When I was 13, I smoked my first cigarette. Maybe it was 14. Either way, I was young. A friend of mine, Billy, was older looking than the rest of us–tall and lanky with a protruding Adam’s apple. He had a crackly-sounding kind of voice so he wasn’t usually questioned at the register when he bought our cigs.
For the next 7 or 8 years I was a smoker. Sneaking them on the weekends with friends and eventually buying my own. About a pack a day. Smoking is a powerful habit, intertwined throughout your various daily activities. First thing in the morning, while you’re driving, when you get done with a class, after you eat, before you go to bed.
By the time I was in my early 20s, I quit cold turkey. A story I’ll save for another day, but I want to paint the picture of a habit. Some habits are good and some bad. Well my friend, I have another bad habit I'd like to talk about.
Checking my phone.
Mostly Twitter, with the occasional Facebook and Instagram thrown in. In search of the ever-fleeting red dot dopamine rush.
I’ve heard lots of stories about social media detoxes, whether they’ve been from friends, acquaintances, or random blog posts or podcasts. The most recent was Jason SurfrApp interviewed by my friend Adam on The Gently Mad. I’ve considered such detoxes in the past, but the thought quickly vanished, probably after refreshing my Twitter feed for the millionth time that hour. I enjoy Twitter, but it doesn’t deserve to be my default behavior during every idle moment I have.
I was reading a book just before Christmas and I suddenly realized how little time I have during the first quarter of 2015. It’s jam packed with two big client contracts, lots of plans for AIUX, as well as preparing material for my workshop at Squares Conference. During that moment I impulsively deleted every social app off of my phone. Tweetbot, Facebook, Instagram, Tiiny, Vine, and Twitter for iPhone (as if one Twitter app wasn’t enough). It felt refreshing yet very strange not having a source of connected-ness in my pocket.
I replaced those apps on my iPhone’s home screen with two, iBooks and iA Writer. Reading and writing are two things I really really want to do more. There are like 8 books in iBooks that I’ve bought but haven’t read. Not to mention the 2 or 3 other paper backs in my queue that have barely been touched.
With my social cigarettes now crumpled up and thrown in the trash, I still notice the urge to pull my phone out all the time. When I walk into an empty room in my house I would usually check Twitter or any other social media app of choice. When I go to the bathroom I would check Twitter or any other social media app of choice. When I pull up at red lights I would check Twitter or any other social media app of choice. And sometimes, lots of times actually, I'll check my phone while driving, which is insanity. Seriously, what the hell?
In the book, Power of Habit, the author talks about a neural pathway or rut that appears in your brain after a habit is formed, like a dirt trail in an otherwise leafy forest. The book told a story of a man who had completely lost all memories due to an illness, but still managed to successfully take walks around his neighborhood and back to his house, even though he couldn’t remember his address, any street names or where he was actually going.
There's is no way to remove a bad habit altogether, because of the pathway that has already formed in your brain that enables the habit cycle. The cue, the routine, and the reward, which would go something like this:
Matt walks into an empty room (cue), reaches into his pocket to pull out his phone to check Twitter (routine), and finally sees that he’s “caught up” or possibly "filled with knowledge" (reward).
This habit cycle is the exact same for every habit. The trick then, to get rid of a bad habit, is to replace the routine with something good in hopes that it produces the same type of feeling or reward as the original routine. It’s been a week for me with no Twitter, Facebook, etc. on my phone and I’ve already managed to read 3 books. It’s weird not having constant access on my phone, but it also eliminates so much distraction. I’ve still pulled up Twitter and Facebook occasionally during the week, but probably 90% less than normal. Overall, I would say that reading a book instead of checking Twitter is indeed an acceptable routine for my brain's neural pathway.
There are so many things I want to accomplish, I simply can’t afford to have my thoughts and actions derailed every time I have an idle moment. I’m not quitting social media or anything drastic because I do believe it's valuable, but I won't be using my phone for it anymore. Like anything it must be used in moderation or it becomes bad for you.
This is my new years resolution–to be less distracted and more focused.