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Hope you’re having a killer week.
How do I subtract?
“What’s it going to take to fucking changeIncendiary, “The Product Is You”
If these habits are ingrained?
When everything comes apart gradually
We ignore what comes to us naturally
If you don’t know what the product is
The product is you.”
We typically think of happiness as being about what we add.
“If only I had a…
new car, or
a better job, or
a kinder partner, or
six pack abs, or
a PlayStation 5, or
a week to myself…
…I’d be a lot happier.”
That need for addition causes us to expend energy, to stress, to struggle. We have to do in order to make so that we can add.
And addition is great, don’t get me wrong. Building things is what people do.
But we can also find happiness through subtraction.
When we examine what we mean by happiness, we often find it to be primarily defined by what is missing.
There’s a quote from Nassim Taleb that I review every quarter that gets to this point:
“If true wealth consists in worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises, then it is largely subtractive.”
The constant accumulation of tasks, projects, objects and stimuli amplifies our sense of stress rather than reducing it. Instead, we should focus on removing the things that complicate our existence…allowing us a more free and unfettered experience of our own lives.
I mentioned in last week’s email on Avoiding The Golden Mean that I was dedicating this quarter to subtraction – to focusing on the things which work and winnowing away everything else.
Here’s where that starts:
Quitting social media.
Many of you will be aware of the fact that I am a note-taker. I spend most of my days, in one way or another, writing things down, typically inside Roam Research.
(If you’re curious as to my methodology for doing that, I detailed my entire approach in Ultimate Idea Machine. To say that that workflow has been life-changing would be an understatement).
One of the most common refrains I noticed in my notes from the past few months was the vague sense of ill-ease and foreboding I got from using social media.
Here are just a few examples:
“I find myself getting upset at random shit on social media. I need to just get rid of everything that doesn’t feed into my best self.”
“Social media scrolling. I mean, I don’t mind it, but is this really how I want to spend my leisure time? How can I consciously spend that time? Reading comics would be better!”
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – social media is a poison, at least for me. Why am I letting the reactions of these people I don’t even know dictate my actions, or even enter my brain?”
One of the benefits of journaling and then revisiting what you wrote is that patterns tend to be far more obvious in retrospect.
While there’s a lot to love about social media, I would consistently notice myself being upset or distraught after using it – never too overtly, always juuuust at the surface of my conscious awareness. It was enough, in aggregate, to change the color of my days.
As Taleb would say, if happiness is mostly about subtraction than it seemed clear that social media would have to go.
Easier said than done, of course. The habit of picking up my phone at the slightest moment of mental downtime is deeply ingrained at this point. I had gone through attempts to quit before (by, say, deleting the Twitter app on my phone), only to self-sabotage (by just loading Twitter on my browser instead).
I have long lived by a personal rule: No goals without systems. I knew that, if I was serious about quitting social media, I would need to put systems in place to ensure I was successful.
I’m only about a week in, but so far I’ve completely abstained from social media…and I feel incredible.
Below, I detail the systems I used to make that change. While you’re welcome to simply use those systems if you want to take a break from social media, what’s more important is the thinking behind them.
“A bad system beats a good person every time.” – W. Edwards Deming.
If you’re going to go after a goal, make sure you have good systems backing you up.
The systems I used for this particular goal fall into three general categories, both of which are powerful determinants of behavior.
As a general principle, we do what comes easily.
Our brains like to conserve energy. You never know when a tiger might leap out of the bushes; you never know when we might need to sprint like our life depends on it. As such, your brain will attempt to conserve energy whenever possible.
This is one of the reasons we tend to default to habitual behaviors. Habits happen along well-developed neural pathways; they don’t require valuable conscious effort to enact. If something is habitual, it’ll happen unless you consciously will it not to happen, and that takes energy.
Using social media is certainly a habit of mine, so how do we counteract that? Make it difficult.
Whenever you introduce friction into an act you make that act less likely.
So – how do we make using social media more difficult?
Here were the steps I took:
- Delete all social media apps from my phone.
- Delete the web browser from my phone.
This was a tougher decision – obviously, a web browser is used for a lot of things other than social media – but I have a computer if I really need the web. I have Google Maps and Uber and so on as stand-alone apps. The benefit of removing the browser outweighs the costs in this case.
- Block social media sites on my computer.
I use RescueTime to track my computer usage and productivity. RescueTime has a wonderful feature that allows me to block all distracting websites on my computer at set intervals – for example, during the workday.
I set this once and can then forget it (requiring me to re-set this every day would be introducing friction, which would make it less likely – better to automate wherever possible). I can turn it off temporarily if I really need to – say, if I need to view Twitter for work – but otherwise it requires a computer restart to circumvent.
These three changes make viewing social media sites FAR more difficult, introducing enough friction into the process to make it unlikely.
Raise the Stakes
Raising stakes means putting “skin in the game” – establishing some sort of penalty for falling short.
This can take a variety of forms – the simplest of which would be telling your friends to embarrass you if you fail.
(By the way – me writing this to you is a form of that!)
I find a convenient way of introducing stakes to any goal is to use Stickk.com.
Stickk.com allows you to define a goal and then establish a “pot” – mine is $1,000.
I check in every week on their website to report whether or not I hit my weekly targets (in this case, “no social media use”). I can self-report or set a “referee” who will validate my progress.
If I succeed, I get a nice digital pat on the back.
If I fail, my bank account is automatically debited for the pre-set amount.
I find the threat of financial penalty, while not really enough to make a huge difference in my quality of life, to make a real difference in how much I think about my goal during the week.
We’re all programmed to avoid loss whenever possible. A little goes a long way.
Deal with the Downsides
The final set of systems have to do with dealing with the downsides of pursuing this goal.
Everything we do has a cost. Even seemingly “free” activities carry an opportunity cost – while you’re doing this thing, you can’t be doing something else.
One of the issues people running into while pursuing goals is that they fixate on the benefits of what they want to do – say, losing weight – without thinking about the costs (not being able to eat your favorite foods, not being able to dine out with friends, having to cook more often, etc).
These costs are real, and they’ll provide VERY handy levers for rationalization down the line when pursuing your goal feels less glamorous. The moment things get tough, those costs will seem enormous and it will be “only rational” to fall off the wagon.
Better to identify and deal with these costs upfront.
For me, there were a few clear costs to cutting out social media:
- I won’t be able to post pictures and videos of my life.
I often use Instagram as a kind of “visual diary;” I look back on it a lot, checking out pictures of the kids and reminiscing. Losing the ability to do that would be a real cost.
To counteract this, I invested in some tools that allow me to post to social media sites, but not view other people’s content..
For example, I use Hypefury to post to Twitter without reading Twitter.
Similarly, I can use apps like MeetEdgar and HootSuite to post to Instagram and other social media networks without interacting with other people’s content.
- I use social media extensively for work.
Specifically, I use Facebook Groups quite a bit for marketing, sales, etc. Losing access to those would be a major problem.
To deal with this, I found the Newsfeed Eradicator plugin for my work computer. This allows me to log on to Facebook to check my groups and provide client support, but not be able to see what people are posting on my general feed. It also works for Twitter, Reddit and Hacker News!
- What if I’m bored? What will I do in the bathroom?
I’m the kind of person that obsessively reads the cereal box if that’s all there is.
To make sure I have plenty of stuff to occupy my mind (heaven forbid I should ever sit for a moment and actually think!), I’ve been sure to populate my phone with high-quality, in-depth content.
I signed up for MailBrew to keep track of a number of newsletters I want to keep up with and keep tabs on a small number of Twitter accounts while staying off Twitter.
I use Feedly to keep track of a large number of blogs and publications I want to read.
I subscribed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker to keep my current events bases covered.
And, of course, I’ve got Marvel Unlimited in case I want to check out what’s happening in the Marvel Universe.
That’s more than enough reading material to keep me occupied in those little down moments throughout the day.
As I said, it’s only been a week (I’ll update you on how this all went at the end of the quarter)….
So far? The impact has been instantaneous and very noticeable.
I just feel….lighter. I’m not experiencing those little moments of outrage. I’m reading more long-form content. I’m more productive at work. I’m a little more present at home, a little less tied to my phone.
And I’ve had almost zero desire to look at social media.
Ingrained habits can be very hard to break….but good systems can make that process a lot easier.
Next time you want to raise your own quality of life?
Remember two things:
Sometimes we need to subtract, rather than add….
And no goals without systems.
Let me know how it goes!
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