Quit social media

Key quotes:

“Social media is not a fundamental technology… it’s an entertainment product. These companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.”

“If you look a little closer at these technologies, it’s not just that they are a source of entertainment, but they’re a somewhat unsavoury source of entertainment. We now know that many of the major social media companies hire individuals called attention engineers, who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling, to try to make these products as addictive as possible… [so] that you use it in an addictive fashion because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.”

“In a competitive 21st century economy, what the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and valuable. What the market dismisses, for the most part, are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. Social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that doesn’t produce a lot of value. The market is instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things — like a craftsman — that are rare and valuable.”

“Social media brings with it multiple, well-documented, and significant harms. We actually have to confront these harms head-on when trying to make decisions about whether or not we embrace this technology and let it into our lives. One of these harms has to do with your professional success. We have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention, that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration. In other words, you could permanently reduce your capacity to do exactly the type of deep effort that we’re finding to be more and more necessary in an increasingly competitive economy.”

“There’s a fundamental mismatch between the way our brains are wired and this behavior of exposing yourself to stimuli with intermittent rewards throughout all of your waking hours. It’s one thing to spend a couple of hours at a slot machine in Las Vegas, but if you bring one with you, and you pull that handle all day long, from when you wake up to when you go to bed, it short-circuits the brain, and we’re starting to find it has actual cognitive consequences, one of them being this sort of pervasive hum of anxiety.”

“If you treat your attention with respect — you allow it to stay whole, you preserve your ability to concentrate — when it comes time to work, you can actually do one thing after another, and do it with intensity, and intensity can be traded for time. It’s surprising how much you can get done in a eight-hour day if you can give each thing intense concentration.”


When in doubt (or in suffering), remove.

Remove the extra clothes in your wardrobe.

Remove items on your calendar and give yourself a free day or two.

Remove the expectations that you have to be a certain way in order to be a “good person”.

Remove resistance. Give up.

Remove the items in your online shopping cart.

Remove your aversion to the public library. Go and read a lot, for free.

Remove all the apps you don’t use from your phone. Achieve a minimalist home screen.

Remove extra words in your sentences.

Remove self-hatred, add self-compassion.

Remove all these without guilt.

Painting what you see outside the window

When I visited the Édouard Manet exhibition in Chicago recently, I began to understand something — even though Manet would eventually come to be known as the father of impressionism, a lot of his work towards the end of his life was simply painting what he saw outside his window, as he was sick and unable to leave the house. Those works later came to be part of his canon, part of what he left behind for the world.

This reminded me that art is simply the story every day people try to tell of their every day lives.

History can decide later on whether that is officially “art”, but that’s not relevant to us at all.

Therefore everyone can begin to make art, art that belongs first of all to ourselves, by simply painting what we see outside our windows.

Wu wei (無為)

“Wu wei, often translated as ‘doing nothing’, means not overdoing. It means not doing anything to an extreme, such as overeating or overexercising, which cause bellyache and exhaustion. It means doing just enough and no more. It means not doing anything against nature or against your own nature. It means using the least amount of energy to get the most done. It means not forcing, not exhausting yourself trying to make anything happen — whether a piece of art, a job, or even a relationship.

Wu wei is ‘learning to allow’, letting things develop in their own way and in their own time. We are able to adapt and, like water, to take the shape of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Chuang Tzu says, ‘Let things unfold naturally and let your mind be free. Accept what you can’t control and continue to nourish your internal spirit. That is best. You must be willing to act in accordance with your own destiny. Nothing is simpler than this and nothing is more difficult’. It is so difficult, because wu wei asks us to refrain from anything extra or beyond what is naturally suitable or adequate in any situation.”

“Practicing the Tao Te Ching” by Solala Towler

Why I write

When I write, I sometimes get into a state they call “flow”. It’s a dance – just me and my brain locked in a flow of movement. I forget myself. Time stops. 

At other times it’s like getting trapped in a maze. On your feet you wear heavy, clunky boots. Can you imagine? It’s a fucking hot day and your shirt is sticking to your skin and your head is buzzing, but there you are, trying to find your way out of a goddamn maze, burdened by those heavy shoes. You’re never going to get out, you think to yourself.

That’s what writing is – both ends of it. Part euphoria, part drudgery, but always irresistible.

In the end, whether I am dancing or getting lost, it’s the movement of it all that enraptures me. The movement of my thoughts as they get downloaded on to paper (or computer screen). The movement of my fingers across the keyboard. The movement from confusion to clarity as I travel in my head, gathering this thought and that, untying and tying knots, trying to put things together in an order that makes sense.

Yes. An order that makes sense. That’s why I write – to find order, to be a little less confused, to understand. Not fully, but just a little more. 

A little more understanding goes a long way.

If you want to read more

Try this: Every time you feel like opening up your Instagram app, fire up your Kindle (or any other ebook-reading app) or pick up your book instead. You will find that, instead of getting sucked into scrolling through your timeline mindlessly, you will be reading instead. That’s how I finally finished 1984 and Brave New World in less than two weeks recently.

This little trick works because it helps tag a new good habit you want to adopt (reading) with a bad habit you want to get rid of (your addiction to social media). You can do that with any other combination of habits you want to adopt/end.

It works beautifully.

I learned this from reading James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” (a really helpful book).

Safe places

There are some places I regard as safe places, places where there is no judgement and no pressure to be anything but myself. When life feels overwhelming, when things get very difficult, these are places I can go to get comforted, to feel safe.

You might be surprised (or not) to find out that some of these places are virtual — they don’t exist in real life. And that’s because some of them are books, websites, songs. Books, in particular, have been a wonderful friend to me.

Another safe place that we don’t often think of as a safe place is our heart. As I cultivate my heart over these few years, I have learned that I am also my own best refuge. The world can get its hands on everything I own physically, but it cannot get my heart.

In fact, befriending our *heart is our only option if we want to survive the tumult and violent beauty that is life. Once we find that our heart is now our best refuge, the safest place we can possibly be, there is nothing to be afraid of anymore.

* By “heart” I also mean “mind”.

Wherever we go, there we are

The sun beats down in Denver, and yet the heat doesn’t feel oppressive. When evening comes around, the air cools and a comfortable, warm breeze envelops the Mile High City. In the distance – but not too far away – the majestic Colorado mountains rise up and frame the skyline.

I never imagined I’d find myself in Denver, the city of Dean Moriarty’s ghost (fellow fans of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” will understand this reference), but yes, I’m officially 9,000 miles away from home. Our Lyft driver, upon finding out we’re Singaporeans, exclaimed, “You have come from so far away!”

But nowhere is too far away. Nowadays everywhere is a flight or two away. Distance is no longer measured in miles but hinges more on how willing we are to go away. If we imprison ourselves with reasons as to why we shouldn’t go here or do that, then it’s true, everywhere is too far away and everything is too impossible.

So why am I in Denver? The honest answer is, I’m here for no reason. We wanted to spend a month in the States, and since we were visiting our friends in Portland and our flight home to Singapore would depart from San Francisco, we figured we would visit a few cities along the way. So Denver it is, then Chicago and New Orleans after.

Wherever we go, there we are.

A beautiful garden

Sometimes I feel like my inner world is an actual, physical place I can visit.

Here I am, firmly in the real world. But at any moment, whenever I feel like it, I can take a walk and open a door. Then I step into a room that looks like a beautiful garden.

It didn’t always look like a garden, much less a beautiful one. Many times in the past it has resembled a rubbish dump or a dark, cold, featureless place. It used to be haunted by monsters.

I have talked about my experience with depression/anxiety but failed to mention that at my lowest, I feared walking on bridges or going up tall buildings, because all I wanted was to jump off them. Killing myself felt like a logical solution to my “problem”, which seemed grand and unsolvable.

12 years ago I woke up and suddenly felt the quality of my mind changed, darkened, to the point that going from my bed to my bathroom felt like the world’s greatest impossibility. I began to have constant panic attacks. I also began experiencing something called depersonalization disorder, which made me feel like I was constantly living behind a veil, separate and disconnected from the rest of the world.

It was scary beyond description. I didn’t think I would ever get better. My room was a prison. My mind was the imprisoner. And I was the only soul in this room. This went on for many years.

Fast forward to 12 years later. I am still here, having never succeeded in killing myself. There are still some monsters in my room, but I am much friendlier with them now. Most days they don’t appear at all. I have low days, but they are normal low days, not fuck-I-really-want-to-kill-myself kind of low days. I haven’t experienced a panic attack in four years now. On occasions when I feel one bubbling up – which is hardly at all – I welcome it and say hello to it. It then loses its energy and slithers out of the room quietly.

I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of recovering from mental illness. And of course many other things helped (when one is trying to recover from mental illness one tries every solution available), but really, nothing has helped me as much as realizing that the monsters in the room aren’t as scary as they seem to be and that they aren’t. Even. Real.

(To be clear, this has nothing to do with positive thinking. Positive thinking sucks – it’s forceful and denies reality. What has helped me is meeting reality as it is and accepting it, warts and all.)

I write this because one of you reading this might be experiencing what I once felt. Maybe you are fighting a daily battle to stop the pain you are feeling. Maybe there is no light in your life. Maybe you just want to kill yourself.

I write this to remind you – or even my future self – that even if your room feels like it’s haunted by monsters right now, one day it can feel like a beautiful garden, warm and full of interesting things that you want to spend a lifetime exploring and learning about.

So get friendly with your monsters. Acknowledge them and find out why they are there. Then open the door and let them out.

Your garden awaits.