I never was much of a fan of social media. I never understood the hype or the joy that people derive from giving their entire lives over to the computer. Since I didn’t have a need to be on it and had plenty of other things to do with my life, I stayed away. All that changed, though, when I became a published author. Suddenly I found myself in the roles of salesperson and ambassador, as well as author. This meant spending a lot of time on social media. You know, all that platform building goodness we’re encouraged to do. In the past year and a half, I’ve discovered what happens when you spend too much time on social media: You fry your brain.
The problems first started showing up in my typing. I’ve never been a great typist, but suddenly I was typing nonsense. The words didn’t even look like words, I was so far off the correct keys. (You know it’s bad when your word processor can’t even come up with auto-correct suggestions.) This was worrisome, but not terribly alarming because I just figured that my terrible typing was to blame.
Then came the problems concentrating. I’ve always been good at focusing on a task. I was a strong studier in school and I’ve never had problems getting into a project and getting it done. Suddenly I was like a squirrel on speed. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I would write for five minutes, then jump over to Facebook, then Twitter, then I’d think of something I should post on Tumblr and by the time I got back to writing, I basically had to start over because I’d lost the flow. And then my phone would burp, alerting me of something else “important.” Add in the terrible typing and my work was really suffering. Book three of my series really should have been done by now, but instead I’m still struggling with it.
There were other problems, as well. I started having the “Why did I come in here?” episodes where you walk into a room and then have no idea why you went in there in the first place. I couldn’t keep a thought in my head long enough to act on it. I’d think of something I needed to do and then, before I could do it, forget what it was I was supposed to do. Sure, I’m not as young as I used to be, but I really am too young for that kind of thing to become commonplace. Yet.
I stopped reading as much, partly because I couldn’t concentrate on the words and partly because my eyes were so dry it was uncomfortable. (That’s not just social media’s fault, but it is the fault of spending too much time staring at screens.) And it snowballed. Since I couldn’t read, I started watching more and more TV. Thus, more dry-eye. All that screen exposure also started affecting my sleep, thanks to the fact that too much blue light exposure at night can disrupt your sleep cycle. Lack of quality sleep made all of the other brain issues worse. In other words, I was becoming a hot mess.
Finally came the problems with words. I was having trouble remembering words. I’ve never been great with names, but I’ve never had to think of words for things before. I have a large vocabulary (or I used to) and I know how to use it. But suddenly I’d be having a conversation about something and I couldn’t remember the word I wanted to use.
This completely freaked me out. Brain issues run in my family. We’ve had brain cancer, non-malignant brain tumors, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. I was very afraid that something had broken in my brain.
Off to the doctor I went.
Nothing was physically wrong, thank goodness, so the doctor started to get into lifestyle issues. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. The only significant thing that has changed in my life is my increased use of social media and the internet.
The doctor explained that some people just aren’t wired to use social media in large doses. Some of us aren’t natural multi-taskers. Further, some of us don’t deal well with the fractured information and information overload that is social media. (He pointed out that actually most people fall into this camp, but some are better at disguising the problems than others.) And some people have a personality type that makes it very difficult to turn it off. Addiction is a real and scary thing. Because I’m not wired to handle all of this, my increased time on the internet sort of fried the circuits in my brain.
Apparently I am the sort of person who needs a slower pace. I need quality information served up in large, meaty chunks, not tweets and tumbles. I need plenty of quiet time to think. Screens at night are bad for me. I’ll never make quality progress on anything through multi-tasking. It just isn’t in my nature. I am not suited to the squirrel on speed world that is social media. I’m also the sort who can get easily addicted to this sort of thing, constantly tracking my progress and looking for that next hit of “approval” in the form of likes and follows. That snowballs into more squirrels on speed and more problems. I am a mess.
Now, I can’t lay all of the blame on social media. The doctor did point out that I am also at the age where memory issues begin to develop, even in the best brains. In other words, I’m getting older. (Don’t laugh. It’ll happen to you, too, one day!) There’s also a bit of stress and pressure in having books releasing frequently and needing to write more that could be screwing with my brain. But those problems were minor and compounded by my sudden social media binge.
So what is a broken brain to do? Here are the steps I’m taking to recover my brain. (I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t medical advice. Just some things suggested by my doctor and by some helpful books on brain health that I read. As with anything, YMMV.)
- Limiting internet, generally. Although I need the internet for research, blogging, and other work-related tasks, I’m limiting my time on it. I turn off my router when I need to focus so the temptation to just hop on quickly is removed. (It’s never quick. A two minute question turns into an hour of browsing irrelevant stuff.) I’m composing blog posts in Word and then pasting them into WordPress, instead of composing online with all of its temptations. I’m learning to just stay away unless I have a specific purpose for going online.
- Limiting social media. Thirty minutes in the morning and that’s it. That’s all the posting, tweeting, and responding I’m allowed. I log on, do what needs doing, and then ignore it for the rest of the day. It’s actually refreshing.
- No more multitasking. If I’m writing, I’m writing. If I’m reading, I’m reading. No more having TV on in the background while doing other stuff. No popping on and off the internet when I’m concentrating. If I’m working in the yard, no checking the cell phone. One thing at a time until it’s done.
- Turning off phone alerts. I’ve turned off all social media alerts on my phone. Only calls get through and those I can screen for importance.
- No screens after 8 PM. No more blue light in the evenings. With a bedtime of 10 – 10:30, the screens go off at 8:00.
- Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. As my brain broke down, my sleep habits went into the toilet. I was staying up too late, sleeping in too long, and varying my sleep hours all over the place. Now I’m trying to be consistent.
- Exercising and eating right. I was able to keep up with most of this as it was, but I’m making a point of being consistent.
- Practicing brain strengthening exercises. I’ve always been a board gamer, although that suffered as my brain imploded. Now I’m playing more games, working on puzzles, and getting back into focused reading. I’m also learning some new languages on Duolingo. That’s really hard, but the doc says it’s one of the best things you can do for your brain. That or learn an instrument, but language is free.
- Practicing more non-digital days. This was something I did before the meltdown, but now I’m trying to do it more often.
- Drop some platforms. I can’t be everywhere and I shouldn’t try. The doc encouraged me to pick the most useful and entertaining platforms for me and drop the rest. I’m still weeding out but I’ve dropped Tumblr, LinkedIn, and LibraryThing, and will likely drop Google+ before too long, as the majority of my audience doesn’t hang out there. That leaves Facebook and Twitter which are great for networking and promotion, and Instagram and Pinterest which interest and entertain me. And GoodReads, which is less a social network (to me) and more of a “Hey, I’m here and here’s my book if you care” kind of platform that doesn’t require constant updates.
- Meditating. I haven’t gotten good enough to do it for a long period of time, but every little bit helps to improve focus and concentration, as well as provide some relaxation.
It’s all helping. I’m slowly starting to feel more in control of my brain. All of my symptoms are improving, although they haven’t disappeared completely yet. I’ve learned a valuable lesson, though. The brain doesn’t like being abused. It likes it when you take things nice and slow and in a deliberate manner. While I want to market my work effectively, I’m going to have to be careful in how much time I spend splattered on the internet. Otherwise, there aren’t going to be any more books to promote because I will have turned into a blithering idiot who cannot write.
(Photos courtesy of geralt, jairojehuel)
Jennifer, I’m glad you’re spending far less time on social media. I’ve been much more careful about my Internet use over the last few years and it’s made a big positive difference. I just finished Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which advocates staying off social media so we can focus on the truly important things.
I loved that book! I need to read it again, as it’s been a while. I also enjoyed Smarter, Faster, Better, by Charles Duhigg (and his other book, The Power of Habit).