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February 8, 2022

How to break your social media habit, according to the Harvard Business Review

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 27, 2022.

    Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Kaitlin Woolley, an associate professor of marketing at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, identify three key factors that can pull employees down the social media "rabbit hole" while on the job—and suggest strategies about how to "get back to work."

    3 factors that keep you scrolling on social media

    Studies have shown that around 77% of employees use social media while they are at work, sometimes for several hours a day. To gain a better understanding of why people fall into these types of social media "rabbit holes," and how people "can climb out and get back to work," Woolley and Sharif conducted a series of studies with a total of 6,445 students and employed adults in the United States. In their research, they identified three factors that influence whether an individual decides to keep viewing content rather than transition to another activity, including:

    1. How much media the person has already viewed

    First, Woolley and Sharif had participants view either five different music videos in a row or just one music video. Then, they asked participants if they'd rather watch an additional video or complete a work-related task. They found that contrary to their expectations, those who watched five videos were 10% more likely than those who watched just one "to choose to watch an additional music video," they write.

    2. How related the media is to things the individual has already viewed

    Next, Woolley and Sharif analyzed the impact of viewing similar content. They showed all participants the same two videos. However, half of the participants were shown videos explicitly labelled as "educational videos," while the other half of the participants were shown videos that didn't have a category label at all.

    "We found that simply framing the videos as more similar via the category label made people 21% more likely to choose to watch another related video," they wrote.

    3. How the individual viewed the media

    Finally, Woolley and Sharif compared the way participants acted after watching several videos in a row with no interruptions with the way they acted after watching the same number of videos with some interruptions. Specifically, they had one group of participants complete two work tasks, then watch two similar videos, while the other group alternated between each task and each video.

    "Despite having done exactly the same activities, the order made a big difference: The participants whose video consumption was uninterrupted were 22% more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos," Woolley and Sharif write.

    How to disengage from social media

    According to Woolley and Sharif, these results show why it's so easy to get distracted by apps like Instagram and YouTube at work.

    "These platforms are designed to trap viewers in a social media rabbit hole: They offer bite-sized content that makes it easy to quickly consume several videos or posts in a row, they often automatically suggest similar content, and many of them even automatically start playing similar videos, reducing the potential for interruptions," they write. In fact, according to Woolley and Sharif, "the accessibility of this media is exactly what makes it so hard for users to break free from the rabbit hole and get back to whatever they were working on."

    To combat the pull of social media, Woolley and Sharif suggest trying to watch just one video, or watching seemingly unrelated videos and finding ways to interrupt your viewing if you want to watch multiple videos in a row.

    "There are countless strategies that can help you break the cycle: You can use a social media timer that prompts you to take a break after a certain amount of time, keep a sticky note on your desk with a note to avoid watching too many videos in a row, or even just consciously remind yourself to consume different kinds of content," they write.

    Ultimately, the best way to keep yourself from spending too much time on social media when you have other work is to "find ways to reduce the similarity, repetitiveness, and relatedness of the content you're consuming," according to Woolley and Sharif.

    While this can sometimes be difficult, it's not impossible, they write, "and once you manage to break free, you'll be back at that big report in no time." (Woolley/Sharif, Harvard Business Review, 1/31)

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