Social Media and Deep Work

Continuing my observations on the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, focusing on how your approach to social media impacts your productivity.

The “any benefit” approach to social media justifies use based on the flimsiest potential advantages without weighting those gains against potential negatives. It doesn’t even acknowledge the negatives. You need to be looking for the greatest possible benefit to leverage, which is not just whether you use social media or not, and how to use it, but what the best use of your time is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using social media for entertainment, to communicate with friends, or as a marketing platform. You need to take a hard look at whether it’s the best tool for the job you’re doing.

The “craftsman” approach to social media views it as a tool to be selected for a specific job. Only use the tool if the benefits clearly and substantially outweigh the drawbacks. The positives of the tool also have to be directly applicable to your goals, i.e. the right tool selected for the right job, rather than picking up a tool and then deciding what to do with it.

Having the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, then, is not enough. There has to be a project already in mind when selecting any other sort of tool. You buy a hammer because you need to drive a nail, or anticipate that at some point you will likely need to drive a nail. No one buys a hammer and then walks around looking for things to pound on. Not most well-adjusted and mentally healthy people, at any rate.

Why is social media approached differently? I’d say — this is my though, not from the book — that there are two factors. The first, as noted briefly above, is that it’s entertaining. Our minds seek distraction and relief from boredom, and here’s this free thing sitting there waiting for us — or actively reminding us of its presence and even telling us when there’s something new to see, depending upon the social network and how your notification settings have been tweaked. It’s the same sort of distraction that television provided for a couple of generations.

The second factor is that it’s easy to use. Our lives are messy and complicated. Our jobs are often willed with difficult tasks. Social media is simple. Scroll down to see more, click like or retweet or whatever, type an update or comment. These easy tasks provide some satisfying busy work. We feel as if we’ve accomplished something because we touched a “friend”, albeit in a superficial way, or told the universe what we had for lunch.

The answer to social media addiction isn’t to completely eschew social media. The problem isn’t that we’re incapable of walking away from the screen and engaging in deeper work. No, the real problem as I see it is that people don’t have engaging work to do. People aren’t doing shallow work because they’re giving too much of their attention span to social media. Flip that notion on its head. People are turning to social media because the work they’re doing doesn’t require deep though or concentration, and they aren’t rewarded with any sense of meaning and purpose.

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