It's a chilly winter night in Munich, Germany. I'm alone in an empty hostel dorm, basking in the warmth of the heater and the hostel's surprising hygiene, trying to watch Mad Men on my MacBook.
I say "trying" because this is proving to be a peculiarly difficult task. Watching 50-minute episodes of Mad Men is taking anywhere between one and a half to two hours because I keep getting distracted.
I'll just check Facebook. Maybe someone from home has messaged me. I should take a look at Twitter -- oh, I forgot, Twitter is awful. You know what, I'm going to Instagram-stalk the hippie I met in Serbia. Ah, that's right, I forgot to reply to that Facebook message from the other day.
Some variation of these thoughts creeps into my brain every few minutes, glacializing my Mad Men progress. How will Don Draper's story end? I suspect I'll never know.
This was four months ago. I left Australia last August for a solo backpacking trip through Europe. Yeah, meeting people and seeing the world is cool, but I also wanted to use this trip to catch up on random shows, books and movies I could never get around to in my real life. I figured I'd have almost unlimited time, so it would be easy. It turns out that unlimited time means little when paired with a limited attention span.
Personal discontent about Facebook, Instagram and Twitter use is so common it's almost redundant. If you tell someone you're quitting Instagram or trying to use Facebook less, the odds are high that said person will reply with "Oh, wow, I really need to do that too."
Some of this is empty posturing, like the pageantry of saying you want to eat fewer carbs even though you already know there's no quitting your 11 p.m. cheese toastie habit. (Me. I'm talking about me now.) But the widespread understanding that social media use is a waste of time is telling.
Like everyone else on the planet, I often complain that there aren't enough hours in a day. There are so many books to read, games to play and TV shows to Netflix, but how can I be expected to do that amid the daily grind of work, commuting, attempting to exercise, keeping up with family and friends, and, y'know, sleep.
To this end, I used to think of social media as a waste of precious time. An hour spent on Facebook and Instagram is an hour I could have spent reading, mirin' Don Draper, learning a language or otherwise being productive. But that's not quite accurate.
When I jetted to Europe, I was jetting away from all my responsibilities -- and was shocked by how little difference this made. Because, for me at least, the problem isn't 15-minute blocks of time lost to social media. It's the 10-second gaps that social media fill that make it impossible to concentrate on anything for a sustained period of time, protracting even simple tasks.
The trouble is when the cheeky Instagram check-in goes from filling the 10-second wait for the green man at traffic lights to the 5-second lull in a TV show. Then, minutes later, you realize nothing makes sense because you actually haven't been paying attention. It also obviously bleeds into work. If a page is loading, I would find myself opening a Twitter tab even though the original page would have loaded in literally a second. Given studies have shown it can take over 20 minutes to get your mind back to the task at hand once distracted, this can be a productivity disaster.
Maybe even a bigger problem than not being able to enjoy the latest quality television productions from AMC.
I'd noted how poor my attention span was earlier in the trip, but Mad Men was my attentive nadir. Something had to change. Growing up, my parents told me watching TV would ruin my attention span. Now I can't even concentrate on TV long enough for it to ruin my attention span.
I deactivated my Twitter account the next day, with Instagram following soon after. (Now, four months later, Twitter has been reactivated but used much less frequently.) Facebook's app has been deleted off my phone, and is a laptop-only activity.
After the social media purge, I didn't miss lying in bed and scrolling through Instagram. I did, however, yearn for these apps in situations where there's no option to do anything else. Time spent waiting in line for coffee or on the 5-minute bus to the train station aren't substantial enough for me to be doing anything productive, for instance, so scrolling Twitter isn't so dangerous. (Except it is because, as mentioned, Twitter is awful.)
Peoplewhen Facebook and Instagram were down. The outage led many users to Twitter, a real oven-to-the-frying-pan situation. Some users went into panic mode. I call it a good start. If you struggled during the outage, look at it as a challenge. You already went 12 hours without Facebook and Instagram, see if you can make it longer. See how you feel after seven days.
And for the record, I still have six seasons of Mad Men to go.