Ban Facebook - Image courtesy of gawkerassets.com

This year at the end of February, I made the spontaneous decision to lock myself out of Facebook for 6 weeks, through all of March, returning from my radio silence triumphantly (if a bit obnoxiously) on Easter Sunday.

I did this partly because I was tired of the way my attention fractured throughout the day, partly because I hated how I was spending my evenings (reading Facebook in front of the TV), and partly because I was constantly comparing myself to others instead of doing my own thing.

Here’s a partial list of what I was able to get done during my time away:

Business:

  • Learned a new style of sales copywriting and put it into practice on my business site
  • Created a free item to give to customers after they purchase
  • Researched and updated my company price list and consulting package descriptions
  • Started gathering testimonials from clients
  • Created a lesson plan for a new phone training
  • Set up an internal company “cloud” for file sharing with colleagues
  • Built a new file cabinet and instituted a color-coded filing system in my office
  • Became more active on LinkedIn, which immediately lead to one positive professional networking exchange
  • Made the last big revisions to a manuscript I’m working on for a client
  • Began a copywriting/corporate identity job for a nonprofit
  • Signed up for Lifetick and entered dozens of active projects and hundreds of deadline driven tasks (many of which I’ve completed)

Personal & Creative:

  • Got my squeaky bike brakes serviced and added a headlight and water bottle holder (the headlight was stolen within 24 hours)
  • Wrote a new essay, edited it, and submitted it to a contest
  • Sent out several other pieces of writing to literary  journals
  • Inventoried my writing projects in a spreadsheet
  • Started a diet
  • Began taking banjo lessons
  • Set up and launched this website

Depending on your level of ambition, you may think this sounds like a lot of activity or you may think, “Big deal.”

I can’t say for certain if this is more than I usually accomplish in a month–my February was a doozy–but I do know there are at least a few items on that list that had been subject to endless procrastination before I went off Facebook. Taking my bike to be repaired, for example. That task was a year in the making.

I’m sharing this list in the hopes of encouraging others who may want to take mini sabbaticals from one site or social network at a time. Do it.

You’ll find other uses for the time and energy you formerly put into “checking in” throughout the day. Your focus will improve, you’ll get tasks done faster, you’ll lose your train of thought much less often, and when you take breaks from your work, you’ll really take breaks. Instead of checking Facebook every 30 minutes, I’d leave my desk to read a book, stare out the window at the hummingbirds, or play my instrument. All of these things made me feel good about life in a way that skimming status updates can’t.

Would I take another Facebook fast? I’m already planning on it, probably for part of the summer. And even though I’m back on Facebook now, I use it in a separate browser from my email, hidden behind layers of Mac Mail and Word documents. So far, so good; when it’s out of sight, it really is out of my mind.

Twitter may be my next one-month fast. Whereas Facebook turns me into a spy and pulls me into conversations I’d rather not be having (Hello, politics! Greetings, unproductive witty banter!), Twitter makes me feel I should be doing things, professionally, that I don’t really need or want to be doing. The more people I follow, the more competitive I get, with my mind chasing down several different pieces of stinky cheese at once. (Rat Race, meet Twitter. Twitter, meet Rat Race. I know you two will get along.)

Here’s the problem with social media as I see it:

Too many messages from too many people muddle our internal voices, to the point where we can barely hear our own thoughts.

Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but it was for me. Scanning newsfeeds makes me feel like I’m standing in Grand Central Station during rush hour. There are too many conversations to follow, too many lives that seem more interesting than my own. Instead of spending those 30-minute chunks of time advancing a creative or professional project, I find myself rehashing gossip or worrying about whether I, too, should be at the SXSW conference or pinning things on Pinterest.

If I hop online for 15 minutes to look for a movie time, I hop off 45 minutes later with a thousand thoughts and action items in my head (many of them, irrelevant to my short or long-term goals)–but no movie time, nor any memory of why I went online in the first place. (I call this “falling down the rabbit hole.”)

Internet backlash is a shameful thing for a social media consultant to admit to publicly, but I share this because I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many of my consulting clients come to me for structured guidance precisely because they don’t want to fall prey to endless social networking. They know they need to use the Internet to connect with people and promote their books and products, but they have jobs to do, career paths to follow, complex ideas to distill into book format, and they can’t afford to be distracted. I understand that.

Can we learn to use the web responsibly and moderately?

I think so. Here’s what we need to remember: a little online time, harnessed for good and used to communicate rather than procrastinate, can be a very useful thing. The web is a wonder of convenience. It connects people quickly and cost effectively. Fifteen, 40, 60, or even 90 minutes a day of purposeful research and communication can be incredibly rewarding. But Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are tools, not worlds, and we shouldn’t be in them all day, every day. Life is out there, and life is in here (she says, tapping her head/heart/stomach), but life is not in this (pointing to computer screen).

Going offline once in a while helps me to keep this in perspective. I don’t miss social sites when I’m away and when I return, my time is again mine. Leaving reinstates my natural filter. A short break makes it easier for me to say, “This is important,” “This is crap,” and “It’s time to get up and go outside.”

I want to know: Have you tried a digital sabbatical or Facebook fast?  Did you forgo everything at once, going totally off the grid, or did your rotate off one social network at a time? What were your experiences?  When you came back, did you relapse or did you return stronger? Is there anything you’re going to abandon for good?

– Kristen

P.S. Here are a few links to resources about fasts and sabbaticals:  Steve Pavlina, Andrea Scher, The New York Times, “Your Brain on Computers.”