Is Facebook Frying Our Brains?

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The past five months have been hard for me. I haven’t done much writing. Now, for someone who lives and breathes writing, this has been troubling. Writing and editing are my main sources of income, so I cannot afford to not write.

But I was too depressed to write.

This depression, I cannot describe it as a clinical depression, because I was not diagnosed by a psychiatrist. I self-diagnosed, like I do with all my other ailments. I had been depressed before, but the depression would go with time. Most times it was caused by anxiety over unpaid bills, the impostor syndrome bug that tends to bite creatives every now and then, getting overwhelmed by work or other obligations, to name a few. This kind of depression usually lasted a few days and it would go by itself.

However, the latest bout seemed to linger longer than I hoped. I thought maybe it was because I was broke, but then some clients paid and I was no longer broke. But the depression persisted. For the first time in my life, I contemplated getting medication for it.

Until one day when I noticed something. My consumption of Facebook increased whenever I was depressed. I am still not sure if increased use of Facebook caused me to get depressed or depression caused me to use Facebook more frequently. It’s one of those causation versus correlation debates that I am yet to crack. This revelation about my Facebook use came at around the same time I was reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In this book, the authors showed that there is a mental health crisis among the iGens, the generation after the Millennials in the US. One of the reasons they give for this is increased smartphone use.

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This got me thinking about my history with Facebook. I joined the social media platform at the beginning of 2010 and got my first smartphone in 2014 after being bullied by my friends into joining WhatsApp. I didn’t notice it at the time, but with hindsight, I now realise that my use of Facebook skyrocketed soon after getting my first smartphone. All of a sudden, I no longer needed to be in front of my computer to access Facebook. I could access it anywhere at any time.

Soon, Facebook was the first place I went to on waking up in the morning, and the last place I went to before going to sleep. All my free time got gobbled up by Facebook. Waiting in line at the bank or an office reception, going to town in a taxi, waiting for my meal at the restaurant, going to the bathroom, even waiting for the lift in a mall. All of those were opportunities to check out Facebook.

There was no harm in this, I thought. All my high school friends were on Facebook. Over the years, I had collected a few thousand interesting Facebook “friends,” most of whom I have never met. Because I can get painfully introverted, Facebook became a place to “meet” new people without having to actually meet them. I carefully curated my friends so I could have the most knowledgeable, wise thought leaders I could find. Scrolling through my Facebook became a literary feast of some of the best thought leadership on a number of topics that are close to my heart, and given how addicted I am to learning new things, there was no way I could keep away from Facebook.

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And then I started getting opportunities from my Facebook friends. Writing and editing jobs, writing workshops, festivals, book launches. Everything was happening on Facebook. The FOMO bug had bitten me. A day away from Facebook meant that I might miss out on the next big thing.

The people closest to me started telling me that I might be addicted to Facebook. But I laughed them off. People get addicted to alcohol and drugs. Not Facebook. Moreover, I had so many good things happening on Facebook. Facebook had made my career. I literally lived on Facebook. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I was now very lonely. All my friends were online. The ones offline didn’t matter anymore. I got all my updates about what was happening in my friends’ lives on Facebook ― births, deaths, engagements, weddings, graduations, travel, etc. I couldn’t remember the last time I had picked up the phone to call up a friend just to say hi. I no longer knew where my friends lived because we only met on Facebook.

Then I got a job opportunity. Online Editor for a leading African literary organisation. It was like an alcoholic being given the job of beer taster at a brewery. My mental health deteriorated so much that I had to quit the job just two months into it before I could go completely insane.

A few times in the past five months, I have contemplated refunding a ghostwriting client their deposit because I just couldn’t bring myself to work on their project, which is one of the pending projects on my desk.

It was after reading The Coddling of the American Mind that it dawned on me that I was living in denial. I had a Facebook addiction. It had gotten so bad that I dreaded having my phone’s battery die. I was now compulsively using Facebook, checking it even in the middle of meetings. Whenever I’d go out on dates with my wife, I would pretend to be listening to her and contributing to the conversation, but my mind was more taken up by what was happening on Facebook. I would scroll through my newsfeed endlessly, getting drowned by the chatter.

And I didn’t know what to do about it.

Then at the beginning of April, I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Now, I am a huge fan of Cal Newport’s work. It has shaped my career and thought life in many way. So, I took him very seriously when he talked about the effect social media is having on us, and what we can do about it.

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Newport defined Digital Minimalism as “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

I realised that this was what I needed to be doing with my life. My life had gotten so out of shape because I was now spending most of my time on social media, pretending to be keeping in touch with people and learning new things, but getting nothing done. My life had screeched to a halt, and now it was going in reverse.

Reading Digital Minimalism showed me exactly what social media really is. I was Facebook’s customer, but at the same time, I was also their product. They needed my attention in order to make money. And the more attention they had, the more money they made. Newport goes on to write, “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

I didn’t complete reading Digital Minimalism. It was mainly because I had gotten into the habit of not finishing the books I start reading. But it lit a fire within me. Without overthinking it, I decided to delete all social media apps, with the exception of WhatsApp, from my phone, and have a social media detox. The main reason I didn’t leave WhatsApp was because a lot of important communication happens there, especially with colleagues and clients.

The first week of my social media detox was the hardest. I started watching more TV to fill the void left by social media (thankfully, I finally cut back on the TV watching). I kept checking my phone for notifications. Then I started refreshing my email, hoping to at least get some spam I could read. I discovered WhatsApp Status. I’d never really checked out those photos people post on WhatsApp for the public to view. I noticed that they were so much like Facebook. So I went and got myself a dumb Nokia phone that could only do calls and SMS. I subscribed for an SMS bundle because although I was on a social media detox, I can’t be away from my wife and not text her.

I started checking my WhatsApp only in the mornings and evenings. This made me realise that there is rarely any emergency in my life that requires me to respond immediately to the texts coming in. No one has complained about me not responding fast enough to their texts. The people who need me urgently call me (and I can take a week without getting a single phone call from anyone else apart from my wife).

When the one month social media detox ended, I rushed back to Facebook to find out what I had missed. I had 75 notifications, one inbox message, and eight new friend requests. None of them were important. The only Facebook post I had missed was my brother’s Mothers’ Day post. Within a few minutes of browsing through Facebook, I became bored and realised I didn’t really have to subject myself to any more Facebook, at least not for the time being.

Now I am in that place where I don’t know if I want to go back to Facebook or not. Work might necessitate me going back. But I have determined that I am not going to get addicted to Facebook anymore. Life without it is so much better.

In that one month, I have read over six books. I had all these books I wanted to read but seemed not to find the time for them. Suddenly, I had the time, and my mind was clear enough for me to actually enjoy them.

I resumed journaling, a discipline I had found useful and calming a few years back, but that had fallen on the wayside. I also resumed exercising and caring about my health. I get up early in the morning without the need for an alarm clock and I have the energy to get out of bed and face the new day. I am no longer anxious. I still have a lot of pending work on my desk that has piled up because I was too depressed to work, but now I have the energy to do it, little by little, every day.

But most importantly, I have gotten my mind back. I first noticed it one time while in a taxi home. Because I wasn’t glued to my phone, I let my mind wander. And two lines of a poem formed in my mind. It was exhilarating! I last wrote poetry about four years ago and even then, it was because I had lost a friend to a tragic road accident. Suddenly, I realised that filling every boring moment of my life with Facebook had robbed me of the ability to write poetry for over eight years. I even told my friends that I am not a poet because I couldn’t understand why I could no longer write poetry.

This blog is the first writing I have done for which I am not receiving any payment since the year began. I didn’t have to force myself to write it or starve. I am slowly rediscovering the joy of writing. It is no longer a chore that must be endured.

I am remembering what it felt like being filled with wonder at the mundanity of life. I am rediscovering myself. I am not where I used to be before Facebook came into my life, but I am so much better. Hopefully, I will return to Facebook. But for now, I’ve decided that it won’t be any time soon. I need to at least first complete one of the book projects lying in my Google Drive.

Facebook might have fried my brain, but I am reclaiming it, little by little.

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What Kind of Work Do You Do?

A story is told of three brick layers, Peter, Paul and Phillip, who were asked what they were doing. Peter said, “I am laying bricks.” Paul said, “I am building a church.” Phillip said, “I am building the house of God.”

If you looked at the three brick layers, you would see them doing the same thing. But in their minds, they were doing three different things. Peter had a job. Paul had a career. And Phillip had a calling.

While all three might get the same financial compensation from their employer, they don’t all get the same job satisfaction. This is why: A job is something you do to put food on the table and a roof over your head. A career is something you do to advance yourself. It is more like a steppingstone, one of the rungs on the proverbial corporate ladder. A calling is much more deeper and meaningful. It is something you do passionately because you love it and can’t think of life without it. A calling is the reason you are alive. When you are in your calling, you are infused with purpose.

Many people wouldn’t think of their work as a calling. When you talk about calling, their minds go straight to people in the clergy, wearing collars. But the truth is, any work can be a calling, be it accounting, teaching, singing, writing, or even sweeping the streets.

People who look at their work as a calling are not self-focused. They are other-focused. For example, when Phillip the brick layer said that he was building the house of God, he wasn’t thinking of the actual work of laying one brick on top of the other, although that’s what he was doing. He was thinking of the end result of his work and the impact that his work would have on others. He was thinking beyond the pay cheque he would get after laying bricks.

When the entire focus of your work is on how it can fulfil your desires, your work will only be a job. A job never satisfies you emotionally. That is why you can have a good salary and still feel unsatisfied with your work. On the inside of everyone of us is a deep yearning to do work that is bigger than ourselves, work that goes beyond our own selfish needs. And as long as you are not treating your work as a calling, you will feel like that every now and again.

So how can you start treating your work as a calling? There is no quick and easy solution to this. Sometimes the work you are doing isn’t work you should be doing at all. That means you have to look for more meaningful work to satisfy you.

Now, don’t go and quit your job today. I won’t be there to feed you if you don’t have an income. If you feel that you are in the wrong job, start looking for one that you think will make you come alive as you serve others. The next time you are applying for a job, ask yourself, is this job my calling?

Sometimes you can be doing work that is your calling but instead of taking it like it is your calling, you take it like it’s just a job. This will require you to change your attitude towards your work. It’s very simple. All you need to do is start thinking of your work more in terms of how it serves others, than how it serves you. And when you finally become happy with your work, you will come and thank me.

There is Nothing Worthwhile Without Hard Work

I used to work in an advertising agency. I was a copywriter. In that job, most of my work was thinking up ideas. Sometimes I would write sketches in my notebook or type them out on my laptop. In the end, you would get a two-word headline, or a 90-word radio ad and coming up with those two words could sometimes get really hard!

I even developed a habit of taking a stroll every lunch time, notebook and pen in my pocket. If you found me walking, you would think I’m just loitering but inside my head, I was working hard.

That job taught me the value of working hard. Most of the good work I did came out of exerting a lot of mental energy to a problem. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes about without a lot of hard work. Even when you are doing something that you enjoy, hard work is inevitable for success.

Stephen King, one of my role models, has written 58 novels and 5 nonfiction books so far, not counting TV shows and movies. He is very talented and obviously works extremely hard. There is no way talent alone could have gotten him such success. Like someone once said, hard work will always beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

I want to think that I’m a good writer. Still, I can’t hide from the fact that I’m not the best writer there is. Even in my small circle of writer friends, I know a few who write much better than I do. I have therefore purposed that I might not beat them at the craft of writing, but I’ll beat them at working hard. I will out-write all of them. I haven’t yet achieved a lot, but I already have four books published under my name and a few others already in the pipeline. I plan to put my best foot forward always.

What do you want to achieve? What do you want to do with your life? Do you have a dream that burns in your heart? I may not know all that you need to succeed, but this one thing I know: you can never go wrong when you get busy, put in the time, break a sweat, and work hard.

What is that one thing you are going to work hard on until you succeed? What are you waiting for?

On Life and Jigsaw Puzzles

Every once in a while, I pay myself by buying a jigsaw puzzle to play with.Recently I started working on a new jigsaw puzzle. While assembling this 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which is a painting of Mount Rainier, Washington State, I learnt a few lessons on life. I would like to share some of them with you.

Life is like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece on its own doesn’t make sense. It looks like some random colours. It is only when you put that piece with the other pieces that you create a beautiful picture. In the same way, you can’t look at life in only one dimension. Life involves family, school, friends, work, play, and many other things. Sometimes, one of the areas in your life might not go well. For example, the exams will get hard or you will fail a job interview. That doesn’t mean that your life has ended. If you look at the big picture, you will be able to notice that life is actually good. It is beautiful. You just need to put the pieces together.

The box of a jigsaw puzzle has a picture of the complete puzzle. In order for you to assemble the puzzle successfully, you have to keep referring to the picture on the box. Life can look meaningless without a reference point. What does a successful life look like to you? Do you have an idea or a picture in your imagination about it? Do you have someone that you know who is the way you want to be? You should have someone or something to refer to. That’s how this puzzle called life will be able to make sense.

When assembling a jigsaw puzzle, you can’t just force any piece to fit anywhere. You have to put in the hard work of looking for the right piece that fits in order to create the whole picture. Even in life, some things like relationships and careers don’t necessarily fit where you might want them to fit. So instead of exerting a lot of energy trying to make some things in your life fit where you want them to fit, it is better to spend that energy looking for the parts that actually fit. For example, if a girl consistently says no to your advances, you need to let her go and look for one who will say yes.

What other lessons do you think we can learn from jigsaw puzzles?

Life is too Short to be Wasted

Imagine you went to hospital with this pain in your body. The doctor carries out tests and gives you the worst news you’ve ever heard. You have cancer. It’s in its advanced stages. And you have only thirty days to live.

What would you do in those remaining thirty days?

Now, stop reading and think about it. Seriously. Stop now. Think. What would you do?

Would you travel the world? Would you spend those days with the people closest to you? Would you start a family? Would you buy a house or a car? Would you write a song or a book? Would you sell all your stuff and give the money to charity? Would you eat lots of pizza and ice cream? Would you binge watch all your favourite TV shows?

Whatever you’d do in those thirty days, why aren’t you doing it now?

Statistics show that 100% of all people are going to die. That includes you. So whether you’ll die in the next thirty days, or the next thirty years, it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that you will die, whether you want to or not. Your time on earth is finite. So why spend it like you will live forever? Why spend it on things that you don’t really love doing?

Just because you are young doesn’t give you the freedom to waste time. Time is the only resource in the world that can’t be taken back once it has been spent. You can’t create more of it or save it. You have 24 hours in a day. No more, no less.

Successful people understand this principle of time and use it to their advantage. They treat time as their most important resource, and use it constructively.

Suppose you are going to live up to 80 years. That means, you’ll live for 29,200 days (80×365). That’s only 700,800 hours (29,200×24). You never get to live even 1 million hours! That’s how short life is. And if, like me, you’ve already lived for at least 25 years, that means you have less than 481,800 hours left. If you only use 8 hours every day for constructive work, that only leaves you with 160,600 hours. And we haven’t factored in Uganda’s many public holidays and weekends and sick days!

With such little time left, how can you afford to slack off? How can you afford to sleep longer? How can you afford to not pursue your dreams?

Never Give Up

I love writing. I write for a living. And I want to think that I’m living the best life ever. My friends think that because I do what I love, it is easy and effortless. But I must admit, there are very few things that I’ve done in my life that are as hard as writing. Actually, the only thing I’ve ever done that’s harder than writing is A level mathematics.

Writing involves sitting in a desk for long hours, and coming up with words. Sometimes the words come easily. But most times, I have to force them to come. Sometimes I stare at the screen for hours, willing myself to come up with the words, and nothing comes.

Many times, I’ve been tempted to give up.

It would be easier to be like everyone else, go out and get a real job. I could do what I studied at campus, and hopefully earn a good living from it.

But I have made up my mind that I won’t give up on my dream.

Nothing that is worthwhile comes easy. Nothing with a huge payoff comes without hard work and discipline. I know this might sound like your primary school motto, but it’s the fact. Hard work pays.

I still remember the day I opened my inbox to find photos from my publisher. They were photos of the first copy of Rise of the Robot. The joy that filled my heart is indescribable. Suddenly, the sleepless nights I’d had, the agonizing hours in front of my computer writing that book, they were all forgotten. The pain of those hours working on the book were nothing compared to the joy of seeing it in print.

I’m currently working on another book project. It’s the biggest book project I’ve ever worked on. And sometimes it is very scary. But every time I feel like giving up, I imagine the sight of my name on a printed cover with that book’s title. I think about my friends and family reading it and telling me how it made them feel. I think about the money that will be made from it. I think about success. And that keeps me going.

What are you enduring? Is it sleepless nights reading for a test? Is it a hard-to-please boss who might be your ticket to a promotion? Whatever it is, don’t give up. Nothing good comes easy. One day, when the results of your hard work start coming in, you will realise that all the hardship was worth it.

Be Resilient

I still remember the first time I saw those words. I was about to do my S4 exams. It was visitation Sunday and my mum had come with a bunch of success cards from relatives. I don’t remember any of those cards or what was in them. But I still remember the card from my uncle. There was nothing special about it, but on the inside, written in his bad handwriting, were those two words: “Be Resilient.”

At that time, I never understood the meaning of the word “Resilient,” but it never left my mind. So, I went and checked it out in the dictionary.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Resilience means, “the ability of people or things to feel better quickly after something unpleasant such as shock, injury, etc.”

I didn’t know how important those words would be in future. It’s only after much experience with unpleasant events like losing a job or a loved one, that I have come to appreciate that success card. These days, every time something bad happens, I tell myself, “Paul, be resilient.”

Resilience means picking yourself up and looking for another job after you have been fired. Resilience means going back to class the next day and studying harder after you have gotten a bad test score. It also means going back to university to do a retake in that paper you failed so that you can graduate.

Looking elsewhere for potential girlfriends after the girl you have been eyeing for some time friend-zones you also takes resilience. Sometimes even waking up and getting out of bed on a cold, rainy morning takes resilience.

You have resilience built up on the inside of you. It is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. So, don’t let circumstances kick you around. Stop being reactive to every negative situation that comes your way.

You have the power in you to be proactive, to take charge of your life, and to steer it wherever you want it to go. All of us face hardships and setbacks. Even the richest man in Uganda lost his bank. Stuff happens. The only way to get ahead of it all is to be resilient.

What situation are you facing today that requires you to be resilient?