Social media and creativity
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Don’t worry, I’m not one of ‘THOSE’ people.
I’m not a social media killjoy. I love it and use it often, every day.
But recently, I’ve been exploring ways to decrease the time I
spend waste on Facebook and Instagram (the platforms I use the most) by learning about the impact of social media usage on my brain.
I find that understanding how our brains work inspires me to WANT to change my behaviour. Knowing that I CAN change helps inspire me, too. And intrinsic motivation is the best place for change to come from, right? It’s better than someone yelling at us to get off Facebook.
I was curious about the relationship between social media and creativity. And by this, I don’t mean writing creative social media posts. I mean how social media affects our creativity, so I started researching.
What I found is that there is a feel-good neurohormone in our brain bringing us little bursts of joy. It’s called dopamine. You might have heard the expression ‘getting a little dopamine hit’.
So, what’s wrong with a little joy? A lot, apparently. Those little dopamine hits via social media are killing our creativity.
Now, I’m not a scientist (and if you are, feel free to let me know anything I get wrong here in the comments and if you aren’t, feel free to
shut the hell up add meaningful comments to this post) but I’ll do my best to interpret what I found.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. When dopamine neurons become activated, they release dopamine.
OK, so dopamine is like a courier in the brain, carrying important messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in our body.
It’s produced in several areas of the brain and is released by the hypothalamus, which links our nervous system to our endocrine system.
Dopamine and social media
How does dopamine affect people?
The minute you take a drug, drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette if those are your poison, when you get a like on social media, all of those experiences produce dopamine, which is a chemical that’s associated with pleasure.
When someone likes an Instagram post, or any content that you share, it’s a little bit like taking a drug. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s a very similar experience. Now the reason why is because it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to get likes on your posts. And it’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get a 100 likes, it would become boring really fast.
Adam Alter, New York University professor and author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
I haven’t read Alter’s book. I’m afraid it will be like Allen Carr’s seminal book, Easy Way to Quit Smoking and I’ll end up wanting to delete all my social media accounts or deal with the thought of manipulative corporations behind them each time I take a dopamine hit. I’m looking at you, Facebook.
I wonder how much dopamine and ego are in partnership. And how much of this stuff the wealthy corporations behind successful social platforms know this. Very well, I assume. Social media is designed to be distracting. It’s their business to make social media as distracting as possible so they keep us on their site longer and generate more ad revenue off us while we’re sucked into its vortex. I don’t know about you, but the more I’m consciously aware of how I’m being manipulated, the more I want to rebel.
But, if you feel the lure of checking your phone all too often and enjoy that dopamine rush a little too much, know that we have the power to change our behaviour.
And it’s not as hard as you might think.
Rewiring and re-training our brains
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to change during your life. The expression ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is false. You can teach an old dog new tricks and you can no longer use that as an excuse to put off learning the guitar or studying Mandarin or whatever else you’ve had on your ‘one day’ list because you think you’re too old. We can also train ourselves to not be so reliant on social media for those little feel-good hits of dopamine.
We can retrain our brains by creating new neural pathways. We can retrain our brains by not reaching for our phones during those brief moments of boredom, like at the bus stop or in the queue at the supermarket. The more times we practice and don’t reach for our phones to kill those microseconds of boredom, the better we get at it and we start to create those new neural pathways we need to make it easier to no longer feel the pull to impulsively reach for our phones.
The next time you feel the urge during a moment of boredom to check your phone, don’t. Delay. Wait five or ten minutes. Maybe the urge will completely pass.
Decision fatigue and social media
I’m not sure how many decisions we make on average a day, but it’s a crap tonne. It’s one of the reasons Steve Jobs always wore his black turtleneck and Mark Zuckerberg wears his grey hoodie every day. There are only so many decisions we can make before experiencing decision fatigue. Even something as simple as deciding today what we’ll wear tomorrow can help combat decision fatigue.
When we grab our phones or turn on our computers first thing in the morning to check emails or social media or news sites, we’re giving away our best decision-making time to our devices and our social media accounts. Each time we decide to like an Instagram post or comment on a Facebook post, we’re burning through our decision-making energy stores. Same when we choose our socks and decide what to eat for breakfast.
Decision fatigue poisons creativity. Wasting our decision-making ability on transient, unimportant details in our social media feeds crowds out the space we need for creation. Our decision-making ability and willpower is finite and needs to be replenished daily.
To be our best creative selves, we need to give our brains the space they need to be creative. We need to reserve our decision-making for things that matter, not whether to give a like to that highly stylised but yummy looking plate of pancakes with hot sauce or whether we’ll wear the Argyle or plain socks today.
Developing new habits to help fight decision fatigue
There are some simple things you can do at day’s end when your decision-making and willpower well is running dry that will help you the next day:
- Write out your to-do list for the following day.
- Write a list of all the things you know you need to remember the following day.
- Write out your ‘ta da’ list of your accomplishments that day.
- Decide what you’re going to wear and set out your clothes ready for the morning. This can extend to other family members who rely on you for their daily clothing choices.
- Decide what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Pack your bag with anything you need for the following day. If you’re a parent, you can do this for the little people in your life you have to organise.
- Develop a shut down routine after you finish working so you’ll stop ruminating about work over dinner or while watching Suits or whatever it is you do in the evening and stop you from further depleting that decision-making well.
I don’t do all of this. I do some, but rarely all each day. But here’s the thing, when I do them, even just a couple, it really does help. I get greater mental clarity and better productivity as a consequence. There’s more focus and I do better quality work.
Combat decision fatigue by committing to at least two of the above items for one week, then check in and see if it’s helping you. You can, of course, do them all, but that might seem like too much change to handle all at once. I’m going to commit to 1, 3, 4 and 7.
When you’re in that sometimes elusive but always utopian state of flow and making connections between ideas, layering ideas and creating good stuff, we must experience a dopamine hit. Lots of micro-bursts of feel-good hits. And how much better for us is that compared to the thrill we get from an Instagram like or three. Pancakes with hot sauce? Meh.
I would much rather experience that state of flow than watch the world flow past in my news feed. But yet I continue to succumb to the lure of my phone during brief moments of distraction. Working with my phone out of the room is helpful. It’s weird, but I don’t feel the urge to check social sites via my computer’s browser – it’s my phone that lures me and where I need to be retrained. But if you do find it hard to resist sneaking a peek at Facie while working, use a browser plugin like Work Mode that will stop access to social media sites via your computer’s browser.
Deep work, by Cal Newport
One of the best pieces of advice I got to reclaim creativity from social media was from Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. I didn’t get the tip from his book, but interestingly, I heard it when he was a guest on Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income podcast talking about his book. Cal’s tip related to productivity, but I think it’s equally applicable to creativity.
I don’t remember Cal’s exact suggestion, but I interpreted it as don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day. This could be your computer, too. Or a tablet, or any other electronic device you use.
I was intrigued by the idea and gave it a go. What better way to avoid decision fatigue than to avoid having to decide whether or not to give the stack of pancakes a like.
This idea was next level choosing socks the night before (go for the Argyle ones, always). I was diligent for a while. And it was wonderful. I spent the morning kid wrangling and getting The Monsta off to daycare and me off on a walk or to the gym.
On the days that I didn’t turn my phone on for the first hour+, I found the urge to check social media declined for the rest of the day. It just didn’t seem that important. I was also more productive.
These days, I give myself about 30 minutes before checking my phone. The exception is when I’m expecting a project catastrophe or I’m in weekend mode – choosing whether or not to like an image of a stack of pancakes is the pinnacle of my decision-making ability in holiday mode.
Truth: I hated this book. I found it repetitive and padded out to create a bloated word count. But its biggest fault is that it came from a place of unacknowledged privilege. He wrote it for a very narrow audience of men who clearly don’t have to partake in boring household chores or early morning kid wrangling and can swan into their office after a morning run, preferably an academic office, men who are secure enough in their own importance to give the middle finger to the establishment that employs them by dictating the terms of their work arena. If he’d just acknowledged what a privilege this position is, I might not have had such an adverse reaction to the book.
Level 1: Work with your phone out of the room, or at least out of your eye line and more than an easy arm’s reach away. Silence your notifications. Activate the Work Mode plugin. Don’t check your social accounts for at least an hour, then have a quick break and get straight back into work mode. (Cal would say that’s a terrible idea and you shouldn’t be on social media at all because any connection you make there is completely shallow. Ha! What a stick in the mud!)
Level 2: Don’t use your phone for at least the first hour of the day (or your laptop, desktop or tablet). Go about your normal morning routine, minus checking email and other notifications. See what happens.
Over to you. Do you feel a chronic urge to check social media on your phone or computer? Do you have any strategies for dealing with decision fatigue or for reclaiming your creativity? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
Also published on Medium.