I’ve been off social media since the end of 2018 when I began a last-ditch effort tech detox to stave off burnout and regain control of my own attention.
As someone who has loved technology since elementary school, worked in technology for the last twelve years, and built a technology company for the last five, I’ll admit signing off was a bit of a weird decision.
But once I started, I just couldn’t stop.
I archived all my posts and deleted Instagram. A taste of liberation.
I exported my data and permanently deleted my Facebook account. A feeling of rebellion.
I unsubscribed from everything except a few things I really cared about and created a new spam-free email account that I don’t use for logins. A sigh of relief.
With social media gone and email reduced, I then drastically cut out digital content and media from my life: Netflix, YouTube, most blogs, and most podcasts.
I joined the library and started reading books again. I became a paying subscriber to one magazine and one newsletter by a writer I wanted to support. I accessed subscription news sites for free through my library membership.
Eventually, I moved on to my house: I had already been TV-free for a while, but I went tech-free in my bedroom. I bought an analog clock and stopped using my phone as an alarm. I got rid of Alexa and Google Home. I got rid of my Fitbit. I stopped tracking my sleep. Of course, I still used my laptop for work and couldn’t change that.
The last step was one of the hardest, neurochemically: I turned off all my remaining phone notifications. My email and app notifications had been off for years already, but I finally turned off the banner notifications for calls and texts.
Bit-by-bit, a delicious silence filled the gaps. My circadian rhythms reset. I started to hear my own voice again. I even started to forget my phone when I left the house.
These changes felt very radical at the time. They also felt privileged, so I didn’t talk about them. Instead, I wrote about my experience privately.
Writing was one of the things I had largely given up due to my “busyness.” Mend started as a newsletter I wrote every week, but I had less and less time to write as Mend grew into an app and company. I’ve met with a lot of literary agents and publishers over the years who have urged me to write a book, and I’ve always told them the same thing: “I’m too busy. Maybe next year.”
The truth is that I was just too inundated with other people’s content. I know this because in the past two years I’ve found myself with enough time and attention to write two drafts of a book and begin another. Not to mention I was finally able to read all the books that I intended to read but never actually did.
What began as a tech detox evolved into a much deeper journey inward. As I let go of distractions, I began to let go of more things. I significantly pared down, internally and externally. I shed and I emptied, and I sat quietly with what was left behind. I tried not to fill the void even when it hurt, even when it would have been so easy. I was ruthless about what I did choose to put back.
I journeyed inward quietly because I could tell I was processing many shifts at once, forming one sea change, and I frankly wanted to limit certain kinds of input or influence. Being away from social media afforded this privacy and luxury. I could feel a new shape forming underneath the surface and wanted to get out of the way and see what emerged.
There came a point where, after letting go of so many things, I could no longer picture my future no matter how hard I tried. What I did see clearly was my life in the present moment. My life was suddenly brimming with all the things that I had been craving: ease, simplicity, silence, time, nature, writing, reading, meaningful work, meaningful relationships.
I wanted to figure out how to make this sustainable, not just a phase, so I continued to overhaul my life from the inside out. The majority of this work was on my inner life, but there were some external changes that helped in the process.
I did an audit of my own life. I took a hard look at the daily choices I was making. I dove deep into research and figured out how to tread more lightly. I started to question the way I did things and push against the answers. I started asking myself the question that we are collectively experts at avoiding: What is the true cost of this thing I’m doing or buying (to the people who made it, to society, to other living things, to the earth)?
It’s not always easy to answer that question, even if you’re the one asking it of yourself.
I had drastically reduced my overall screen time, but under the guise of founder busyness, I still frequently outsourced many parts of my life (shopping for food, cooking, walking/biking, making things from scratch, repairing instead of replacing) to on-demand services in an effort to be more productive and, ultimately, consume more. Amazon, Instacart, UberEats, Uber. You know the players.
So I asked myself:
What is the true cost of these services?
What if I stopped seeing all of these parts of my life as colossal wastes of time?
What if by giving up these basic parts of living, I’m giving up what it means to be human?
What if I stopped participating in this myopic cycle of more, more, more, faster, faster, faster?
The answers to those questions made it very easy to, one afternoon, delete all the apps on my phone but a handful that were either essential (like Maps) or aligned with my values. I slowly learned how to enjoy cooking and making things for myself. I gave away most of my clothing and belongings. I didn’t go off-grid into a cabin in the woods by any means, but my daily life did fundamentally change. It’s still changing.
This newly-created mental space and self-sufficiency, albeit only a sliver, turned into many things, all of which slowly wove a new waft in the fabric of my life. I slept better. I felt healthier. I felt freer. More creative.
I also felt more engaged – personally, professionally, socially, and politically. I had more time to deepen my relationships and develop new ones. I had more time to think creatively about Mend, not just operate it. I had more money and time to support the causes I cared about. I had an increased capacity to educate myself on issues that mattered to me and take action. Without a 24/7 news cycle, social media and pressure about broadcasting what I was doing to make a difference, I could just do things.
All of this felt like an expansion after a period of overwhelm. It felt like abundance. It felt like a return to my true nature. I also felt my brain changing. Among other things, my attention and emotional regulation improved. I could feel myself becoming more human, week by week and month by month. Without a steady stream of attention-hijacking headlines and influencer/branded Instagram content, I became more myself.
I even slowly started to look more like myself. That has been a more gradual process, but it began with returning to my natural hair color. Once I got over the shock of my own mortality (I didn’t even know I had started to go gray!) I realized it’s probably a good thing I can bear witness to it. I also no longer have a medicine cabinet full of beauty products. And though I still care about how I look, I don’t worry about wrinkles as much and I am no longer tempted to consider what I might look like with slightly fuller lips or a smaller nose. Beauty is such a sensitive topic and I don’t judge anyone for what they do to feel beautiful, but for me, cutting out media, especially Instagram, had far reaching effects beyond just giving me more time back.
This recalibration was also the beginning of a major shift at Mend. Last year, instead of our annual venture capital raise, we scaled back our team, refocused our priorities, gave up our office, went 100% remote, and focused on thoughtful growth and profitability. It was almost like we unknowingly prepared for the pandemic. We also stopped using social media. We knew better than anyone that Instagram makes breakups harder, so it felt disingenuous to invest so much money and time there. This year hasn’t been easy by any means – raising more venture capital would have been much easier – but it feels like we are on the right path.
Instead of doing what many wellness and mindfulness apps are ironically pressured to do (build the most addictive product, grow at all costs), all of the changes I implemented allowed us to build more sustainably, with efficacy and mental health in mind. Our laser focus informed our three leaps forward this year: reaching non-iPhone users with our web app, completely redesigning our brand with a focus on simplicity and reducing our impact, and expanding into a topic that is very close to my heart: burnout.
With the coronavirus pandemic, the racial justice movement in the US, the environmental crisis, the upcoming election, and what feels like an ongoing unraveling of life, I’ve felt unsure about how and when to share a longer update. But at some point, it felt dishonest not to share an update, especially when I’m asked almost daily by a Mender how I’m doing or “where I’ve been.”
So, this is where I’ve been.
Now that I’ve come out the other side of this sea change, I feel more committed than ever to our evolving mission at Mend and how we’re doing it. We’re here to support your journey inward, which means respecting your attention and privacy. We’re committed to reducing our footprint as much as possible – our new site is lower impact, in part because we prioritized simplicity. We’re committed to helping you in a time of need, not becoming another addictive app in your life.
As a society we are just beginning to acknowledge what we in the tech industry have known for years: that tech addiction is real and has far-reaching harmful effects: anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem to name a few. (I wrote this letter before The Social Dilemma came out, by the way, but it explains this very eloquently if you haven’t seen it.)
As for me, I have no plans to return to the firehose of content that is our current media landscape. I have never regretted my decision to permanently delete Facebook. Not once! And, no, I’ve never needed my Facebook account for something. I get that question the most.
I’ve also never missed any important calls or texts. That was always my biggest fear…what if I missed something? Turns out, in two years, I didn’t miss anything important. The reality is we’re all pretty easy to reach now, whether or not notifications are turned on.
I’ve also never missed any important updates from friends or family by being away from Instagram, and in fact I feel more connected to my friends and family now than I ever have. Some friendships fizzled, but others deepened.
I re-installed Instagram during lockdown to see what was happening around the world, but quickly remembered why I deleted it and removed it again. Though there are organizations and people (including a couple mentors) who use Instagram as their main platform, I just can’t justify the overwhelmingly negative effects of Instagram. The crux of it is that I’m not sure it’s possible to control your Instagram experience, even if you choose who to follow, given the way the platform is optimized for ads and continuous scrolling. To me it feels like I’m seeing about half ads at any given point, whether they’re paid Instagram ads or branded content. It’s the failure of the business model. It’s too easy to become passive, taking all the content in and not being the director of your own life.
I’m not a luddite. I still benefit from technology in more ways than I can count here. I still use my laptop every day, as I have since 2001, when I transferred to a prep school with a required laptop program. I run Mend remotely thanks to technology and I still have a handful of apps that I find incredibly useful and beneficial. I still read voraciously every week, and some of that is online. And I plan to borrow my mom’s Netflix login so I can watch Season 3 of The Crown. I’m not a monster!
I just aim to be more mindful of the technology and content I choose to invite into my life and how it affects me. Life, the direct experience of it, is too precious. This is not a revelation. I realized this in Japan almost a decade ago. But it’s so easy to lose my way.
Luckily, I have Wendell Berry to remind me:
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.
I want to be in it. Don’t you?
The journey inward continues to be the most challenging, and important work of my life, in large part because going within resourced me to go beyond myself. It felt like a moral failure to continue to “optimize” my productivity more and more while other humans, other species, and our planet were so blatantly suffering.
Your journey inward will not look like mine, and that’s the point. But the journey itself is not selfish. Turning inward allows you to be of service in a way that you can actually sustain over a lifetime, and the world needs that more now than ever.
Ultimately, change starts by going within. Change starts with one heart. Change starts with you developing a relationship with yourself so that you might relate to this world and its inhabitants differently. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Krishnamurti all teach us. And in a moment like this one, I find that reassuring and empowering. You can only change yourself, and luckily that is the only thing that can change the world.