On December 22 I pinned a tweet to the top of my tweet list saying I was taking a vacation from Twitter. I didn’t speculate, publicly or privately, on how long this would last. It was an experiment. I linked to a nice post by Adam Brault (@adambrault) called I quit Twitter for a month and it completely changed my thinking about mostly everything. My own vacation was less earth-shaking, but it did get me thinking about my digital habits.
On January 8 I came across a review of a book whose author I follow on Twitter (A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease by Carsten Timmermann). Since I wanted to share this with my Twitter history of medicine colleagues, I broke my Twitter fast and unpinned my vacation tweet.
So it turns out I went seventeen days without Twitter. Subsequently I’ve found myself only gradually resuming my typical Twitter behavior. It’s too soon to say whether this vacation permanently altered either how active I am on Twitter or the nature of my tweets. That’s a definite possibility. The main reason I haven’t resumed my prior behavior is that seventeen days seems to have been enough time to acquire a new set of habits.
Changing a habit
How long does it take to change a habit? That’s undoubtedly the wrong question, since behavior is too complex to allow simple generalizations. Oliver Burkeman has a nice piece in The Guardian where he debunks the myth that it takes X number of days (the most popular values for X are 28 and 21). He writes:
[H]abits are responses to needs. This sounds obvious, but countless efforts at habit change ignore its implications. If you eat badly, you might resolve to start eating well, but if you’re eating burgers and ice-cream to feel comforted, relaxed and happy, trying to replace them with broccoli and carrot juice is like dealing with a leaky bathroom tap by repainting the kitchen.
In my case, I took a Twitter vacation because I wanted to write more blog posts. My previous habit was to check email and Twitter and to read the news and my favorite blogs when I first sat down at my computer each day. Now, instead, I open a current Word file and start writing. That definitely results in more writing. This change in habits was much easier than substituting carrot juice for ice cream, since it satisfied a need that could compete with my enjoyment of Twitter.
Why is Twitter seductive?
I recently read an interview with Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics. He offers a few ideas on why checking email, social media, and the news is so compulsive.
First, he discusses B. F. Skinner’s concept of random reinforcement. Rats can learn to press a lever for food, even if the reward only appears after pressing the lever 100 times. When the reward appears after a random number of presses, rats find this even “more exciting” than rewards at regular intervals. They will keep pressing the lever even if the reward is taken away.
I think that e-mail and social networks are a great example of random reinforcement. Usually, when we pull the lever to check our e-mail, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting. And that excitement, which happens at random intervals, keeps us coming back to check our e-mail all the time.
Next he discusses choice architecture: we’re more likely to choose fruit and salad if it’s right in front of us at the buffet, as opposed to when it’s tucked away behind the bacon and French fries.
If you think about it, the world around us, including the world in our computers, is all about trying to tempt us to do things right now. Take Facebook, for example. Do they want you to be more productive twenty years from now? Or do they want to take your time, attention, and money right now? The same thing goes for YouTube, online newspapers, and so on.
The basic combination of these three things: (1) that the world around us tries to tempt us; (2) that we listen to the world around us (e.g. choice architecture); and (3) that we don’t deal very well with temptation … if you put all of those things together, you have a recipe for disaster.
Ariely goes on to mention ego depletion: it takes energy to resist temptation. Theoretically, if we expend energy throughout the day by resisting temptation, by the end of the day we will have depleted our energy and be more likely to give in to temptation. Roy Baumeister writes about this in his book Willpower, where he compares self-control to a muscle that can be both strengthened and fatigued.
The invisibility of opportunity costs
I can totally empathize with the ego depletion associated with giving up ice cream (especially when I know it’s in the freezer). With Twitter, however, if I write first and resist temptation all day, I feel free to indulge later on. Is this ego depleting or do I actually feel less tempted after avoiding Twitter all day? I do feel less tempted, but that could be because my Twitter vacation — which felt like a relief — is still fresh in my mind. I know it would be very easy to fall back into my old habits. It’s called “falling off the wagon.” Writing may be satisfying, but tweeting is so much easier.
We spend an increasing amount of time on email and social media: almost 1 in every 5 minutes in 2011, 1 in every 4.3 minutes in 2012, and 1 in every 3.75 minutes in 2013 (these stats are here and here). Why is it so easy for email and social media to compete with a task I value, such as writing? Ariely makes another good point:
Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.
What I’m finding is, it’s much easier to see the time-consuming task of writing if I do it first thing every day.
More to come
I have a little more to say about my Twitter vacation. It’s true it felt like a relief, but I also found I missed the people. See my next post, Blogging and my Twitter vacation.
Image source: Andre Abreu
Oliver Burkeman, How long does it really take to change a habit?, The Guardian, October 9, 2009
Jocelyn K. Glei, editor (2013), Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
Raphaella Baek, Apps Block Social Media Because Users Can’t Stop Themselves, NPR, July 23, 2013
Sharon Gaudin, Americans spend 16 minutes of every hour online on social nets, Computerworld, April 17, 2013