Observations from a Tactical Retreat
Last time I took a Twitter break, I utterly failed in my long-term goal to look at and change the way I used Twitter.
That time my break was precipitated by burnout from news and politics and so my withdrawal from the Twittersphere was total. This time, I'm withdrawing for more personal reasons while still doing the work, so I haven't signed out of Twitter on my computer and I'm still using it to check trending topics, do searches, and even check my timeline for what's happening and what's being said about it.
But since I'm trying to break a cycle of endless, listless scrolling and getting sucked into negative interaction cycles, I'm sharply limiting my exposure to times when I have a specific goal in mind and am treating it as read only. I'm honestly a little surprised that last bit isn't harder, but I have always counted the ability to sit on one's hands (metaphorically, I mean) to be an essential skill for social media literacy and good internet citizenship, and my failure to do so is one of the things that convinced me I needed a break.
During one of my check-ins yesterday, I saw these tweets in a short thread from Courtney Milan:
It's an interesting and important topic, and one that has been much studied.
As the thread goes on, Milan is mostly talking about this in terms of how many companies are poor stewards of what they term their "human resources", which is certainly true. But as a self-employed person who is trying to live up to what feels like an important calling of being a touchstone on the political news for people while also having some creative output and also managing my personal relationships and salvaging the detritus of my life, it was an important and timely reminder.
I think this hiatus is going to be much better than the last one was, from a professional standpoint. The whole "evaluate and change how I use Twitter" thing... that's happening. I'm doing it.
Given that I live my life and do my work on social media, I am unsurprisingly not one of those "social media is terrible and is everything that is wrong with the world". Social media is a huge part of the world and so the things that are wrong with the world are also on social media, and also social media by its existence has altered the set of "things that are in the world", enabling new things that may be bad or good, or bad and good in mixed measures.
But if I am going to live a good portion of my life on Twitter — earn my living on Twitter — then it makes sense to live deliberately. Right now I'm only spending maybe ten, twenty minutes each day looking at the website. I'm in and I'm out. Ultimately I don't think that's going to be sustainable even if it were desirable to me. It's necessary, now, for my well-being. But even if I got nothing else out of being on Twitter, I wouldn't be able to grow my newsletter or sell my books with my only presence being cross-posts. Twitter is how I find customers, how customers find me.
But one reason I wind up so scattered, I think, is that past a certain point it's just felt like it's my job to be on Twitter. And at this point in history, it's true that basically any time of day or night I can hop on and scroll and click around and there will be something worthy of commenting on. But even if it's true that there are 24 hours worth of commentary to be had on Twitter, I don't have 24 hours of good work in me a day.
The correlation that has driven a lot of my online behavior in the past three years is that I make the most money when I am most active on Twitter, but it's not just being there with whatever the mental equivalent of "if you have time to lean, you have time to clean" running through my head is. It's when I'm active and focused and saying interesting things about important topics. The days when I did a deep dive on a speech or article, I might spend between three and five hours on the same thing, which was always draining, but because I thought of it as "only half a day" I usually tried to cram it in with another half day of work of a normal intensity, and I think that more than anything is why I burned out so completely on the deep dives.
My goal is not to get to the point where I only have to work three to five hours a day at all and the rest is just leisure. I mean, that would be incredibly privileged even if it worked. And some of my work is fairly leisurely. Rather, my goal is to stop thinking of "full work days" in terms of hours and availability.
If you're running a store or a restaurant, the hours you keep are important because you need to be open when customers are there. You need hours that are convenient and consistent so that people know when your business is available. Keeping those hours doesn't require you and everybody working for you to be doing the same definition of "work" the entire time they're there. If your business involves financial markets then you need to be available while the markets are open, which on busy days may mean carrying some of your work past when they close but on other days may mean you have slack periods for that administrivia during hours you have to keep to the office anyway.
Twitter is a twenty-four hour world where there are different audiences present at different times. Again, I don't have twenty-four hours of attention in me. But it does help me reach a wider audience if I'm active at different times throughout the day, if I post and boost my content not just once but throughout the day. One thing I am going to look at in the next couple of weeks is ways to schedule retweets so I can offload some of that.
Anyway. It might seem strange that I'm this focused on work during what is ostensibly a hiatus. It puts me in mind of one of my less traditional family traditions: the point during every holiday gathering where my mother would yell at my father to quit working.
It's not that my dad is some kind of emotionally unavailable workaholic Scrooge. It's more that his "work" isn't one single discrete thing but lots of little things that like a fluid can flow into the tiniest crack, spread out to cover a wide surface, and change shape to conform to that of its container.
That whole "if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life" thing is a load of hooey, but if you love what you do, it's at least fulfilling. And so you want to do it all the time. And if it happens to make you money... well, that's an incentive, too.
The precipitating incident for this Twitter break was feeling emotionally overwhelmed. But stepping away from the firehose of Twitter is helping me to realize that I could be managing my time better when I am there. If it doesn't have anything to do with seasonal depression or grief or my mother... I mean, the distraction is not a bad thing.