Can you be a freelancer and not use social media?

What happened when I quit Twitter and Instagram for a month

Illustration by Léo Hamelin

It all happened by accident. At the end of July, I wasn’t very nice to someone on Twitter. I actually know this person in the real world and yet I sent them unnecessarily shirty tweets when I should have (and could have) had an offline discussion with them. 

I apologised and we put the incident behind us, but it lingered with me. It’s not like me to be mean to people online. The thought that I might be someone who picks online fights disturbed me. I’d already been thinking about my use of social media for some time and this spurred me to finally reassess not just my use of it, but also its impact on me.

I’ve seen other writers and internet types re-evaluate their relationship with social media lately. The Guardian columnist Owen Jones published a Medium post in January about Twitter in which he said, “Personally, I’ve found the online abuse a tad wearisome, and the threats of violence and worse more so, but it’s mostly just the waste of life involved.” He vowed to limit his time on the app and only use it when he needs to. The author Emma Gannon wrote about how millennials, who grew up online, are now increasingly logging off. She wrote: “When you stressfully reach for your phone first thing in the morning, before perhaps thinking about your partner, family, self — is that freedom? Because it is starting to very much look like what it is: digital shackles.”

Shortly after the incident, I deleted Twitter from my phone. While I was at it, Instagram went, too. And so that’s how I ended up taking more than a month off social media. 

I don’t really know what I was expecting to happen and I’m sorry to disappoint, but it hasn’t been a case that I’ve logged off and magically all of my problems have vanished. I can’t say I’ve slept any better or be any more productive than usual. What has dissipated, though, is the constant background hum of professional anxiety. As someone who lives and works on the internet, my Twitter and Instagram feeds are constant reminders of what everyone else is achieving in their professional lives.

As a journalist, I’ve spent the last decade writing stories quickly and publishing on the internet. I’m used to instant feedback on my work. But right now, I’m writing a book and that’s a very different beast. Frustratingly, I’ve had my best ideas for features during this time. Ordinarily, I’d just pitch them straight away, but I have to sit on them because I don’t have the bandwidth to write anything that’s not my book or this newsletter at the moment. The real blessing of not being online is that I’m not being constantly reminded of everyone’s real-time career milestones. There’s been no daily onslaught of “personal news”, sticks with which I’d usually beat myself about all the things I’ve not done. Amazingly, without this digital self-flagellation, I’ve actually been able to enjoy the process of writing my book. 

That’s not to say that writing the book has been easy. I’ve not been scrolling but I have been procrastinating – I’ve drawn all over my hands in Sharpie, I’ve started an ever-expanding routine of getting ready in the morning and I’ve colour-coordinated my bookshelves. But I already knew that you can’t hack your way out of the discomfort of creativity. There are lots of things we can blame social media for, but simply finding hard work hard, isn’t one of them.

I used to tell myself I couldn’t take breaks from social media because my livelihood depended on it. No way could I take a month off because I need these tools for my business. And yet, in the time I’ve been offline, I’ve run two webinars and my podcast continued to go out each week. The numbers didn’t suffer for any of those projects.

The computer science professor, Cal Newport, doesn’t use social media and thinks most people would be better off logging off. In his critique of modern work culture, Deep Work, he suggests quitting social media for 30 days to see if you can live without it. He recommends not telling anyone you’re doing this and at the end of the 30 days, asking yourself the following two questions: 

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? 

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

As it happened, I didn’t tell anyone I was going offline so I’m in a position to answer both these questions. Given that my answer is a clear “No” on both counts, left up to Newport, I should quit social media permanently. But I’m not quite ready to do that.

I didn’t rush to the Google Play store on September 1 to re-download the apps. In fact, I still haven’t actually been on them because I haven’t figured out yet how I want to use them. I detoxed my bad habits; I want to replace them with better, more intentional ones. I haven’t figured out what that looks like yet, but if I can go more than a month without checking Twitter then I think it’s OK to wait a few more days will I work that bit out. I also just miss talking to my friends. I miss bantering with my internet friends and I miss looking at my IRL friend’s photos of their dogs, babies and sourdoughs. 

I know I’ll log back on eventually and I know things will be as I left them. The difference for me, though, will be knowing that I can leave again at any time and it won’t be a big deal.

This is the online version of The Professional Freelancer, a newsletter and community for anyone who wants to be happy and successful working for themselves. It's written by me, Anna Codrea-Rado, a journalist, podcaster and campaigner for freelance workers' rights. Illustrations are by Léo Hamelin. If you sign up with your email, you’ll receive weekly posts like these, PLUS work opportunities and curated links that will make your working life better