Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Less Social Media, More Deep Work

Looking back over the last year, it's surprising how much I've tolerated social media in my life. At the time, I accepted the suggestion that the way to be a successful author in the 21st century is to have an active social media presence, and to devote a significant amount of time to internet marketing.

As a result, in 2016, I assigned time to building my number of Twitter followers. This was not something I was actually terribly keen to do, more something that I felt obliged to do. So, after quite a lot of work, I managed to grow my followers from around 60 to more like 260. Not fantastic, I suppose, but an improvement.

At the same time, I was feeling increasingly unhappy with my 'soft addiction' to social media, especially Facebook. It seemed to be a place I went when I was feeling a little anxious about things, or looking for somewhere to expend excess mental jitteriness that had no other obvious outlet.

The trouble was that Facebook and Twitter, like any other addictive substance, were very good at magnifying the anxiety they were purporting to alleviate. Firstly, there was almost always some feed post to get upset about and secondly, and possibly more fundamentally, the act of obsessive checking itself was feeding a general sense of unease.

Even worse was what the internet was doing to my creativity, even though I actually had a very productive year last year. My habit is to do the creative work in a place where there is no wifi access, and only later go online. What I noticed was that the moment I went on line, creativity went out of the window.

 So my New Year's Resolution is to reduce my Twitter and Facebook presence to a bare minimum.

This decision was clinched by the above talk by Cal Newport, where he suggested that the rationalisations that people have for using social media are mostly spurious. He also highlights the purposely addictive nature of social media, describing it as a slot machine on your smartphone.

By contrast, Newport champions deep work. He suggests that as people's attention gets more and more fragmented that paradoxically, there is a demand for people who can concentrate in depth on imaginative, innovative and challenging products. The difficulty is making lifestyle changes that will allow this.

After I saw this, and read his book, I realised that I have a strong preference for deep work over shallow. This is because shallow work winds me up and generates anxiety. It's is also a mimic of truly productive, creative thinking.

There’s another aspect of this that needs highlighting. I think that one of the deleterious effects of social media is that it tends to colonize the head-space that the imagination needs to properly expand. In my experience, the Imagination, which is where stories come from, needs a degree of emptiness and quiet to function properly.

What happens when people constantly fiddle with their smart phones, in every spare second of the day, is that necessary head-space gets jammed with all sorts of commercial junk. You stop being an imaginative human being and, as Newport hints, become little more than a commercial router that is generating wealth for a faceless mega-corporation like Facebook, Amazon or Google.

I do not want this to be my function in life.

So this year, I want to shift my priorities, from winding myself up with social media to cultivating the sort of time and space needed for innovative and more satisfying work.

…And like Sideshow Bob, I’m aware of the irony of appearing on social media in order to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out….