How taking a break from social media can boost your wellbeing – in ways you never expected.
Last year when I was in the middle of writing my latest book, Natural Care, I decided to conduct an experiment on myself. I would give up social media and see what happened.
I had been getting quite resentful of the time I spent scrolling through Instagram when I found myself once again lying on the couch looking at recipes, pretty kittens and puppies and photos of Italy when I could have been reading a book or talking to someone. Recipes, pretty kittens and puppies and photos of Italy will always be available so why did I need to have a constant diet of them, several times a day?
I was also starting to get annoyed by some people I followed on Instagram. It wasn’t their fault – it was their Instagram account, after all – but I found some of the stuff they were posting was a bit off. Instagram had gone from something pretty to something quite shouty where people found it necessary to parade and fluff their feathers. People I previously liked turned out to be quite different when they were shouting, and this upset me.
Some of it, I think, was due to Covid forcing people to reveal their true colours. A number of people I followed shouted about how we shouldn’t be in lockdown and how herd immunity was the way to go and how unfair it was that their privileged lives were being inconvenienced.
I was shocked, as previously I thought these people were pretty cool and sort of on my wavelength. If I unfollowed them that would be rude, so I started just muting them, which is a polite way of not looking at their posts without offending them.
Then I realised that it was all just a horrible charade created by this beast. Not only was Instagram wasting my time, it was introducing social difficulties into my life. Muting someone on social media is no different to turning the other way when you pass someone on the street. It’s rude. And I was doing it a lot.
I had deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts years ago, mainly because of trolls, because social media is no friend of women with opinions.
I held on to Instagram because it showed me pretty pictures of things I was interested in, but slowly and surely it turned into something I felt I had to do. I needed to check in on my friends and family several times a day and make sure I liked all their posts so that they knew I cared and I also had to post some stuff on my page every few days to keep the 3,000 people who were following me happy and engaged.
Flipping the switch
Then one day I had had enough. Did anyone really care? Did I really care? I looked at the piles of books beside my bed waiting to be read, the garden waiting for me to tend it, my work waiting for me to meet a deadline and I realised that lying on the couch swiping a phone had taken priority over things that bring me real, authentic and genuine joy.
I had somehow persuaded myself that time with my phone was a recreational activity when it wasn’t. It was an attention-hungry device, designed to keep me engaged and therefore making money for large corporations through the ads that I scrolled through and sometimes read, and it was doing this to the detriment of my quality of life. So I put my Instagram on hold – just to see what happened.
Nothing happened, which was sort of the point. And months later, only two people had been in touch to say, “Why aren’t you on Instagram anymore?” One was my publisher, who was just checking that I was okay, and the other was someone who followed me from Australia and was worried I had blocked her. She messaged my husband, Paul, and when he explained it was nothing personal, she said she missed my posts, which was nice. So my need to post every few days to keep 3,000 people happy was obviously all in my head.
Learning to do nothing
Shortly after pausing the very needy Instagram, I read a book by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
To be honest, I just read the first part of the title, “How to Do Nothing”, and thought it would be a self-help book from the US that would have tips and summaries to flick through – I’m quite a good speed reader after years proofing magazines – and from which I would take away one or two things which could help me embrace a less hectic lifestyle.
I took the book to Wellington but when I arrived, Wellington was in a blind panic because a man from Sydney had arrived with Covid, so everything was shut down to Level 2. The surrealist exhibition at Te Papa and the opera I had been planning to enjoy were both closed. I had an afternoon where it was just me in a nice hotel with hotel sheets and a lovely, fresh book to read. What woman doesn’t love that?
I settled in, put a Spotify playlist called “Baroque for Thinking and Study” on the Bluetooth speaker and began to read.
I realised pretty quickly that this was not a US self-help book I could speed read in an hour. It was a carefully researched, thoughtfully written book by a socially conscious artist in California. Odell argues that by turning against social media or the “attention economy” and clearing space by listening, thinking, and spending time in nature, your local park or your own home, you cannot exactly do nothing, but you can do better things with your time.
As I read the pages I suddenly became aware that I was NOT CONCENTRATING. I was constantly putting down the book to check this or that, then I would return to the book for a few more pages. So, I took out my notebook and pen, which I had near me to take notes about the book, and wrote a list of what I had spent that first hour doing. Here it is:
- I googled how much the Bose Bluetooth speaker in my room would cost as I’d quite like to buy one for travelling and it had a nice bass sound I really appreciated.
- I texted my kids – we have five – so that was five texts just saying that I was checking in and hope they are having a nice day.
- I called my friend Kerre to check in on her weekend.
- I called my husband Paul to yell him about the Bose speaker and how good it was and tell him how Kerre’s weekend was going.
- I replied to the text replies from my kids.
- I cleaned my reading glasses, which involved a long search to find the cleaning solution and cloth – which were hiding at the bottom of my backpack.
- I made a coffee, which involved working out how to use the Nestlé capsule machine as well as quite the dialogue in my head about those capsules filling landfills and how if I were really a greenie I would refuse to use them, but then I would have to go out for coffee and I didn’t have my reusable cup with me so that’s even more non-recyclable waste…
- I checked the time… four times.
- I Googled nearby cafes that I might want to visit for a late lunch and then looked at their menus online.
- I also checked the room-service menu in case that would suffice.
- I noticed one of my nails was chipped, so went looking for one of those sandpaper nail files you sometimes get in hotel bathrooms but couldn’t find one.
- I made a supermarket shopping list for when I got home, which included a nail file.
- I wrote a few reminders for the following week, which included planting roses, adding some more lettuce seedlings to the lettuce patch and seeing if I could work out how to make a pumpkin and cashew curry using the pumpkin which had secretly grown in my garden and which I had discovered just before I left.
- I Googled pumpkin cashew curry recipes and saved a few on my phone
- I checked my email five times. It was a Sunday. No one emails me on a Sunday anymore.
What I found myself doing in that hotel room was repeating behaviours I had become quite used to during the past six months. Constant phone-checking for Instagram or emails, constant looking up things on Google, constant queries and questions, all the time. Even on a Sunday. At one stage I even installed an email blocker, which only let me read emails three times a day. My habit of checking constantly had become uncontrollable – a symptom I later realised came from a job that wasn’t for me.
I sat on the bed and laughed at the irony of what I was doing. I was trying to read a book about how to stop the very behaviour I was exhibiting while reading.
Reconnecting with nature
I put on my raincoat and took a walk on a wet, windy Wellington Sunday afternoon and then I came back and tried again.
This time it worked. What I learned from Odell’s book is that “doing nothing” is actually not about doing nothing. She explains it as “a kind of deprogramming device” and “as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully”.
She suggests that finding time to think, reflect, heal and sustain will repair ourselves. And then we need to relearn some behaviours.
One of them is learning how to listen. She writes: “Unfortunately, our constant engagement with the attention economy means that this is something many of us (myself included) may have to relearn… the platforms that we use to communicate with each other do not encourage listening. Instead they reward shouting and over-simple reaction.”
Odell used the rose garden in her local park to sit and listen. She began to bird-watch and she walked away from social media. preferring #NOMO to #FOMO (the necessity of missing out instead of the fear of missing out).
When I finally finished the book, I realised that I was halfway there. Living in the Hokianga in a rural setting means that I am in touch with a lot of the things which help us do nothing. I spend time in nature every day. I know the names of all the birds that live around me and stop and listen to them often.
I swim in the sea and am very attuned to the rhythms of nature, such as winds and tides, as I literally immerse myself in them. I rest my mind regularly with meditation, breathing practices and good sleep. But instead of prioritising these things, they only happened if I had time away from work.
It hasn’t even been a year since I closed my Instagram account in June 2021, but I know I won’t go back. There are times when I wouldn’t mind being on social media, like when I started getting good results on Wordle and wanted the world to know. Or when I grew some amazing roses and wanted to share them with lots of people. Both times I tried to persuade my husband to put these things on his social media crediting me.
He agreed to the roses but not Wordle; that was a step too far and he only needed one go to tell me that.
As a journalist it’s frustrating not to be able to research someone’s social media account before interviewing them, but again I can access my husband’s account for that. But I have to be careful. More than once I’ve borrowed his phone for “research” and he’s found me half an hour later still on there, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. Quite unconsciously. When I realise what I’m doing I’m horrified with myself and throw the phone back at him. Which just goes to show how subtle the pull of social media can be.
Am I happier without Instagram? Certainly. Mainly because I have my time back which I end up spending swimming or gardening or reading. Sometimes I even watch television – in the middle of the day! But the best bit is the freedom. Knowing that whatever happens in my day will be decided on by me, alone. Not an algorithm second-guessing my wants and desires and mostly getting them right.