Man Quits Instagram, Reads 3,764 Books in a Year

I made that headline up. I’m experimenting with clickbait.

The sentiment of quitting things is worthwhile. Lemme break it down for you. I’m not big on new year’s resolutions, because I’m a do-a-thing-or-don’t kind of guy. There’s no real barrier to me growing a beard in July, or shaving my tongue for Lent. If I want to lose 30 pounds, all that’s between me and that goal is a shopping list and a fear of losing the taste for cake.

However! I do find the end-of-year vacation, colloquially known as “Christmas Break” to the locals in my town, valuable. I mean, yeah, we all swing in hammocks, which is a goal in itself. But without other activities like working for a living, I’m able to reflect. Where did my time go? What do I want to use my remaining time on? Time is the fire in which we burn; it’s the most finite resource we’ve got. Today, I’m going to tell you of an experiment I’m trying, and provide some ideas on how you might enrich your life. This ain’t no magic eight-ball shit either. But as a warm-up, here’s the hammock:

The Muse is double-shading. Clever summertime dog.

The war for human attention is real, friends. Your attention is linked to time in a way that your money isn’t. The more of your attention and therefor time companies get, the more they control what you see, think and hear. The content you see is engineered to make you respond in a certain way. Those clickbait titles? They’re designed so you feel excited and angry enough when you read ’em to click through, and then share with your friends, destroying their lives too.

Humans can be dicks sometimes.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’ll give you just two bits of content. One is about how technology manipulates us, and the other is about how media changes the way our children see the world, confining their choices and beliefs. If that doesn’t give you the fucking night terrors, I can’t help you.

  1. How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist
  2. Bring on the female superheroes!

Well. That escalated quickly.

As an author, otherwise known as a-small-independent-business-owner-who-made-the-stupidest-business-startup-decision-ever, I also want your time and attention. I try not to be an asshole about it. During a how-to-not-be-an-asshole design session over the Christmas Break™, I got to thinking: what are the ways my time and attention are being harvested?


I said I’d get here, right?

On my phone, I’ve got a bunch of social apps. They’re how I engage with friends and fans. Some of them are better than others for this, which is why Google Buzz isn’t a thing anymore. While I unpicked how useful they were, I had an epiphany:

Every time I use Instagram, I feel worse.

I mean, I get it. I understand that Instagram photos are those shots we carefully curate from the thousands of moments in our life. The perfect ones. We work out at gymnasiums. We have amazing parties. Our friends are photogenic. We look like supermodels from a highly specific angle with a bunch of filters turned on. In the moment I’m standing at the bus stop, waiting to share a ride with a bunch of strangers who are not photogenic, Instagram provides me a vertical slices of other people’s star-brilliant lives. And they did it on purpose.

You read the link above about mind-jacking, right?

See, the thing is the feed isn’t real. A life without algorithms or filters is a long series of gaps between moments of perfection. And that’s okay. What’s not okay is feeling bad in the gaps. Your life isn’t perfect (well, yours might be, but mine’s not). Since I already have enough imposter syndrome and crippling anxiety for twenty normal people, something’s got to give.

Be the change you want to see in the world

Less is more. You’ve heard it before, and it’s no less true today. We spend a lot of time packing our lives with ALL THE THINGS that there’s no room for ourselves. Over the break, I decided I would try a small experiment: swapping algorithm-fed content for stuff I choose.

Let’s take a look at my phone screen.

What’s this? No social apps?!

My default spare-time app is now Kindle (reading books). I’ve been playing with this for a few weeks now and it’s great. I’ve finished two more books than normal over as many weeks just by swapping out random social anxietyware from Facebook/Instagram for my Kindle app. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I still use the social networks I want, but far less frequently, and with directed intent.

I feel enriched. My phone is now a gateway to my friends and the wonderful worlds they’ve made, great authors like Cooper, Fox, Hindmarsh, Bruno, and Hart. I choose my own content. I’m no longer being manipulated into a set of feelings and responses by megacorps that want to use my attention to sell advertisements*.

* If you still have doubts about that, you should check out how Upworthy manufacture clickbait. It’s long, but slide 20 takes you right to the money shot.

You said you had advice

Fuck’s sake, patience.

The struggle is real. I mean, I get that your karate group / macrame circle / coven use Facebook as their social hub. That’s great! But do you need the app on your phone to participate? Do you need to get updates from Mary/Tom/Nancy/James immediately? Eh, probably not. Advice is a tricky thing. It’s easy to take the wrong way, and it’s often worth what you’ve paid. But if you’ve read this far, you might be thinking something like, “Does checking Facebook every ten minutes give me a better life?”

That question is a good start, but the advice is a little deeper. We can talk a lot about whether Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/etc. are good or bad, but the underlying sentiment is the one to look at. Are the activities you’re spending your time on enriching your life? Here are some quick steps where you can take immediate action to get more of the things you value back where it belongs. By all means, check Facebook, but make it an active choice, not the default one.

  1. Think about a time when you’re not working. This can be walking to work, or waiting for the bus, or when the tea is steeping.
  2. In that memory / imaginary moment, did you pull out your phone? If it was to check your email, Facebook, Instagram, etc., you need help.
  3. The help: can you swap those pieces of time for something else? Feedly (there’s an app for that) will give you written content from the sites you love. Your ebook reader will give you more stories than you can read in a lifetime. A good podcast app can give you audio and video better than ad-driven feeds ever could. Maybe you could jot a quick message to your spouse to let them know you’re thinking of them.

The advice scales to other areas of life. Wasting time fucking around on your laptop? Well, start at #1 and work down to #3 there, too.

This year could be the year you read a bunch of books you never knew existed, learned wonderful things from TED, or reconnected with old friends online. Don’t give your attention to the robots. Make active choices, and be awesome.

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