Many people are addicted to Facebook. But conscious willpower often doesn’t work to quit, because Facebook uses addictive technology to program our unconscious responses.
The same principles that create such unwanted habits can be used to break them, however. This article describes exactly how, using a simple 5-minute mindfulness exercise.
What you’re getting into:
1,973 words, 7 minute read time + 5 minute exercise
Facebook is designed to be addictive in a stimulus-response fashion, for the purpose of maximizing ad impressions.
By staring at Facebook for 5 minutes without clicking, scrolling, posting, or commenting, we can easily extinguish the triggers that cause social media addiction.
Facebook is Addictive By Design
In 2019, the average person in the US went on Facebook for 37 minutes per day.1 That’s 225 hours a year. Nobody sets a New Year’s Resolution to use Facebook for at least 225 hours a year, it just happens.
But it doesn’t just happen. It is by design. Facebook’s key internal metric for many years was to increase “time on site.” That’s the reason for all the bazillion notifications, the endless scroll of the news feed, and much more. Even the red number indicating how many notifications you have was tested to increase clicks.
In other words, Facebook’s explicit goal is to get you addicted to their product.
Facebook isn’t primarily a software program, it is a people program. Facebook, Inc. hires psychologists and data scientists alike to figure out how to program you to use their product more often. In fact, since you pay nothing to use Facebook, you are not the customer, but the product.
The true customer is the advertiser. You work for free for Facebook by posting, commenting, reacting, sharing, and scrolling. You and your friends create their product so they can make money selling your data and screen real estate to advertisers.
And they don’t even give you a cut of the profits! How rude.
Addiction is their business model. It isn’t software to solve a problem, like Zoom or Microsoft Word. Facebook is an attention vampire that profits off procrastination. It’s not for you, it’s something done to you. A young Mark Zuckerberg famously called his users “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their data.2 Now he’s a billionaire.
But how can we stop? Conscious willpower is no match for this “visual crack” (as my friend Joy Livingwell3 put it). This stuff works at an unconscious level, going right into the deeper parts of your brain to make you procrastinate your important work and get in political arguments with random people from high school.
I myself was addicted to Facebook for many years. But after many unsuccessful attempts, I have finally developed an easy way to quit. It took only a few minutes and months later I am still Facebook free.
Using Mindfulness to Extinguish Cravings
Facebook and other addictive technologies use straight-up Pavlovian classical conditioning to shape your habits. That means we can use classical conditioning against them, to win the fight without a need for ongoing conscious willpower. All you’ll need is 5 minutes worth of willpower. You can even ask a friend for help.
Here’s how the addiction works: link up a very simple cue with a very simple behavior, then reward it. Tiny Habits author B.J. Fogg teaches companies exactly how to do this in his book Persuasive Technology. Getting people addicted to apps is a whole field now. But it’s really just Pavlov for humans.
Take a notification. You hear the unique notification sound or see the notification (the cue), then you click or tap on it (the routine), and then you get a little dopamine hit (the reward). Charles Duhigg called this “The Habit Loop”4 in his book The Power of Habit. But this idea goes back to Ivan Pavlov who trained dogs to drool on command so he could study digestion.
The desire for the reward creates a craving. I need my dopamine fix, so let’s check Facebook. Someone liked my comment! I am likable! The social reward from this reinforces the habit loop. See, tap, reward. Hear, click, reward. Repeat 10,000 times (in only 37 minutes a day!) and you have a nearly unbreakable habit.
But Pavlov discovered that he could break the loop, quite easily even. His trained dogs would stop drooling if he just rang, and rang, and rang the bell but never followed it up with food. This is called “extinction” in classical conditioning. Notably, none of the dogs used any doggy willpower.
We can use this same principle to break your Facebook addiction.
You can of course uninstall the app from your phone, then you won’t see any notifications, at least until you log in. But that doesn’t break the stimulus-response link. You have to see or hear the stimulus over and over without following it up with a click, a tap, a comment, a post, a share. Just fire off the stimulus a bunch of times and do nothing at all, that’s the key to breaking the automatic habit loop.
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for addiction, this is called “surfing the urge.” Kelly McGonigal discusses this in her popular book The Willpower Instinct. But it’s even better if you don’t wait for the craving to come to you but are proactive about it. All you need is 5 minutes.
Basically, you are programming your nervous system to do this:
The cue is rendered meaningless. It doesn’t trigger anything. No craving, no action, no reward, it’s just a empty signifier. This is similar to semantic satiation5, where a repeated word or phrase loses its meaning.
The 5-Minute Do Nothing Challenge (aka The Facebook Craving Buster)
Here’s the entire training process:
Set a powerful intention: “I will look at Facebook for 5 minutes, without clicking (or tapping), scrolling, commenting, posting, or sharing. Then I will log out.”
Set a timer for 5 minutes.
Open Facebook and notice cravings to click (or tap), scroll, comment, post, and share.
Do nothing at all, just allow the cravings to arise and pass. Relax and breathe.
When the timer goes off, log out.
That’s it. I suggest you try it right now.
5 minutes is plenty, 3 might even be enough. But 5 is long enough to get actively bored which is exactly what you want. When you think about going on Facebook, your immediate, visceral reaction should be “why would I do that, Facebook is boring.”
Here are some additional things to play with:
Take your hand off the mouse or screen. Don’t even give yourself the option of clicking or tapping. You can even sit on your hands if you think you might be too temped.
Relax and breathe and feel your body. Feel the craving arise as a sensation in the body, an impulse to move. When you feel the craving arise, relax your muscles as much as possible. Link up “craving –> relax and do nothing”.
Label cravings when you notice them. If you notice a craving to post a funny idea or share a meme or click on a notification, just say to yourself “craving” and relax.
Do it on all the devices you use Facebook on: desktop, laptop, phone, work computer, tablet, etc.
Practice for 5 minutes once a day, for a while. Basically keep going until the cravings are extinguished.
Do it with a friend, or a coach. If you can’t get yourself to do this for 5 minutes, hop on Zoom with a friend who also is addicted to Facebook and do it together. Or hire a coach like me to help.
This really does only take 5 minutes, so if you haven’t done it already, do it right now. Think of it like a game. Are you up for the 5-Minute Do Nothing Challenge?
I eat my own dog food, metaphorically speaking. I created this method to help myself, and I first ran this experiment on Thursday, June 17th, 2021.
As of today, April 22st, 2022, I have been easily Facebook free (except for doing this process, and a few brief moments where I made an announcement). I still use Messenger to communicate with certain friends, but otherwise I do no Facebooking at all.
I had been going through a particularly bad time with Facebook, checking it many times a day. I was checking it first thing in the morning, sitting on the toilet. In fact, I couldn’t go to the bathroom without my iPad mini so I could check Facebook.
I was checking it before going to sleep at night, and at least 50 times during the day.
I was getting in arguments I didn’t want to have, with people I liked, about things I didn’t care about. I was spending time every day searching for funny memes to post. I was posting half-baked ideas once or twice a day instead of writing articles, email newsletters, or pages for a book.
I didn’t like who I was becoming, and I felt out of control.
During my first 5-minute challenge, I had many strong urges arise. I saw an ad for a coaching marketing strategy and I desperately wanted to scroll down and click it, but I held firm. I even had the thought “After the 5 minutes are up, I can click it then” but realized how insane that was and reaffirmed that I was going to log out as soon as my timer went off.
I saw a notification pop up and my hand almost went for my mouse. But I relaxed my arm and kept it on my lap.
I saw the names of people in the chat and felt a desire to message them. But I did not, I redirected that impulse to feeling connected with my friends instead.
After 4 minutes or so I started to feel bored. I’d read everything on the screen several times. I wanted to be done with this exercise.
When the timer rang on my iPad, I logged out.
After doing this for 5 minutes on June 17th, I didn’t check Facebook for the rest of the day. I had no desire. It seemed boring. I still checked Reddit and played some video games, but Facebook seemed dumb.
I did this again on Friday and Saturday, each for 5 minutes, then again on Monday when I drafted this article. Otherwise, I haven’t checked Facebook at all since this experiment, except to post a couple videos I made…in the time I freed up by not being on Facebook. This has required zero willpower.
I have Messenger set up separately as an app on my iPad which I do check when someone messages me, but I don’t find that to be addictive at all.
Later I did the Facebook Craving Buster a few more times, just to reinforce the results.
If you run this experiment, please let me know your results by sending me a message. I’d love to hear what happens for you, including any bugs you run into so I can improve the process.