What Consumes Your Mind Controls Your Life (and Finances)

Originally published on September 14, 2015.

What did you do this weekend? Did you get outside? Go for brunch or dinner? Curl up and read a book or watch a movie? While you were doing that, how many times did you check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or Pinterest and spend 10-20 minutes mindlessly scrolling through the latest and greatest of what your friends and favourite brands shared? I wish I could say my answer was 0—or even that I do it just a few times. While I’m good about not looking at my phone when I’m with friends, the opposite can be true when I’m alone—and, in the past, it has cost me a pretty penny.

My cell phone plan includes 6GB of data. I don’t know how this compares to all my friends south of the border, but 6GB is practically unheard of in Canada. Most of my friends only have 1-2GB of data, and our smartphone plans are some of the most expensive in the world. I was offered 6GB for life (it’s on my account until 2036, for some strange and wonderful reason) when my provider screwed up something big on my account years ago, and I happily accepted thinking it was more than I’d ever need.

Until this spring, 6GB of data had always been enough for me. But I went through a bit of a rough patch from April-June and, as a result, lazed around and mindlessly consumed a ridiculous amount of content on my cell phone. When I woke up in the morning, I would reach for my phone and spend the first 20-30 minutes of my day reviewing what I’d missed while I was asleep. I checked it constantly throughout the day, despite the fact that I was already online for 12+ hours for work/my blog. And as soon as I was done work, I’d be lazy and stream Netflix on my phone in bed for more hours than I care to admit.

I don’t know what I was looking for inside all those apps; something to make me feel better, I suppose—or an escape, at the very least. Looking back, I don’t think I even realized how much more time I was spending staring at that tiny screen. I didn’t become aware of it until I got my cell phone bill in July, and it had an additional $30 charge on it, for the extra 2.96GB of data I had used in June, above and beyond the 6GB in my plan. I am one person. One person does not need to use 9GB of cell phone data.

How had I used so much? I blame what I call “digital flow”.

In university, one of my favourite classes was on media and cultural studies, and the first aha! moment I had in my entire program happened while I was writing a paper for that class on the topic of flow. Flow is another word for programming, and is the technique television networks use to keep people watching their channels. Originally coined by Raymond Williams, a Welsh academic who was well-known for his thoughts on mass media, flow describes the smooth transition networks setup from one television show to another (including the ads in-between), so you keep watching what’s on that one network.

For example, if you’re watching an episode of Property Brothers, the commercial breaks will likely include advertisements for stores that sell home decor items, appliances, etc. and then the network will typically share a clip or two of a similar show, like Love It Or List It. The final commercial will be a short clip of text that lists what shows are coming up after Property Brothers, which will be similar to that show so you have no reason to look for something new to watch. I love this show! And the next episode looks great. That’s what the networks want you to think, and it’s a result of flow.

From a television standpoint, a lot of people believe the old concept of flow is being challenged by the fact that we now have so many commercial-free options to choose from, like Hulu and Netflix. When we cancel our cable and opt for one of these options, we are in complete control of what we watch. Or are we? The term “binge watch” has been around since full seasons of television had a price tag slapped on them, but it’s been a common phrase for us all since the invention of Netflix. When was the last time you turned on Netflix and only watched one episode of a show? Yea, me neither.

Even though the term flow has only been used to describe television programming, I think we can take it one step further now and apply it to all forms of digital media—particularly social media. The concept of flow is to make you consume one thing for as long as possible. Television networks accomplish this by lining up certain shows and corresponding advertisements one after the other, so you never feel the need to pick up the remote and change the channel. But social media networks do similar things to keep you on their sites for hours—and maybe even buy something, as a result.

Let’s think about this.

When Facebook first launched, all you could do was fill out a short profile, share status updates (remember: “Cait is—”?) and poke your friends. It was created to help you connect with people and nothing more. Today, you can share huge photo albums and lengthy videos, create events, start groups and even host chats; that stuff is still all about connecting but it also keeps you online longer. On top of that, your news feed constantly refreshes based on an algorithm that tells Facebook what kind of content you like, and that includes targeted ads, based on the information this “digital flow” has provided.

Pinterest is my least favourite of all the social media networks out there, because I truly believe it is the biggest waste of our time—and marketers bring in a lot of traffic and make a lot of money because we waste so much time on the site. I don’t make many hard-and-fast statements like that here, but I just find it to be the least productive of all social networks. Its concept and design was created to keep users on the site for hours on end. And, similar to the way Facebook’s algorithm changes what you see in your news feed based on your recent activity, Pinterest shows you pins from other users you don’t follow based on what you’ve been pinning. Thank you again, digital flow, for keeping us online longer.

Twitter and Instagram are a little different. Yes, it’s easy to get sucked into both, and you are exposed to some ads. But you truly are in more control of what you see, as your feed fills up in chronological order with content shared by people you choose to follow. Don’t like the content? Unfollow those people and your feed will go back to being filled with the content you love. The problem with both Twitter and Instagram is the profiles you choose to follow could all be selling things—if not physical products then at least a lifestyle you want to have; this is where the money side of this argument comes in.

The social media accounts you follow can take a serious toll on your finances.

Not only does flow stop you from changing the channel, which results in a television network earning more ad revenue, it also exposes you to repeated ads for products that are specifically chosen to be pushed at someone who is interested in the shows on one network. While most of us don’t go out and buy something the minute we see it on television, seeing it repeatedly over and over again does plant the seed in our minds that we need it. Social media networks do the same thing, only it makes those items available to us with the click of a mouse. And considering that we now spend more time staring at our phones than watching television, it’s time to pay attention to how it affects our lives (and finances).

I can’t say I’ve bought anything through a Facebook ad, but I have definitely bought things I saw on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. For me, it was usually books. When someone would share a link to one of those “10 books you need to read right now” type of lists on Twitter, I would punch all the titles into Amazon, pick two I liked (so I could get the total over $25 for free shipping) and buy them. And if I only liked one book, I’d choose a second from the other titles recommended to me (another example of digital flow). That was $28-30 out the door because someone shared an article on Twitter.

Instagram and Pinterest* are where we can get into the most trouble, because visual media is often so much more powerful than what we pull from text. You might think following fashion or lifestyle accounts gives you inspiration or is just nice to look at, but what it’s really doing is setting an ideal that we can’t necessarily afford to achieve. What’s trendy now won’t be trendy forever, which means that following trends will require us to constantly have to spend money. And I don’t know if there are any stats on this, but following your favourite brands on any social media network surely leads to more impulse purchases being made. (Perhaps only our own credit card statements hold the proof of that.)

*We could also expand this to blogs and magazines, as ones in the fashion/lifestyle niche are very visual and also sell lifestyles we can’t always afford.

So, how can we take control back and avoid the effects of this digital flow?

I’m sure the phrase “what consumes your mind controls your life” was meant to prove that our thoughts can become our reality—especially if we have a positive or negative mindset. But considering the fact that we now spend more than 50% of our waking hours consuming media—and that number is expected to increase—we should be a bit more literal about this subject, and take steps to make sure that what we consume doesn’t negatively impact our lives or finances.

One common suggestion is to do a digital detox, where you give up your phone and/or don’t go online for a few days or weeks. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of this idea—and not because it makes me uncomfortable or I think I couldn’t do it, but because it seems like a temporary solution. It’s like an alcoholic giving up drinking for 7 days but knowing they can go back to it after. It won’t change anything long-term. Instead, I believe we should all be more intentional about which social media networks we use, how much time we give them and who we follow.

(FIRST NOTE ADDED AUGUST 18, 2019: After reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, which is all about doing a 30-day digital detox, I’m more on board with the idea!)

Personally, I made a few big changes:

  1. I deleted the Facebook app
  2. I deleted the Facebook Messenger app
  3. I deleted the Pinterest app
  4. I deleted the Netflix app (I can watch it on my computer or Apple TV)
  5. I deleted all the boards and pins on my Pinterest profile, except the one I have to use for work
  6. I removed the link to my Pinterest account from my blog + email list
  7. I removed the link to my Google+ account from my blog + email list

Oh, and I’ve always had notifications for all apps (except calls/texts) turned off.

(SECOND NOTE ADDED AUGUST 18, 2019: Since first publishing this post 4 years ago, I have quit Google+, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter entirely. The only platform I still use is Instagram.)

I’ve tested this new phone setup for a few weeks now and have already seen a huge difference in my productivity. In fact, I’m 12 days into my current billing cycle and have used just 566MB of data. I like to think of the 6GB of cell phone data I have access to as my emergency fund now; it’s there if I need it, but I’d prefer not to touch it. And I’m so glad the months of using 9GB of cell phone data + being charged extra fees are long gone.

The concern about how much time we spend online and on our phones is a hot topic in the blogosphere right now. Courtney Carver recently wrote about the possible addiction she had to her cell phone and suggested we all take a 24-hour sabbatical from it. And my friend Anthony suggested we ban all technology from the first hour of our days, as well as delete apps (or at least move them around on the screen, so we break the habit of opening them).

Since I’ve read the facts and don’t necessarily believe we’ll all magically start consuming less media, my suggestion is to be very mindful about which accounts you follow online. If you find yourself constantly staring at images of things you can’t afford to buy or do, unfollow the accounts that post them. Then look for new accounts that post pictures that can inspire you to get outside—and put your phone down after, so you can go do that with the people you love. :)

Oh, and unlike/unfollow every store on all platforms. Even though you’ve been loyal to them, they won’t miss you—and your bank account will thank you.