How I Dumped Social Media And The World Didn't End

If you really want to separate your work from everyone else’s, every time you come to a Y in the road, don’t think about which way to go; automatically take the toughest route. Everybody else is taking the easiest one.
— Richard Serra
How I Dumped Social Media And The World Didn't End

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." These words gave me the satisfying clunk of dropping a square peg into a square hole. But as I read those words, immortalized in Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, I understood this was a sentiment shared since the dawn of man. It's all relative.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his home in Concord, Massachusetts to live a contemplative life in the remote house that he built himself by the tranquil Walden Pond. I admire his willingness to spend two years in the pursuit of answers to some of life's biggest questions. The idea behind his adventure into the wild is a simple one though: what really matters to you in your life and business?

All of us at some point feel like the flag in a tug-of-war, one side marking what we feel the world is telling us we need to do, while the other side marks what we want to do. This becomes increasingly challenging when you venture into entrepreneurship. It's a world of its own. Elon Musk likened entrepreneurship to "eating glass and staring into the abyss of death." That's how I feel about my addiction with my phone, social media and a lot of the digital technologies I find myself drawn to. It's incredibly easy to lose sight of who you are through the false reality portrayed on social media. It's like all the worst parts of highschool combined.

Social media, email and mindless use of my phone brought on a bubbling I could feel under my skin as my anxiety spiked. Yet day after day, I subjected myself to this torture like so many of us do. Social media, in particular, pointed out what everyone else was doing, what I "should" be doing, and that I wasn't doing enough.

I've increasingly found myself lost in this noise. I've seen how my work suffers when my phone is never more than an arm's length away. My attention span is shorter. I'm on my phone instead of being present. Do I really need to buy a book on Amazon, check my e-mail and look up other movies to watch, while already watching a movie? That's what I mean by mindless consumption.

My partner Lindsey and I decided to do a mini Walden journey of our own. We scoured Airbnb for a place to collect our thoughts and reconnect with what's important. We found a nook on the shores of Lake Erie to get lost for a couple days. It lacked the distractions I was hoping to escape.

The entire place was no bigger than a one-car garage. Yet it felt like it contained far more than I'd ever need to be content. A wood stove for warmth and heat to cook your meals. A record player with a crate of timeless classics that reminded you of an age before endless playlists. Artists created with the intention of a listening experience. You're hooked from the first moment you hear the crackle and pop of the needle dancing across the record.

The entire nook was contained to a single room, separated by a sliding door to the kitchen. Beside the bed was a wall invisible to the eye because the art of hundreds of books was stacked into every square inch of spare space. A small TV to play a nostalgic collection of DVD's from the '80s and '90s sat at the end of the bed. And the highlight for Lindsey? An original Nintendo to play Super Mario 2 till her heart's content. Which meant a lot of blowing the dust out of cartridges and thumps to the side of the Nintendo to clear the lines of a time almost forgotten.

I'm not about to go back to 1845 to prove a point. I'm a tech nerd. I'll always have an affinity for the innovation behind technology. I run my own business with access to more technology on my laptop and cell phone than the entire NASA team who put a man on the moon. That point will never be lost on me.

It's my strained relationship with social media and a device designed to mirror the reflective nature of a slot machine that I struggle with. As long as I play by their rules, the house always wins. It's the very nature of the design.

Do I want to live in the woods by myself for two years? Hell, no. I'm not about to go caveman. I want the freedom to pursue what interests me and become damn good at doing it. That's not possible when I'm chasing distractions. Jim Loher, the author of The Power of Full Engagement, put it like this, "Imagine, for a moment, that you are out on the sea in a boat that springs a leak. Your purpose immediately becomes mobilized around keeping the boat from sinking. But so long as you are busy bailing water, you can't navigate towards a destination. The same is true in our lives. When we are preoccupied with filling our own holes to stay afloat, we have little energy available to define any deeper or more enduring purpose." That was my relationship with social media.

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidiness and decluttering has become a household name for her simple philosophy – only keep items in your life that "spark joy." She might be talking about holding onto too much crap in the physical world but I can see the value in applying this to the digital world too. We're feeling overwhelmed by the number of things vying for our attention.

I decided that I didn't want my brain to look like an episode of hoarders. A couple of months ago I deleted my Instagram account. Last month I deleted my Facebook account. You won't find me or my business on either.

What became clear in my own soul searching was that I have to do what works for me, not against me. It came back to the question I always ask myself when I need help slicing and dicing: Is what I'm doing today serving how I want to live my life?  I was trading my time for something that provided no redeeming quality in my eyes. I increasingly found this to be the case in much of my use with digital technology. While others might find value and joy in social media, it's not for me. The caveat being, I still use Twitter. It still sparks a little joy in my life.

In my new found "free time," I've learned 300 words in Spanish, which according to Drops, puts me at tourist level comprehension. At 1,000 words, I'm stepping into the conversationalist realm where I'm able to use what I know to express ideas in my own words. This is the time that I previously spent lost in endless scrolls of Instagram and Facebook. To me, it was an intentional choice to put technology to work for me. I choose to engage in meaningful and intentional ways. Besides the gym, it's been my go-to for reducing worry and getting my mind off business mode.

But when I am in business mode, I can feel my mind pick up momentum like a steam engine stoked with fuel. There's an effective and efficient speed to reach where we're not careening out of control. Beyond that, I'm burning too much fuel (lack of energy) or operating at speeds that aren't sustainable (taking on too many projects). The only way to slow down is driving straight into a wall.

Stepping away from social media could have meant I lost all my friends, my business tanked, and start the chain of events that sets an asteroid whizzing towards earth. I could lose out on the chance to be an "influencer" or a "thought leader." But more importantly, I could lose out on shit that actually matters. The opportunity to do something intimate and meaningful with my work. I'm not out to change the world. I'm out to change your world.

What was the happy ending I experienced? I still have friends. I actually find myself reaching out more because I'm not just lurking, I ask them what they're doing. My business took absolutely no hit at all. It's actually doing better than it ever has. And more importantly, my relationship with my business has improved. I realized we need to experiment with what works best for us. That's what allows us to show up as our best selves. That's what lets us engage with a sense of purpose while everyone else is too busy bailing out their boats.

PS - If what I said hits a note with you, check out my friend Paul Jarvis’s recent book Company of One. It’s your official guide to building around the idea that staying small and avoiding growth can be more durable and even more enjoyable than business as usual.

The real key to richer and more fulfilling work could be to not create and scale something into a massive corporation, but rather, to work for yourself, determine your own hours, and become a (highly profitable) and sustainable company of one. This book explains how to do just that.

Stephen Merchant grew up admiring people like John Cleese and hoped to follow directly in his footsteps, but even though he didn't hit the exact same milestones, Stephen did end up creating a wonderful and unique path of his own. Steven realized he had to let go of something so he could focus on what mattered most to him.