I was obsessed with the Spice Girls when I was 8 years old. I would listen to their 90s albums on my old cassette player for hours in continuous loops. As a kid I understood their lyrics quite differently than I do now. There’s one song titled Too Much, which feels much more relevant to me looking through the lens of adulthood, rather than the playground.
Too much of something is bad enough
But something’s coming over me to make me wonder
Too much of nothing is just as tough
Obviously, the platform shoed purveyors of girl power were singing in reference to romantic relationships, but I think their lyrical wisdom applies to our technological relationships as well. We’ve entered an age in which our ultimate longings center around the elusive sense of balance in our lives. Technology now leaves us fatigued from constant communication. In reaction we worry about its harmful effects and put ourselves on crash diets from social media and our smartphones.
Just as crash dieting is not the way to lose weight healthily and maintain it, neither is it the road to productivity. Many people who struggle to lose weight find it more helpful to understand the motivation behind their eating habits rather than just cracking the wipe on food restriction. This is the reason apps such as Noom are taking off in popularity. They approach weight loss from a behavioral standpoint. It’s much more about becoming a better person than simply losing weight.
Whether it be food or technology use, by swinging our pendulums from one extreme to the other we never find our individual centers of balance. We go from too much of something to too much of nothing and when that becomes too hard, we swing straight back to old, comforting habits.
Cal Newport (2016) does not prescribe fade detoxes from technology as the solution to better concentration and productivity. For social media usage, though, he does suggest a purposeful 30-day hiatus in order to understand why we might be using it, similar to my detox a few posts back. He believes the elimination of distractions required of deep work includes narrowing down tools to the very few which positively impact your ultimate goals the most. His craftsman approach requires close examination of all tools you use and elimination of ones with less benefits than negative effects (2016).
In Deep Work, elimination is Newport’s exclusive answer to the distraction of social media as he sees no valid value in its use. While I believe it’s important to know the impact of social media on your life and your motivation for engaging with it, I don’t think the strict culling presented here is for everyone. It seems Newport himself may have come around to a similar opinion in his latest book, Digital Minimalism. He accepts that social media can provide some positive benefits, such as professional connections, and suggests all use should be optimized to cases in which the platforms are working for the user, instead of the user simply wasting time in monetary benefit to the platform owners (2019).
Purposefulness is a wonderful tool to employ to reach your goals, especially if distraction is one of the hurdles standing in your way. However, it too can be overused
I bring this up because there is a propensity for members of my generation, millennials, to optimize every area of our lives (Petersen, 2019). Since childhood we’ve been taught everything we do is in service to some ultimate goal: getting good grades to go to college, finishing college to get a good job, proving our worth at our jobs to earn more or climb the ladder. We don’t know how to get off this anxiety ridden train to push for every last drop of our potential out of fear of being left behind. If there’s an app or a hack or a blog that claims to have the secret to surviving and succeeding at doing everything, we’re drawn to it. I would caution you to not see deep work as a means to get a gold star in life.
In your professional capacity it should be dedicated to those hard, most valuable projects. Personally, it can be helpful to achieve those things of which you’ve always dreamed. Cal Newport eliminates all tools such as social media because he focuses his life around big goals and deep work, but we are not all Cal Newport. If you find you cannot go more than a couple hours without social media, then perhaps you should reevaluate your use because it could be a hurdle for what you want to achieve most. However, if social media is a recreational tool you use occasionally, rather than obsessively, it’s alright to keep it in your life even if it doesn’t majority serve a higher purpose.
Just like sometimes you need to eat a big bowl of ice cream or a plate of french fries, sometimes you may need to get lost down a hole of distraction on social media. Don’t be afraid to do so. It may be true, what Cal Newport says, that 80% of the value towards a goal usually comes from 20% of the sources, but something has to contribute that extra 20%. It may be the boost of happiness from that bowl of ice cream or that extra 15 minutes on Instagram. That’s ok. We’re only human. We’re not built to optimize every minute of our lives in pursuit of higher success. Seeing our focus and hard work pay off in measurable progress towards an important goal is without a doubt fulfilling, but sitting on the couch, eating Ben & Jerry’s and sending Snaps to your friends sometimes can be filling as well, albeit in a different way.
Don’t view these activities as slippery slopes to fear, but rather self-controlled occasional choices necessary for you to be you. Remember, too much of nothing can be just as tough. YOU define the goals, YOU evaluate the tools and YOU find YOUR balance.
Newport, C. (2016g). Rule 3: quit social media. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 181-214). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Newport, C. (2019). Join the Attention Resistance. In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (pp. 213-248). New York, NY: Portfolio (Penguin Random House).
Petersen, A.H. (2019, January 5). How millennials became the burnout generation. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work