It was January 2020. The beginning of a new year. The inception of a decade. The initial moments of a global pandemic.
While the world around me was crumbling, I found my escape in social media. This wasn’t the first time I was distracting myself from the real world through scintillating travel vlogs on Youtube and Instagram.
But this time around, I became more aware of my social media addiction because the platforms I escaped to were no less overwhelming than the real world.
At times, just scrolling through the deluge of fake information on platforms was enough to ruin my day. And more than the pandemic, it was the “infodemic” on my phone that was starting to affect me.
Despite knowing how it was negatively impacting me, I found myself drifting back into its addictive time sink. That’s when I decided to change this destructive habit. Here’s how:
Understanding The Habit Loop
Every habit follows a framework where you first subconsciously conform to a fixed routine. For instance, every time I took a break from work, I would pick up my phone and scroll through my Instagram feed.
A routine is just a physical, mental, or emotional response to an acquired cue.
After following the routine, you unknowingly get a reward that keeps you hooked to the activity. In the case of social media, the reward lies in the dopamine rush that comes from likes, comments, retweets, and emoji approvals. It’s in the immediate response we get from our network. Or, it’s in the destructive yet stimulative information dump that comes with it.
Whatever the reward may be, our brains subconsciously remember the reward and use it as a response for future routines.
Finally comes the cue — the reason behind the actions that lead us to the addiction. Is it boredom? Is it a coping mechanism? Is it just something we can quickly do during breaks?
The answer lies in the cue since it is responsible for initiating the habit loop.
Manipulating The Framework
Once you’ve broken down the elements of your framework, the next step is to replace your rewards.
As temporary as it may be, social media can often give us this false sense of achievement. Just reading something unnecessarily informative or getting a single like can induce a rush of dopamine. As a result, we feel like we’ve achieved something. And because of the satisfying nature of this reward, we get addicted to it.
So the key is to replace the reward with something less destructive and more productive. The choice of rewards may differ from person to person, but one can always experiment to figure out what works.
Rewards that worked for me:
For me, replacing social media with a dose of fiction works well. I used to be an avid reader in school. But I gave up reading in college because I replaced that habit with my phone addiction. Going back to reading seemed easy because it was a pre-existing reward for me.
Another reward that works well for me is redirecting my need for social interactions to something more specific. Instead of opening an instant messaging application, I try to call a particular person when I feel the need to socialize.
You can do the same with messaging. But before you know it, you’ll have five different social media apps on your screen, and you’ll be in the same addictive loop again.
Derive the cue, which, in turn, will help you determine the reward. If, like me, boredom or quick breaks drive you to pick up your phone, the rewards above might help you.
Resisting The Rewards
I won’t lie. It’s not easy at first. You crave your phone like a junkie craves drugs. There are times when your routine subconsciously kicks in, and you pick up your phone without even knowing.
So to avoid falling into these involuntary bouts of addiction again, you have to create external barriers:
Switching off your phone works best. If you can’t do that, block all unnecessary applications.
Extending the time of your routine is another way of controlling the addiction. Whenever you feel the urge to use social media, give yourself ten more minutes to become more aware of the situation. By the time those ten minutes are up, your awareness will kick in, or you’ll get busy with some fiction reading.
Set goal-oriented and rewards-oriented reminders. Take a sticky note, put it on your phone, and write “READ A GODDAMN BOOK” on it. So every time you reach out for your phone, you’ll be reminded that your reward needs to be changed.
How to decode the cue?
Our behaviors are often driven by forces we know nothing about.
I had the habit of complaining about my previous writing job because I was not too fond of the work environment and felt that I didn’t get the opportunities I deserved. But when I left the job and still complained about it, I realized that there was a hidden cue to it. It was a reflection of my self-worth as a writer. I subconsciously believed that I’m not a good writer, and so, I was deeply affected by the nature of my work.
Well, I learned things the hard way. But luckily, there’s a scientific method for unraveling your cues. Each habitual cue falls under five categories:
3. Emotional State
4. Other People
5. Immediately preceding action
In context with social media addiction:
Location: My work desk.
Time: 19:00 Hrs
Emotional State: Exhausted.
Any Other People Around: No.
Immediately preceding action: Wrote a 500-word article.
After repeating the same process of noting down my potential cues, I learned that my exhaustion and boredom drove my habit at that given time. This led me to understand that after almost every hour of work, I felt the need to sit back, relax, and glare at my phone’s screen.
Another reason why I reached out for my phone because it was well within my reach compared to a book.
So just replacing my breaks with something even more relaxing and accessible — like reading light-hearted fiction — worked perfectly.
Once you’re well aware of your framework and the elements that drive your habit, breaking it becomes much easier. Just give it some time and be consciously aware of what’s driving you.
The method above is not only useful for replacing old habits but also for creating new ones. To know more about it, you should definitely check out Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit.’