Recently, I gave a talk on how human beings tend to be wasteful when it comes to our most precious resource — time.
Indeed it was the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who once penned that “People are frugal in guarding their personal property but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy”.
When I asked my audience to check their daily smartphone screen time, the responses varied from 2 hours up to 5 hours a day.
Upon further interrogation, most of that time was attributable to social media, and in particular, Instagram. One audience member, who complained of being time-poor, ironically managed to spend an average of three hours a day browsing Instagram — equivalent to six weeks a year.
Was their Instagram use relevant to their work? No.
Was it an involuntary reaction to boredom and anxiety? You betcha!
Social Comparison and Instagram Anxiety
Ironically, rather than relieve us of said anxiety, Instagram can create more suffering, stemming from social comparison. People’s subjective well-being has a lot to do with social comparison rather than absolute sums. Most of us would be happier making $60,000 a year if our peers are making $50,000, rather than making $70,000 if our peers are on $80,000.
In fact, we might be quite happy making $40,000, satisfying our needs, until we go out into the world and learn that the average salary amongst our countrymen is $80,000, and consequently feel hopelessly inadequate.
Whilst there is indeed some benefit to comparison — it can serve as motivation to improve our lives, left unchecked it can leave us forever chasing moving goalposts and never feeling satisfied or content with our lot in life, no matter how good our objective reality is.
Our Roman friend Seneca warned us about this phenomenon two thousand years ago.
“Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds. I shall admit my own weakness, for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. Something within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again. There is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.”
But Seneca could never have imagined the size of the crowds we could mingle with on a daily basis via social media, and the danger they pose — a danger, I recently learned, I am far from immune from.
My Instagram Usage
In 2018, I had worked to get my average daily smartphone screentime down from three hours to under an hour a day. But in 2020, buoyed on by a combination of pandemic-induced lockdown, as well as a difficult, anxiety-inducing personal relationship, I saw my screentime and Instagram usage more than double towards the latter end of the year.
This uptick left me suffering all sorts of deleterious consequences:
- Despite my personal achievements, feelings of inadequacy took hold — just look at all the perfectly curated images of people’s perfectly curated moments
- Anxious and wanting — the Buddha said that desire is the root of suffering, and Instagram delivers an endless stream of desire into our consciousness, leaving us wanting to bridge the perceived gap between the objective ‘what is’ with the subjective ‘what should be’
- FOMO: it seems like everybody is partying on a boat in the Mediterranean and I’m sitting on my couch reading Meditations — what the hell?!
- Physically sick: literally feeling nauseous after extended periods of mindless scrolling through Instagram’s Explore page (where I consumed endless streams of bite-sized Cobra Kai, heavy metal, and standup comedy content)
- Depleted energy: as a 2012 study found, extended periods of shallow activities, can leave us feeling passive, with low alertness, and low energy
- Addicted: the more I used Instagram, the more I reached for it, and the higher my frequency of opening Instagram became, which left me…
- Distracted: with a seemingly shorter attention span, I found myself less able (or willing) to sit still and focus on deep work for extended periods of time, something that is fundamental to creatives and cognitive output
Having researched this topic at length for my book, Time Rich, I was acutely aware of what was going on, and early this year I decided to do something about it. Rather than sit idly by whilst the engagement gods wreaked havoc on my perceived reality and quality of life, I took action.
It’s much easier to avoid eating that bag of Dorito’s late at night when there are no Dorito’s in the cupboard, so rather than try to employ willpower and check Instagram only sparingly, I decided to practice environment design and deleted Instagram from my phone.
Benefits of Deleting Instagram
Almost immediately, I noticed myself feeling emotionally calmer, more content, and able to sit and work on what truly brings me joy and energy — writing — for extended periods of time without reaching for my phone.
Sure, there was an adjustment period. I would continue to reach for my phone for a number of days, swipe across to where the Instagram app was and remember that I deleted it, and recall that I deleted it for a reason. With that, I’d move on to other more rewarding pursuits, or at least something with less debilitating effects on my health.
Of course, I could, and would, still access it via my desktop (mostly for work purposes), and on occasion through my smartphone’s browser, but the friction introduced by doing so resulted in my Instagram usage plummeting by 80%, and my smartphone usage dropping down to below 60 minutes a day again.
Call to Action
So if you find yourself falling victim to the Instagram engagement machine, try deleting the app from your phone for just one week, and see what happens.