By September 20, 2021

Why Science Says That Social Media is Your Enemy

This is a chapter from the upcoming book “The Successful Programmer Mindset” which we will be publishing first on Simple Programmer. You can find out more about the book, and its upcoming launch, by clicking here

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

—Cal Newport

social media is your enemySocial media is everywhere and it’s extremely rare to find somebody who doesn’t use it. And there is a good reason for this.

Since social media became popular, it became extremely easy to meet new people and keep in touch with old friends, regardless of where in the world they currently are. Also, never before it was so easy to share content that can be seen by literally millions of people across the globe.

There are indeed many great benefits that social media has brought to us. But it’s not all as nice and rosy as it may seem at the first glance.

If you have been monitoring the tech industry for a while, you have probably seen various social media companies being involved in scandals on a regular basis. A lot of them are about privacy issues, tax avoidance and meddling with democratic elections.

But it’s none of these issues that you need to worry about as someone who aspires to be an elite-level programmer. Taxes that big corporations do or don’t pay doesn’t affect your daily work life or your productivity. You are probably educated enough to spot manipulated news or content on your feed, or at least to do the research to make your own mind up during any elections that you choose to participate in. And you probably already understand the pros and cons of sharing your data on the web and what problems it has in terms of privacy.

But there is one problem with social media that you should definitely be concerned about. If you are ambitious and your goal is to become a master of your craft, nothing can derail your effort as much as social media. It can easily nullify all of your efforts to build good productivity habits. And it’s the main enemy of deep work.

This is precisely why Cal Newport, the author of the Deep Work book, doesn’t use it. And this is why he spoke against it at length in both Deep Work and his other bestselling title, Digital Minimalism. [1] In the latter book especially, he didn’t pull any punches while talking about social media. This is what he said about it:

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”

As someone who aspires to become a great software developer that everyone would want to hire, you must know that nothing can derail your effort as social media can. Seemingly benign platform where you have a laugh with your friends and share funny memes can actually substantially slow down, or even completely derail, your career.

Social media is the single most powerful thing that can prevent you from building the right habits. If not used with caution, it is something that can make deep work impossible.

And it’s not an accident that social media is an extremely powerful distraction that can prevent you from building the right habits to become a top-notch software developer that everyone will want to hire. It’s been deliberately designed this way.

What social media wants from you is not in your best interest

If you are a user of social media, you’ll probably know how hard sometimes it can be to resist it.

Chances are, you have been in a situation where you have opened your Facebook or Twitter app just to check a few posts. Then, hours later, you realize that you have just wasted a lot of time scrolling the timeline and being engaged in pointless arguments with various people. It’s like your conscious mind got completely switched off and autopilot mode kicked in.

Unfortunately, this is all by design. This sort of behavior is precisely what social media companies want from you. They want your attention and they want it undivided. They don’t want anything else to compete with them for your attention.

Have you ever wondered why social media is generally free, even though you can do so many seemingly useful things on it? After all, a lot of time and effort has been spent designing all of these features that make social media so content-rich. And you probably know that it’s all been made by people who are being paid extremely well for their jobs.

So, how can social media companies earn billions from a platform that is free to use, while also paying their developers king’s ransom? Where’s the catch, you may be wondering? Well, there is indeed a catch. And it’s quite a serious one.

The thing that you should remember is that if something is free for you to use, then it’s probably you who is actually the product. And this principle absolutely is the case with social media. It is a business, but you are not a customer of it. Advertisement agencies are.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, are actually advertisement platforms. Businesses and other types of organizations pay money to those platforms to host their adverts hosted on them. And the platforms serve them in the best way they can.

Social media platforms already have a lot of your data. You have voluntarily given it all away. Not only have you put your personal details when you registered, but since then, you have also been giving a lot of unambiguous information about your personal preferences by interacting with the content on the platforms.

Everything that you do on social media is being traced. And this is how the algorithms know your likes and dislikes, your religious and political views, and more.

How corporations monetize your attention

social media is your enemyFor advertisers, it’s a true goldmine of information. No longer people have to express their preferences in surveys. You don’t have to rely on people to fill them truthfully or even fill them at all. You are constantly giving away all the truthful information voluntarily without even being aware of it. And it doesn’t even have to be you actively expressing your opinion in posts or in comments. A lot about you can be said simply by checking what pages you like to visit and what type of content you like to view.

Once advertisers have this information, they will be able to decide which products and services you would most likely be interested in. And if you constantly see ads that have been specifically targeted at you, there is a much greater chance that you will actually end up buying something that you see in those ads. But even if you don’t buy anything, the mere act of clicking on an ad earns money for those who run social media platforms.

For advertisers, this is perfect. Contextual advertisement based on a user's personal preferences is the most efficient form of advertisement that has ever existed.

For example, TV commercials are expensive. And it’s always the same commercial that is being shown to absolutely everyone that is watching the same show on TV, despite the fact that the show will probably be watched by people whose interests vary widely.

With contextual advertising, it’s all different. It’s way cheaper for a business to host adverts on a social media platform, because they tend to get charged for the actual result (e.g. per every click). So, if only very few people have expressed any interest in a product, the business will be charged very little.

Also, the advert will only be shown to people who match the profile of a potential customer for that product or service. Analytical algorithms running in the background will determine suitable context for the advert and will insert it there.

Of course, they don’t get it right all the time. Sometimes, you may see weirdly irrelevant products being advertised to you. But still, the chance that any given advert will be shown in the right context is quite high.

And this is why social media wants to monopolize your attention. The more time you spend on it – the more information you will give away about yourself and the more ads you will see. The more relevant ads you will see – the more of them you will click on. And those ads will then be better targeted.

This is why social media giants work tirelessly to ensure two things:

  1. That you, as a user, willingly give away as much information about yourself as possible, so the ads are targeted better.
  2. That you, as a user, spend as much time on the platform as possible, so you see as many ads as possible and click on as many of them as possible.

So, the social media will hire an army of experts of human behavior to ensure that these two goals are met. And, as the technologies evolve, so are the ways to manipulate you. [2]

It’s a brilliant proposition for the advertisers. But it’s not so brilliant for you. It’s all done at the expense of your attention and your goals.

So no, social media is not there to enhance your life. On the contrary, it wants to take away as much of it as possible. And even though it doesn’t ask you for money, it will probably get more than its fair share from the companies whose product you’ll buy after seeing it on their platform.

Why social media is the main enemy of deep work

You already know that the ability to do deep work is one of the most important meta-skills for a successful software development career. And it’s even better if you can do it in the state of flow.

But the key element of deep work is that it implies that all of your attention is given to a complex task at hand. To get completely into the process and clear your brain of any distracting thoughts, it may take you some time. But social media is very good at ensuring that it never happens.

You might be familiar with a situation where you were trying to focus, but then you have received a notification on your smartphone. Suddenly, all the thoughts about the task you were trying to complete have evaporated. All you think of is what this notification is about.

Often, it will be something extremely trivial. For example, Facebook may notify you that someone you don’t even know has posted in a group that you are a member of.

On the one hand, it will be easy just to disregard this notification and get back to your original task. But on the other hand, your thought process has already been interrupted. If you were in the state of flow, you aren’t anymore. You’ve been yanked out of it. The damage has already been done. And now you have to start from square one.

But it’s even worse if the notification was about something that’s meaningful to you. If somebody liked your post, perhaps you want to see who that was. If somebody commented under your post or has replied to your comment, you would want to write something back.

And now you have completely forgotten about the task you were supposed to complete. All your brain power is being used on compiling a reply.

And it’s not a big of a deal if it was a positive comment and you came back with a nice reply. You can still get back to your work. It’s much worse if somebody has actually said something negative that has been addressed to you. In this case, you can try to get back to work, but your ability to focus will be close to zero. Instead of thinking about your task, you will be thinking about what was said and what to do next.

Even if you have successfully managed to get back to your task after spending a couple of minutes on social media, that’s a context switch. And you already know that context switches deplete your mental energy. If you do too many of them within a short period of time, there won’t be enough of it left to actually progress your task.

But sometimes you won’t even instantly get back to your task after receiving a notification. Alongside the post that the notification related to you will see some other interesting content, like funny memes, a link to some news article or anything else that will attract your attention. And that where you can fall into an autopilot mode and start going deep down the rabbit hole.

Then you will just carry on scrolling down to see if there are any more interesting posts. But the posts will never end. No matter how far down you scroll, the content will keep appearing. And this is how you can waste several hours if you are not careful.

social media is your enemyAfter a while, you may wake up from this semi-trance state and will realize that you still have an unfinished task to do. But after processing such a high quantity of extremely diverse information, doing meaningful work will probably be the last thing you will want to do. Instead, you will want to carry on procrastinating.

And no, I’m not just describing the behavior of someone who struggles to control their impulses. Most of you will recognise yourself in these examples. This is how pretty much any normal person will react to social media, unless they have been explicitly taught about its addictive qualities.

But even worse is the fact that you don’t necessarily need a physical trigger to get distracted from your work by social media. Even if you have switched off all  notifications on your smartphone, you may still get distracted. And there is an important reason for this.

If you have interacted with social media enough times, your brain will remember these interactions. And it will want to repeat them. So, an urge to check your Facebook may come simply as a thought in your head.

But what’s so special about the interactions with social media that makes your brain want to repeat them? Well, there is nothing special per se. But the whole platform was deliberately designed in such a way that these interactions hijack the reward mechanism of your brain.

Almost anything you do on social media releases large quantities of dopamine. And that’s precisely why social media is something you can get easily addicted to.

What is dopamine and how is it involved in addictions?

You already know that dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in an animal brain. But the specific characteristic of dopamine is that it’s the neurotransmitter of anticipation rather than pleasure.

And because it’s the neurotransmitter of anticipation, it’s not the process of getting an actual reward that triggers it. It gets triggered when you are close to getting a reward. [3]

This neurotransmitter is extremely useful from an evolutionary perspective. It’s what drives animals to perform the actions that are likely to bring a reward to them. Essentially, this is the neurotransmitter that has been driving animals to survive.

When one of our ancestors was chasing an antelope, dopamine would kick in when the antelope was about to get caught. When our ancestors battled it out, it’s the dopamine that motivated exhausted warriors to fight on when they were getting closer to victory.

Without dopamine, we would not have motivation to do anything. Brendon Burchard, a performance coach and New York Times bestselling author, said the following about dopamine:

“People say, “I wish I had more motivation today, because then I would try something.” But our thinking is backward. The way our brain works is that dopamine – the so-called feel-good chemical – is released the second we actually do something. So the motivation doesn't come before, it comes after.” [4]

Indeed, it’s dopamine that urges us to complete a project when a large chunk of it has already been done. It’s the dopamine that nudges you to continue running a marathon when you already completed most of it, despite the fact that you are exhausted and all of your limbs ache.

One important area where dopamine is heavily involved is the domain of social interactions. Humans are social animals, because being social was absolutely critical to the survival of the species. Therefore a successful social interaction will induce dopamine response. [5]

Those are the good qualities of dopamine and this is how nature intended it to work. But those qualities that make dopamine the main element of addiction.

Have you ever been in a situation where you consumed way more alcohol than you intended at a party? Perhaps you remember the feeling. You have a drink and you feel good. But something in the back of your mind keeps telling you that if you have another one, you’ll feel even better. So you have another one. And then the same thing happens. And it continues until you have had one drink too many.

Well, that’s precisely what it feels like when dopamine kicks in. It doesn’t give you much enjoyment on its own, but it makes you think that a great enjoyment is just around the corner: it makes you feel the anticipation of a reward. And that’s what keeps you engaged in an action, even if your rational mind realizes that the action is not in your best interest.

It’s the same reason why gambling is so addictive. When a player keeps pulling that lever on a slot machine, it’s not a rational thought of being able to win that keeps them going. It’s the feeling that next time they pull the lever, the winning combination may finally come up. Once again, it’s dopamine that makes them feel this.

In many types of addictions, the subconscious mind of an addict will register any pleasant activity, as it will perceive it as something important to the survival of the body. Then, whenever this activity enters into your awareness, the subconscious mind will release dopamine to make you want to engage in the activity again.

It could be absolutely anything that makes you feel good. It could be alcohol or illicit substances. It could be video games. Or it could be social media.

What do you feel when you keep scrolling down your Twitter feed? You feel like there is something interesting just one scroll away. This is why it’s so hard to stop.

How hard is it to see a number on your notification bell and not click on it? Again, in the moment, it feels like there might be something interesting or important. It’s next to impossible not to click on it. Even if you use your willpower and not click on it, you will probably carry on thinking about what those notifications could have been, so you will probably end up giving in and opening your notification anyway. It will be hard to focus on work when you know that somebody responded to some of your content on social media.

social media is your enemyThis link between social media usage and dopamine release has been experimentally proven many times, so there is absolutely no doubt that social media is addictive and that it’s dopamine that’s responsible for this addiction. For example, one study found that, in some users, social media causes the same parts of the brain to light up that normally light up during cocaine consumption. And the extent to which they light up was the same too. Those parts of the brain were known to be activated by dopamine. [6]

So, there is no doubt that social media can trigger as much dopamine as hard addictive drugs. In fact, Addiction Center, an organization that helps people with addictions to find help, has said that, according to neuroscience research available to it, the effect of social media on the brain can be compared to pure dopamine being injected into the body with a syringe. [7]

And it’s not an accident that social media activities trigger dopamine release. It’s not only software developers that work for social media companies. They employ human behavior specialists too. Therefore social media is addictive by design.

How social media is deliberately designed to be addictive

We already know that successful social interactions trigger dopamine response. And this is the mechanism that any social media network sends into overdrive.

Naturally, each of us has around 150 acquaintances on average. We can’t have too many, because there is only so much time we can dedicate to face-to-face interactions. But social media has removed this limit.

It’s not uncommon to have hundreds, or even thousands, of personal connections on Facebook or Instagram. And when you express your thoughts on one of these platforms, it’s not just a small circle of people that will see it. It could be many thousand.

When you interact with thousands of people, it’s expected that at least some of them will respond. And at least some of these interactions will be interpreted by our subconscious as successful. And this will keep triggering dopamine response, so you will keep coming back for more.

This is why, even before any targeted behavior-modifying twicks are applied by developers, any social media platform would have a potential to be addictive. But it’s not 2004 anymore and people no longer get addicted to social media by accident. Many behavior-modifying twicks have indeed been applied to the popular platforms over the years.

The seemingly benign things social media does to modify your behavior

In 2020, a documentary called “The Social Dilemma” was released on Netflix. In this film, a group of people who were formerly employed by social media companies, told the public all the details of how social media was deliberately designed to be addictive. [8]

And those participants weren’t just minor rank-and-file employees. They worked in top positions in social media companies and other tech giants that use similar algorithms to the ones that social media companies use. One of the participants, Tristan Haris, is a former Google Design Ethicist. Another participant, Tim Kendall, is a former Facebook executive and a former president of Pinterest. Other participants are of a similar caliber too.

Some of the people featured in the film were the original inventors of those social media features that were then found to be addictive, such as the “like” button and infinite scroll. Some features have indeed originated as good user experience solutions and were only discovered to be addictive by accident. However, the reason why many of such features were kept was precisely because they keep the user drawn in.

“Like” button is one of the most basic features of social media that has been there right from the beginning. And perhaps it’s the most benign one compared to other little widgets. However, someone “liking” your post acts as a social approval; therefore it’s interpreted by our brains as a reward. Therefore posting something on social media and anticipating “likes” still triggers dopamine response.

When someone likes your post, you feel a little bit of pleasure. When you get a lot of likes, you experience a lot more pleasure. This is why even such a little thing as the “like” button has the power of making you post more, so you can get more likes.

Your timeline with infinite scroll is a much more powerful tool in terms of getting the users addicted. The inventor of the infinite scroll feature, Aza Raskin, who was also featured in “The Social Dilemma” film, later regretted his invention. And that’s precisely because this is one of the most addictive features of social media. [9]

When social media just became popular, this feature didn’t exist at all. You would always see the latest content that your friends have posted and you would only see a limited amount of it. If you would have kept scrolling down, you would eventually reach the end.

But infinite scroll, the content will never end. You can keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. And the content will keep coming up.

Plus, these days, it’s not only the content that has been posted by your friends that will appear on your timeline. You will see seemingly random content from the groups you are a member of. You will see various ads. And you will see content that Facebook recommends to you based on your preferences.

The combination of the facts that the content is seemingly random and it never ends is precisely what triggers a strong dopamine response. You never know what kind of content you will encounter if you’ll just keep scrolling down. At some point, you ought to encounter something interesting. And you can keep doing that ad infinitum. This is why, out of all social media widgets, infinite scroll is probably the one that is responsible for the largest amount of hours wasted.

But it doesn't stop there. Any other widget that defines modern-day social media that you can think of has been designed as a tool to keep you hooked. For example, an animation that shows you when someone is typing a message was designed just for this purpose.

Back in the days, when you posted something, you had no way of knowing that someone had responded until someone did. But these days, you will instantly see an animation as soon as someone has started typing. This animation incentivizes you to stay on the platform until the response from the other person is complete. You know that this is about to happen soon, so you would not want to just leave the platform and check on it later.

Same goes for the notification bell. When you see a number on it (especially if this number is brightly colored and stands out from its background), dopamine response in your brain will be initiated. You will want to click on it to see what’s there. This is precisely why this number was designed to be instantly noticeable.

Social media views its users as lab pigeons

social media is your enemyMost of the standard social media components rely on the concept of variable reward. This is when you are compelled by your subconscious to take a particular action, because this action may or may not result in the reward. You don’t know what the reward will be and you don’t even know if there will be a reward at all. But the possibility that there might be some kind of a reward is precisely what excites our brain. And the fact that the reward is variable rather than consistent is known to result in compulsive behavior.

This concept is not new. It came from experiments with pigeons that Dr Skinner, a famous American psychologist, conducted in the 1950s. He placed pigeons in a compartment , which later became known as the “Skinner Box”. Inside this compartment, there was a button and an opening. [10]

In the first part of the experiment, food would appear every time the pigeon would peck the button. This would make the pigeon peck the button at fairly regular intervals.

But then, Dr Skinner made a tweak. Instead of delivering food every time the button is pecked, it would be delivered after a random number of pecks. And then, something interesting happened.

Pigeons started pecking the button compulsively. Some even started to peck it non-stop for up to 16 hours straight! And the less frequent the reward was – the more frequent was the pecking.

This experiment was then replicated with rats and other animals with similar results. And now, with social media, the same experiment is conducted at a large scale on humans.

Humans have much better impulse control compared to any other animals. But still, we have the same dopamine-based reward system as any other animal has. Therefore any process that involves variable rewards would still be effective to develop compulsive behavior in humans.

A gambling addict is no different from a pigeon from Dr Skinner's experiment. He will keep compulsively pulling the lever on a slot machine until he runs out of money, despite not winning much. But so is someone who carries on compulsively scrolling Facebook timeline.

You may only have a small amount of interactions on social media that are genuinely positive. Perhaps, only a small proportion of the content you see there is in any way interesting. But just like that pigeon, you will keep scrolling and refreshing your notifications in case you come across something interesting.

But above all of these, social media companies employ the best user experience experts. This is why all of these platforms are designed to be extremely easy to use. Good UX is generally a good thing, but not when it’s applied to a system that is designed to be addictive and trigger compulsive behavior.

And those experts that social media companies employ do indeed perform experiments on their users, just like Dr Skinner did on his pigeons. In 2014 Facebook got caught conducting an experiment with 689,000 of its users. The algorithms were tweaked to limit exposure to either positive or negative content, depending on which group the unwilling participants were in. The study was conducted to see how users’ emotions could be manipulated. [11]

This is just one experiment out of many. And we only know about it, because the information was leaked out. But it’s safe to assume there are many more experiments like this that have been done in secret.

So, here is clear evidence that the algorithms on social media are explicitly designed to show you the content that will make you behave the way social media wants you to, which means spending as much time on their platform as possible. It doesn’t necessarily imply that that’s the content that will make you happy. All that’s important is that you keep seeing the content that keeps you engaged, even if it makes you sad or angry.

An activity that is easy to do will not trigger inner resistance from your subconscious mind. And if, on top of that, the abovementioned activity is also perceived by your brain as rewarding, then you will also feel an incredibly strong pull towards this activity. And that makes all addictive mechanisms behind it even more powerful.

But as a software developer, you are especially susceptible to all these manipulative mechanisms. Here is why.

Why programmers are especially susceptible to social media addiction

As a programmer, your main tools of trade are a computer and the internet connection. But these tools are also the exact medium through which social media is delivered to its users.

We already know that brain activity consumes a lot of energy. And because we have evolved in an environment where our next meal wasn’t guaranteed, our instincts have evolved to conserve as much energy as possible.

This precise feature of our physiology is the reason why social media is especially dangerous to software developers. The work that we do is hard. But the same machine that we write our code on, which earns us money and progresses our careers, also has access to social media websites, the biggest source of temptations that can easily derail your career progress. And social media was deliberately designed to be extremely easy to use. So, when our brain needs to choose between writing code or visiting social media, the latter proposition will be much more attractive to it.

This problem becomes especially big if you already have a habit of using social media on the computer you do your work on. At the first glance, having a short break now and then to watch some memes that your friends have sent you may seem like an innocent passtime. But over time, it can become a truly destructive habit.

No alcoholic has ever intended to become an alcoholic. They started with just a few drinks now and again. But over time, a habit of excessive drinking was formed. It’s same with social media. It was deliberately designed to be as addictive as alcohol. So, just like it is with alcohol, occasional use of it can evolve into a constant compulsive usage that takes over your life. It’s especially true when it was incredibly easy to access.

If you have been regularly accessing your social media feed from the same computer you do your work on, your brain would be accustomed to it. And to the brain, it’s the activity that it will want to engage in due to its strong effect on your brain’s reward system.

social media is your enemyProgramming, on the other hand, is an activity that you have to deliberately teach your brain to love. It’s hard, so your brain will not want to do it automatically. You might be a tech enthusiast, but to really fall in love with programming, you need to achieve several wins in this field. You will have to become good at coding and successfully develop a number of pieces of fully functioning software. A completed task that required a lot of work is rewarding to our brain. But you need to complete a number of tasks of a particular type to teach your brain to associate the task with a reward.

So, on one hand, you have an activity that will only start to feel truly rewarding to your brain after a lot of effort. On the other hand, you have an activity that will be perceived as rewarding right away with no any effort at all. Which activity do you think your brain will prefer?

Because one of the primary goals of our brain is to conserve energy, the subconscious mind will always choose the path of least resistance. So, unless you consciously apply some willpower, an activity that was deliberately designed to be as friction-free as possible will always win over a task that is hard to do. But you only have so much willpower. You can’t keep applying it forever.

And at what point your willpower is depleted the most? It’s when your overall mental energy is depleted. And nothing depletes the mental energy as much as the heavy cognitive work that you’ll have to perform as a programmer.

So, as a programmer, you are especially vulnerable to be consumed by the addictive mechanisms of social media. Even if you are a person with a good capacity to control your impulses, this capacity all but disappears when your brain is tired.

When your brain is tired, things like visiting social media become incredibly tempting. It’s right there, right at your fingertips. And when something that your brain perceives as rewarding is easily within your reach and you no longer have a capacity to resist it, you will probably end up visiting it on autopilot.

Every time you visit it, you will contribute a little into building neural pathways for this action. And over time, those pathways will become strong. As the habit becomes stronger, you will require more willpower to resist it. Therefore habitual usage of social media when you are trying to do productive work may make any kind of productive work a lot harder.

This is why nothing has a bigger capacity to derail your programming career than social media.

Granted, not everyone gets completely addicted to social media, just like not every drinker becomes an alcoholic. There are plenty of people who can use Facebook several times throughout the day for years and still become highly productive and highly successful at what they do.

But even if you don’t develop a fully-fledged addiction to it, chances are that you will still habitually use it more than you intended to. Anything that’s designed to be addictive will at least form a strong habit.

Even if you are the lucky one and you manage not to develop a strong social media habit despite its regular use, it’s still a source of distraction. You would still probably be more successful if you never alternated its use with your work.

This is why it’s better not to ever log into any of your social media accounts on the same device you work on unless you absolutely have to. There are still valid uses for social media (which we will discuss later in chapter [5]), but it’s better to use it on devices that are separate from the ones you do your work on. As we discussed before, this will enable you to create a distraction-free environment that is conducive to deep work.

Likewise, it also pays to not use social media at all during your working hours. If you keep it up for long enough, to your brain, this will become a habit. If, for example, you have only been checking your Twitter after 6PM, your subconscious will stop even suggesting that you should do it early. Or maybe that nudge will still remain there forever, but it will be so small that you’ll be able to easily deal with it.

Perhaps, the worst thing about social media is that it’s something that can quickly offset all the productive habits that you have spent so much time and effort building. And that’s what you need to pay especially close attention to.

How social media can easily offset productive habits

Remember how the process of habit-formation is similar to cultivating a garden?

Productive habits are like garden plants. They require time and conscious effort to be cultivated. You cannot build a productive habit unless you keep deliberately practicing the actions required for its formation.

Destructive habits, on the other hand, are like weeds in your garden. They will sprout up on their own without any effort on your part at all. You will need to constantly be on the lookout for any new ones, so you can eradicate them while they are still small.

Well, in the context of this metaphor, social media habit is like one of those weeds that are next to impossible to get rid of once they take hold. Social media is as powerful as Japanese Knotweed or Himalayan Balsam. These weeds can take over your garden quickly and can even damage your structures. Eradicating them is very hard and very expensive.

social media is your enemyRemember that social media was deliberately designed to form strong neural pathways very quickly. And those get formed with no effort from yourself. At one point, you are simply using social media to show your photos to your friends, chat with them and watch some funny memes. It can’t get any more benign than that. But it really isn’t. Gradually, if you are not careful, you may end up opening your social media app compulsively.

If a strong neural pathway was formed with hardly any effort, demolishing this neural pathway will be a long and hard process. It’s a lot easier for impulses to travel along a well-established path than it is via the path that you are only trying to build. And those impulses will keep reinforcing the path, which in turn, will keep reinforcing the behavior that this pathway is responsible for.

So, you don’t just have to work hard to build a strong productive habit that your brain doesn’t particularly want you to build. You will have to do it while trying to demolish another strong habit that is already well-established. Once a destructive habit takes hold and becomes strong, the effort required to build a productive habit to counteract it will be several degrees of magnitude greater than it would have been otherwise.

This is why, if you want to become an elite-level software developer, it’s absolutely imperative that you are fully aware of all the dangers of social media. You need to be aware that all the shiny UI components that you interact with aren’t there just to improve your experience. They are there primarily to get you hooked.

Just like Hymalayan Balsam weed is easy enough to eradicate if you spot it early enough, social media usage can be prevented from becoming a compulsive habit once you spot early signs of a potential problem.

All these habit-forming widgets that you interact with are designed to bypass your rational analysis. They were made to interact with you on an instinctual level. This is why problem usage of social media often only becomes apparent when it’s already a fairly well-established habit.

But if you want to become a truly elite software developer, it may take far less than what’s generally considered to be problem usage to interfere with your efforts. Even relatively mild social media usage can do it.

For example, you might be a reasonably good programmer. You might have been using social media for years and, so far, it hasn’t prevented you from reaching certain goals in your career. Perhaps, your social media usage is limited to checking Facebook every so often throughout the day and you have no problem putting your smartphone down whenever you need to.

But what if the action of looking at your social media prevents you from ever entering the state of flow and doing any deep work? Of course, you still can write code, even if you aren’t in the state of flow. But just imagine how much more productive would be a developer who regularly enters the state of flow compared to you? How much quicker can someone complete a task if they don’t have a habit of interrupting themselves?

Yes, social media would not prevent you from having a decent job. But it can easily prevent you from getting to the elite level.

When you want to perform at an elite level, you absolutely have to fine-tune your routine. Any mildly bad habit that is generally acceptable in the society can be sufficient to prevent you from becoming an elite.

Elite sportspeople, for example, don’t only spend countless hours training. They also religiously watch what they eat and make sure they sleep enough. Quite a few of them go to extreme length to make sure they win competitions. [12]

If you want to achieve something of value, you always have to sacrifice something. And if you want to become a world-class programmer, the most important thing that you need to work on are your habits. So, anything that prevents you from building the right habits needs to get sacrificed.

Yes, it’s true that many people in society are highly functioning social media addicts. And that doesn’t seem to be preventing them from having a reasonable quality of life. They aren’t like drug addicts that you can see on street corners begging for change.

But remember that the vast majority of people are content with merely average lives. And regular social media usage might be just fine to live an average life. But elite programmers are not merely average. So, what’s acceptable for an average person would not necessarily be acceptable for them.

So, what you need to do is to make sure that social media usage doesn’t become a subconscious habit. It would be a good idea to monitor how much social media you use to spot any early signs of it becoming a hindrance to your goals.

What you can do, for example, is monitor how much time you spend on it and whether or not it’s increasing over time. Of course, you can’t just trust yourself to put a timewatch on every time you log into your Instagram. But what you can do is install a dedicated app on your smartphone or a browser plugin on your computer to do it for you. And then you can check the patterns over time.

There are plenty of apps and browser plugins that do this. Social Fever, Offtime and Web Time Tracker are some of the examples. They are all pretty similar to each other and are simple to use. But despite their simplicity, they are extremely useful. Those are the best tools to prevent proverbial Knotweed from taking over your garden while it still can be stopped.

How to use social media without allowing it to use you

social media is your enemySo, if social media is so addictive, would I suggest that you need to stop using it completely? Well, not necessarily.

Of course, if you suffer from a genuine social media addiction and you have very little impulse control while interacting with it, then perhaps going cold turkey would be a good idea. Maybe it would even be useful to completely delete all of your profiles. But for an average social media user, such drastic actions won’t be necessary.

Not everything about social media is bad. Yes, it has been designed to get you hooked. But it also provided us with many useful tools that didn’t exist before. It’s social media that makes it easy to share your thoughts with countless people everywhere around the globe. Because of social media, it’s easier to build your personal brand than it ever was. And there are many other useful things that you can engage in courtesy of social media that will help you to build your career or to just enhance the overall quality of your life.

So, quitting social media completely might not be the best course of action. But the trick is to use social media without letting it to use you.

But how would you go about doing this? Well, I would start with the recommendations that were made by participants of “The Social Dilemma” film. But as the film covered many problems from bg tech industry, I will focus on only those recommendations that counteract the habit-forming mechanisms that social media employs.

  1. Delete unnecessary apps. Less apps there are – less distraction there is. You probably won’t be a regular user of all social media networks. So why keep those apps that you rarely use? It’s much easier than just switching off notifications in each one of them individually so they don’t unnecessarily distract you. Plus, if you still need to use any of those networks now and then, you can still log into them via your browser.
  2. Turn off your notifications. On my smartphone, I have completely disabled all notifications on all social media apps. I still have them on messengers, so my phone still rings when someone tries to contact me. But I won’t get notified if anyone has commented on one of my posts. I need to proactively open my timeline to see those.
  3. Fine-tune in-app notifications while you are using a social media network. While you should switch off external notifications in social media apps completely, there is still a value in using those in-app notifications that you will only see when you actually open the app. But those still need to be fine-tuned. For example, I would switch off all notifications, except the ones that tell me if someone has commented on my post, replied to my comment or tagged me. Maybe it would make sense to keep birthday notifications too. But I don’t get notified when someone I don’t know posts something in a group that I’m a member of.
  4. Don’t follow recommended content. If a social media network uses a recommendation engine, like YouTube does, then a good idea would be not to click on any recommended content. Clicking on recommendations facilitates the formation of a strong habit, similar to the one that is facilitated by continuously scrolling down through your timeline. And it can take you down a rabbit hole where you can binge-watch many videos that just happened to have been recommended to you.
  5. Have a plan for what you need to do and for how long. On websites like YouTube, it’s better to have a plan. When you visit the site, have an idea in your head on what kind of video you would like to watch. And then just search for that specific type of videos. And, once done, just leave the site. For this, it would also make sense to turn the autoplay feature off, so another randomly selected video that is similar to the one that you just watched doesn’t get played automatically.
  6. Use browser tools to reduce recommended content. Because it’s not only YouTube that has recommendations, perhaps it would make sense to eradicate them on all sites that you visit. And to do so, you can download a browser extension, such as AdBlock Plus.
  7. Recognize and avoid obvious clickbait. Clickbait is any content that has a title that has been designed to trigger a strong emotional response. After seeing this title, most people would automatically click on the link and read the story.Examples of clickbait titles could be the following:“How to Achieve Results Using This One Weird Trick”
    “This is what the government has been hiding from you”
    “A trick that car insurers don’t want you to know”

    Clickbait title doesn’t necessarily mean that the content is of poor quality and isn’t helpful. Every publisher is using clickbait these days, because it’s the only way to be heard among a huge volume of noise. But be aware that such a thing exists and try not to click on any titles that sound obviously exaggerated. In fact, try to avoid following profiles that post a lot of content with such titles.

  8. Limit screen time. Another great recommendation is to limit the screen time that you dedicate to social media. You already know that there are plenty of mobile apps and browser plugins that measure your screen time. Some of them can be configured to notify you if you have spent a particular amount of time on specific types of activity. So, if you want to limit the amount of time you spend on social media, you can use these tools.
  9. Protect some time each day. It makes sense not to use social media at all during specific times of day. I wouldn’t use it the first thing in the morning. It’s also prudent not to use it during working hours. Your brain will then get accustomed to this and you won’t even have cravings to check your timeline while you are working on that difficult problem. It will become your routine and social media will not interfere with your work activities at all.

Then, there are some techniques that I have personally discovered that worked very well for me. Perhaps you could consider those.

  1. Unfollow anyone who regularly posts content that triggers a strong disagreement in you.You don’t necessarily have to block them or remove them from your connection list. Perhaps you know them in real life and still want to be friends. Perhaps they are good people to talk to in person. But on social media, they post a lot of content that upsets you one way or another.And that’s precisely what the “unfollow” button is for. You will still be connected, but the stuff that they post will stop appearing on your timeline.At the first glance, this advice sounds contrary to what participants of “The Social Dilemma” have recommended. They have said that following those you disagree with is a good thing. That’s how you end up not being dragged into an echo chamber. And that’s what prevents your worldview from getting completely biased.

    But this is not necessarily a contradiction. Seeing opinions you disagree with is one thing. But it's an entirely different thing if those opinions are expressed in an aggressive manner. Or perhaps those opinions are something you deeply disagree with on a fundamental level.

    If you see such content, it may trigger a strong emotional reaction in you. And then, you might not be able to fully focus on your other activities. You will carry on thinking about it for a while.

    We aren’t talking about broadening your perspective right now. We are talking about becoming an elite programmer. And the content that has a power of affecting your focus is a huge problem in this context.

    Therefore, by all means, follow those you disagree with. But try to select only those who present their opinion in a respectful manner and are capable of backing their opinion up with facts. Unfollow the rest.

  2. Deliberately seek useful content that will aid you with achieving your goals. Over time, the algorithms will figure out that this is the content that you prefer, so you will get more of such content delivered. And that’s, perhaps, the only exception to the rule of not clicking on the content that was delivered to you by a recommendation engine.
  3. Have at least one day per week of a complete social media detox. This is one of the best things you can do for yourself. On that day when you aren’t allowed to use any social media at all, you will notice straight away how much more productive you are.

By following the above advice, you will build an immunity to all the addictive mechanisms of social media. You will build a habit to use social media only when you consciously choose to do so. After some time, getting you into autopilot mode to mindlessly browse your feed will become impossible.

You now know why building the right habits and the ability to do deep work are very important for building a successful career as a programmer. You now also know how modern smart technology, especially social media, can act as a significant obstacle on the way of your career success.

But just following the right habits, doing deep work and exercising digital minimalism is not enough. Unless you also develop the right mindset, all of these will seem to you as unnecessary chores.

So, in the next section we will talk about building the right mindset for becoming a successful software developer. And we will start with the importance of putting yourself inside a social environment of the right kind – the so-called “echo-chamber”.

References

  1. Cal Newport – Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World – Portfolio
  2. Nir Eyal – Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products – Portfolio Penguin
  3. John Medina – Brain Rules, Updated and Expanded: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School – Pear Press
  4. Brendon Burchard – The Motivation Manifesto: 9 Declarations to Claim Your Personal Power – Hay House Inc
  5. Deborah Oakley – Only the lonely – a surprise role for dopamine in social interplay – London Institute of Medical Science
  6. Jena Hilliard – New Study Suggests Excessive Social Media Use Is Comparable To Drug Addiction – Addiction Center
  7. Jena Hilliard – What Is Social Media Addiction? – Addiction Center
  8. The Social Dilemma – Netflix Documentary, 2020
  9. Hilary Andersson – Social media apps are ‘deliberately' addictive to users – BBC Panorama
  10. Björn Lindström – Social media as a modern-day Skinner Box? – Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences
  11. Kashmir Hill – Facebook Manipulated 689,003 Users' Emotions For Science – Forbes, Jun 28, 2014
  12. Bradley Popkin – How Fighters Aggressively Lose Weight Before Weigh-in – Men’s Journal

About the author

Fiodar Sazanavets

Fiodar is a senior full-stack software developer specializing in distributed cloud-based ASP.NET applications. He has also built Android apps and PHP websites. Fiodar is the owner of mobiletechtracker.co.uk, where he shares his knowledge of the tech world.