When I was young, my dad would drive me to our hometown public library—the one hidden behind a lake called Lilly—to check out stacks of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. I could not read them fast enough, even regularly skipping lunch to finish the book hours after starting it.
As a graduate student, I no longer have to drive to the library to check out the next book in a series because the shelves of my tiny D.C. row house are lined with all of the books I love—theology from John Stott, philosophy from J. Budziszewski, and nonfiction from Laura Hillenbrand.
But because of an ever-heightened pressure to be “present” and “active” on social media, I have found it increasingly difficult to carve out time for deep reading, writing, and focus, oft to the detriment of my intellectual faculties. My brain has been trained, albeit inadvertently, to stray after reading merely a paragraph or two.
Philip Yancy—in a brilliant blog post titled Reading Wars—precisely describes this tenuous effort:
A commitment to reading is an ongoing battle…We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish.
Many academics, however, work in spaces surrounded by teams of communicators who are often focused on praxis and not just ideas. How can we cultivate the world of ideas while also engaging the public square through the use of media, rightly understanding that they can and do work in tandem? Here are three suggestions:
1. Find a “mental energy peak.”
It may necessarily be that you need to spend less time on social media (though that may be one thing to consider). Rather, consider when throughout the day you are “online” and “offline.”
For some, their best working hours are at 5 am before the sun rises. For others, it’s 2 am, long after the sun has set. Aim to reserve your “peak” times for reading and writing, rather than using these time blocks for social media engagement or communications projects.
For the student or academic, these hours warrant protection. Your other hours of the day will become more productive and fruitful when you are able to set aside time for “focus work” instead of jumping from task to task, refreshing Twitter after reading or writing no more than a few sentences.
2. Engage with and share quality content.
One of the most challenging aspects of social media and the digital space is the copious amounts of content— articles, videos, podcasts, websites, pictures—to filter through. The key to working smart as an academic is to know how to filler good content from bad. This involves strategically focusing your time on social media.
One way to do this is through the use of Twitter lists—curated by yourself or others—to hone your content intake.
Consider compiling a list of your favorite scholars, authors, and writers. Have lists for close friends, media personalities, or others whose content you regularly engage.
A few of the lists I have include News, Colleagues, and Members of Congress. By using specific lists, you reduce your time aimlessly scrolling, and are therefore more strategic in the minutes you choose to spend online.
3. Have a purpose when logging on.
I frequently catch myself using Twitter or other platforms as an escape—an escape from a difficult task, email, or conversation that would benefit greatly from my full concentration.
Instead of checking social media throughout the day, set specific times for doing so.
One suggestion is to turn off your notifications and try to limit yourself to checking social media at three times throughout the day—perhaps when you are commuting to work; during lunch; and on your commute home.
With many jobs revolving around the never-ending news cycle, though, this can be difficult. At the very least, have a purpose of engaging with a particular topic or person, or posting content, rather than looking for a distraction.
Remember that your formation as a thinker and communicator can be greatly benefited from social media but also hindered if not used wisely and strategically.
Resurrect those fortress walls, but make sure to leave a window through which to survey the watching world.