The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Computer Scientist Cal Newport

A famil­iar ding comes from your pock­et, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smart­phone. Before you can think, “it can wait,” you’ve dis­ap­peared into the screen like lit­tle Car­ol Anne Freel­ing in Pol­ter­geist. Tak­en by a ghost­ly pres­ence with designs upon your soul—your time, emo­tion­al well-being, cre­ativ­i­ty—Face­book. Some­one has request­ed my friend­ship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opin­ion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the lit­tle per­for­ma­tive ges­tures, imprint­ed in the fin­gers and the thumbs.

Twit­ter, Snapchat, Insta­gram, Tum­blr, What­sApp, VKon­tact, Sina Wei­bo…. Just maybe, social media addic­tion is a glob­al epi­dem­ic, a col­lec­tion of emo­tion­al­ly, social­ly, and polit­i­cal­ly, tox­ic behav­iors. As Suren Rama­sub­bu reports, “social media engage­ment has been found to trig­ger three key net­works in the brain” that make us think intense­ly about our self-image and pub­lic per­cep­tion, cre­ate new neur­al path­ways, and release dopamine and oxy­tocin, which keep us com­ing back for more lit­tle red hearts, tiny thumbs-ups, and diminu­tive gold stars (good job!).

While the nature of addic­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial top­ic, it will arouse lit­tle dis­agree­ment to say that we live—as George­town Uni­ver­si­ty Com­put­er Sci­ence Pro­fes­sor Calvin New­port writes in the sub­ti­tle of his book Deep Work—in a “dis­tract­ed world.” (The full title is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Suc­cess in a Dis­tract­ed World.) Newport’s pre­scrip­tion will go down less eas­i­ly. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, New­port argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowl­edges the odd­i­ty of being a “mil­len­ni­al com­put­er sci­en­tist book author, stand­ing on a TED stage” who nev­er had a social media account and urges oth­ers to give up theirs.

Any one of his over­lap­ping demo­graph­ics is like­ly to have a sig­nif­i­cant web pres­ence. Put all of them togeth­er and we expect New­port to be pitch­ing a start­up net­work to an audi­ence of ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists. Even the sto­ry about why he first abstained could have made him a minor char­ac­ter in The Social Net­work. But feel­ings of pro­fes­sion­al jeal­ousy soon turned to wari­ness and alarm. “This seems dan­ger­ous,” he says, then lets us know—because we sure­ly wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re con­vinced he’s hap­pi­er than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilder­ness of the real—his argu­ment is per­sua­sive. Social media, says New­port, is not a “fun­da­men­tal tech­nol­o­gy.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “enter­tain­ment machine,” with an insid­i­ous added dimension—the soul steal­ing. Para­phras­ing tech guru and icon­o­clast Jaron Lanier, New­port says, “these com­pa­nies offer you shiny treats in exchange for min­utes of your atten­tion and bytes of your per­son­al data, which can then be pack­aged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media net­work is a “some­what unsa­vory source of enter­tain­ment” giv­en the express intent of its engi­neers to make their prod­uct “as addic­tive as pos­si­ble,” com­pa­ra­ble to what dieti­tians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sug­ar and fat, no nutri­ents.

New­port names anoth­er objec­tion to quitting—the neces­si­ty of social media as an essen­tial busi­ness tool—then piv­ots to his book and his com­mit­ment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes ver­sion in Bri­an Johnson’s video above. John­son begins by con­trast­ing deep work with “shal­low work,” where we spend most of our time, “con­stant­ly respond­ing to the lat­est and loud­est email and push noti­fi­ca­tion for social media, or text mes­sages or phone ring­ing, what­ev­er.”

While we may get lit­tle endor­phin boosts from all of this heav­i­ly medi­at­ed social activ­i­ty, we pay a high price in stress, anx­i­ety, and lost time in our per­son­al, pro­fes­sion­al, and cre­ative lives. The research on over­work and dis­trac­tion sup­ports New­port’s con­clu­sions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emo­tion­al invest­ment in a project. With­out get­ting too spe­cif­ic, such work, New­port says, is not only per­son­al­ly ful­fill­ing, but valu­able “in a 21st cen­tu­ry econ­o­my” for its rar­i­ty.

Social media, on the oth­er hand, he claims, con­tributes lit­tle to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your over­loaded brows­er, and tune in to the clut­tered state of your mind, you might find your­self agree­ing with his hereti­cal propo­si­tion. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to fol­low us on Face­book and/or Twit­ter.

To delve fur­ther into New­port’s think­ing, see his books: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Suc­cess in a Dis­tract­ed World and Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism: Choos­ing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Both books are also avail­able in audio for­mat on Sign up for a free tri­al here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Mr. Beer N. Hockey says:

    For the dura­tion of a recent elec­tion peri­od (and a week or two after­ward) I par­tic­i­pat­ed in Face­book before return­ing to my for­mer life and leav­ing the plat­form behind. Main­tain­ing my own web­site and writ­ing occa­sion­al com­ments such as this demands enough (and I hope appro­pri­ate) atten­tion from me. Face­book and its army of sim­i­lars ought not demand any more atten­tion from an indi­vid­ual than the time required to watch the high­lights of your favourite sports team week­end big game. “It is life, and life only,” as D.H. Lawrence observed. Don’t miss out.

  • Samuel Wiseman says:

    “Deep work“as con­texted is an “all applic­a­ble” activity,as every­one is out on #show biz and sell out on social media ‚it only takes inter­pren­u­al men­tal­i­ty to notice a mul­ti­tude of ready #mar­ket, after all..every minute on social media buys “some­one some­where” a cup of cof­fee so why not bal­ance the equa­tion on the same, instead of back­ing out from social media I’d rather turn it to my “side hus­tle”’s just mak­ing it work for you.

  • Samuel not-so-wise-yet-man says:


    What do you mean with turn­ing it into a side­hus­tle? What do you do to make it work for you?

  • Sebastian says:

    After read­ing this I decid­ed to give it a shot. I delet­ed all of my social media accounts. Let’s see how it goes.

  • Glenn says:

    Well, it’s not good or bad, it’s a tool and it depends how you use it; this phi­los­o­phy applies to just about every­thing that you can think of. Don’t give it up; just make sure you are using it, rather than it using you…

  • social media says:

    Great share! This post is very use­ful.

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