital media everything sort of blurred together. To me, a story published Business Insider was pretty much the same as a story published in The Washington Post. More broadly, I was operating under the assumption that any sufficiently large media outlet was governed by some sort of overarching code of media ethics – something akin to the Hippocratic oath for media – a code that you have to follow if you want to respect yourself and be respected by others. And I was totally wrong.

New digital media aka blogs are not incentivized to care about standards. If they do publish something false, they can blame it on poor sourcing and issue a correction. As long as the story has generated page-views and thereby advertising revenue they’ve still come out ahead. As TMIL puts it:  

Blogs need things to cover. The Times has to fill a newspaper only once per day. A cable news channel has to fill twenty-four hours of programming 365 days a year. But blogs have to fill an infinite amount of space…

Assumption 2 – Newspapers Have Standards

More established media outlets like The New York Times and CNN may have more stringent sourcing standards but they also live and die by advertising dollars. Thus if a story is generating a lot of attention at lower level blogs, established media outlets will feel immense pressure to cover it as well.

This creates a kind of echo chamber effect whereby stories we get exposed to are not those that are important but those that resonate and reverberate through the medium of our modern media, which is, of course, the internet.

Even within publications, the burden of proof for the print version of a newspaper might differ drastically from what reporters need to go live with a blog post. As media outlets grapple with tighter deadlines and smaller staffs, many of the old standards for verification, confirmation and fact-checking are becoming impossible to maintain.

Assumption 3 – The Truth Will Out

I always thought there was a symmetry to the news; e.g. if a there was a big scandal, then discovering that the scandal was manufactured, bogus or just plain wrong would be equally newsworthy. As Dwight Schrute would say, this is False!

Bad behavior makes us talk, public shaming and gossip are things we love to share with others. On the other hand, finding out that we were wrong about something, that our outrage and condemnation were based on nothing more than hearsay, or outright media manipulation is not the kind of thing we’re dying to share on Facebook. The media knows this and adjusts their publishing accordingly.

The example Holiday uses is Toyota. You probably heard that Toyota was pounded by the media for supposedly selling cars that accelerated on their own. Toyota ended up recalling vehicles and settling with the Department of Justice to the tune of $1.2 billion.

What you probably never heard is that an investigation by NASA determined that there was no electronic malfunction that could have caused large unintended acceleration. And yet Toyota remains guilty even after being proven innocent because exoneration doesn’t get page views.

Assumption 4 – The Media Is Selective

It’s human instinct to associate popularity with importance. If you see someone looking up, you’ll naturally tilt your head skyward to see what’s going on. In the same way we also tend to assume that if a popular media outlet is publishing something it’s worth reading. Not so.

This is because one, blogs don’t care about what’s important, they care about what’s going to generate interest. Two, they have to almost zero marginal cost for each additional story they produce. So when marketers want to pitch or even write stories for these publications the blogs are more than happy to oblige. TMIL illustrates this almost ad nauseam but my favorite example concerns a memo on the subject from Business Insider to the world at large:

In April 2011, Business Insider editor Henry Blodget put out an advisory to the PR world. He was drowning in elaborate story pitches and information about new services. He just couldn’t read them all… So he proposed a solution: the publicists could write about the product launches of their own clients and Blodget’s site would edit and publish them. ‘In short’ he concluded, ‘Please stop sending us e-mails with story ideas and just contribute directly to Business Insider. You’ll get a lot more ink for yourself and for your clients and you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted work.’

While TMIL can at times feel repetitive, braggadocious, sensational and self-righteous, it’s more than compensated for by the fact that I’m sure I’ll never look at the media the same way again. In fact, reading TMIL has convinced me to go on a media diet, a diet I think I’ll actually stick to for a change.

 




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