Updated: Jun 4
Author's note: Since I published this article in 2022, the post has been read by over 7,000 people and shared by many creatives, including one of my favorite authors, Cal Newport. I just wanted to say: thank you for every read, share, and message. This experiment, as well as its reception, has meant the world to me. Cheers! - Alex
In December 2020, I announced my plan to log off social media for an entire calendar year. Specifically, I wanted to see what life was like without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Well, here we are in 2022, a week past the anniversary of that original announcement. I’m proud to say that I stuck with my goal through all 2021. Now, it’s time for a recap.
Here’s what I learned working as a writer and online business owner for an entire year without social media—and some of the benefits and costs I met along the way.
Why I took a year-long break from social media
The idea for my break was born from an obvious place: I don’t particularly like spending time on social media.
For me, these channels have always drained rather than replenished my mental energy. For example, when I lose track of time reading a book or blog post, the minutes feel generally well spent by the time I look up again.
On the other hand, when I lose track of time on social media, I consistently regret it. I come away thinking I could have done something more valuable with my time.
Perhaps more importantly, social media became my mental crutch when faced with a hard task. When I couldn’t think of how to write the next sentence or headline, my default action was to open another tab and scroll social media. I saw social media as my biggest hindrance to achieving what Cal Newport calls deep work.
So, why was I ever on social media at all?
I considered taking an extended break from social media for at least a couple years before finally following through in 2021. The long hesitation was because of my job as a freelance copywriter.
Giving up social media as both a writer and online business owner seemed like a big risk in an already-volatile industry. Could I maintain an online business without the supposedly most powerful networking and promotion tools ever built? I wouldn’t know until I tried.
In the end, my decision to log off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn was a counterintuitive bet. I theorized that, with all the time I would regain from being off social media, a few positive changes would take place:
The quality of my work would improve because I didn’t have as much workday distraction.
I would be forced to find new marketing channels to keep the business afloat, which would force me to level up and build a healthier business.
My writing and thinking would become more interesting because it would become less insular.
In summary: The year was an experiment into whether or not I could continue strong growth in my freelance business by intentionally avoiding social media.
The “What if” factor
My break from social media was also a culmination of many “What if” questions buzzing in my head:
What if I wasn’t so distracted by my devices all the time?
What if I could devote more free time and attention to reading and writing?
What if I created alternative marketing strategies that didn’t pit me up against hundreds of competitors on social media?
What if I wasn’t glued to the stressful flow of information and hot takes?
A layer beneath these “what ifs” was a simple question: What is adult life like without social media?
I signed up for my first social media profile as a freshman in high school. Until December 2020, I had never spent more than a month or so away from some form of social network. The only adult life I’d known was one tied to likes, comments, and shares.
I entered this experiment to understand what, if anything, I was missing out on by maintaining a regular social media presence.
The two big risks of taking a break from social media
I started my freelance copywriting business almost six years ago. Since the beginning, social media was one of the easiest places to find clients.
LinkedIn was awesome for prospecting. Facebook groups helped me connect with many customers. Instagram and Twitter have both led to great networking and marketing opportunities. My biggest fear about giving up social media was that I didn’t know if my business would survive without these marketing engines.
Just at the top of my head, I can think of tens of thousands of dollars I’ve earned directly because of interactions on social media. Was I an idiot for giving up this low hanging fruit?
Then there was my writing itself. Social media is a great way to get eyes on something I’ve published. Before the break, my articles would consistently get shares and comments. Every time I wanted new email subscribers, all I had to do was make a simple post on social media. Leading up to the big decision, I feared that 2021 would be the year I lost all my readers.
What I learned running a business without social media
Growing an online business without social media
I entered 2021 with no idea how my business would fair without social media. Would I find enough clients to maintain the same income?
It turns out, I did.
Long story short: My social media break has paid off so well for my personal writing and business that I now consider not using these platforms to be a form of unfair advantage for my writing and business. What I’ve given up in easy social media distribution, I’ve regained in focused strategy, greater productivity, and (I believe) better value for my clients.
My business not only stayed afloat in 2021, but also grew by more than 50% despite not having social media for marketing and prospecting purposes.
Finding clients without social media
So, how did I find clients? These were my three primary client acquisition methods in 2021:
SEO: The vast majority of new clients found me on Google.
Returning clients: I had several return clients in 2021, as well as a few ongoing retainers.
Referral clients: Another key marketing tactic was good old fashioned referrals. Past clients recommended my services to their friends and colleagues.
I have two notes about these marketing methods.
First, I often don’t ask clients how they find me. So there’s a real possibility that some clients reach out to me through some other marketing force (like reading my guest posts, seeing old social media posts, etc.) that I’m not accounting for.
For example, one person recently hired me after seeing my copywriting services mentioned in an article I didn’t even write. One lead (who didn’t hire me) found me because someone mentioned my work in a YouTube video. Serendipity is a funny thing.
Second, I recognize that all three of these marketing tactics are only reliable for experienced freelancers. SEO, referrals, and repeat clients aren’t marketing options available to most starting freelancers. This would have been a different experiment had I given up social media during my first year.
Newsfeeds to friendships
Social media is great for helping like-minded people connect with others who share their interests. The problem is, things can feel insular. Before giving up social media, it began to feel like every other person I knew online was a freelancer.
This has its pros and cons. On one hand, I’m pretty bad at networking and forming friendships with other freelancers. Social media, at least on a surface level, allowed me to meet people in my industry and hear what they’re up to. That's a feature I missed during my year break.
On the other hand, I think for experienced freelancers, it’s easy to spend too much time reading tactics you already know. Creativity and innovation are the result of taking in differing ideas across many industries, backgrounds, and experiences. When my newsfeed is primarily composed of other freelancers, I’m bound to spend a lot of mental energy processing the same ideas as everyone else in my industry.
If I was just starting out, reading information from a fellow copywriter would be helpful. I could learn how to set rates, write more persuasive copy, or market my services. But six years in, I no longer gain much benefit from reading freelance tactics.
On a deeper level, I’d love to move from reading posts to forming real friendships. While I’m not interested in a newsfeed full of freelancing tactics, I’m very interested in the people writing those tactics. If you’re reading this and want to connect, I’d love to meet you!
Swing for the fences
The upside of social media is that it offers easy wins. Social media makes it easy to network, find clients, and get the word out about your services.
But ease also has a downside. It attracts competition and fosters short-termism. People are drawn to the lowest hanging fruit. Naturally, there’s a lot of competition for freelance work on social media.
I like to think that this past year forced me to raise my game. I could no longer scroll Facebook groups or Twitter hashtags and call it marketing. If I wanted to find work, I had to decide whether I would write in-depth guides that could rank on Google, email past clients, or come up with interesting ideas that major blog editors would willingly publish and promote. All of these have more to do with long term brand building than short term promotion.
As a result, I biased toward taking the long view for my business. Instead of focusing on one-off tactics to find a client today, I started wrestling with ideas to help me find clients further in the future. What are the steps I can take today to make clients want to work with me months and years from now?
I formed a habit I call “strategy journaling.” In essence, I journal freehand about how I’m going to get clients months or years from now. Thinking long term like this forces me to reflect on the bones of my business. I’m inspired to think and dream bigger.
What I learned as a writer without social media
Losing easy article distribution
This is where I’ve been torn about social media. On one hand, I didn’t need social media to get the word out about my latest articles. Distribution through my email list, one-off guest posts, and Google turned out fine. Just fine.
As soon as I gave up social media, there was an immediate drop in readers to my blog and visitors to my website. I gave up my easiest content distribution engine.
The good news is that I also wrote more this year than ever before. I believe I have my break to thank for this. I was less distracted this year, which allowed me to produce a higher volume (at greater quality) than years prior.
The cost of being prolific was that I put an unnecessary cap on the reach of everything I wrote. Social media may be distracting. But it’s also great for getting the word out about your latest article.
It’s safe to say that my newsletter, though it grew (almost by double!) in the past year, could have grown much faster with the help of a few social media posts. Before my break, I could count on gaining 3-10 new subscribers almost every time I talked about the newsletter on social media. I lost that low-hanging fruit.
In fact, distribution for my writing is why I’ve chosen to get back on one social media channel going forward. (More on that decision below.)
The flip-side: being prolific and doing my best work
As I mentioned, the upside of dodging social media distraction for a year was how much more time I found to write. I published about 40 longform blog posts this year (not counting client articles), wrote and published a 10,000-word copywriting guide, and kickstarted several other personal long-form writing projects in 2021.
It’s safe to say that this is far more writing than I’ve done in past years, despite the fact that I had more client work than ever.
Also, I would venture to guess that my quality went up a bit. One of the downsides of social media is ease of publishing. There are no gatekeepers stopping me from publishing lazy work.
In 2021, I wrote for more editors (The Next Web, Built In, and The Write Life), which meant producing at a higher quality. Also, without the anticipation of likes and comments, I took more time with my writing. A dose of patience was added to my writing process.
Depth as a work ethic
I think many career-driven people have professional daydreams of their ideal work environment, position, or achievement. When my mind wanders, I spend a lot of that time thinking about craft, depth, mastery, and actions that pay off in the long term. These interrelated subjects are important to me. I consider them my work ethic, in the most literal sense.
Using social media has almost always felt like a direct affront to this ethic. On Twitter, I would write pithy content that disappeared almost as soon as I clicked publish.
By stepping away from social media for 2021, I could explore the subjects of depth and long-term thinking more closely. I read books and subscribed to long-form publications I was interested in. I discovered several new bloggers and newsletter authors.
When I write, I sense a weight of permanence that I’d mostly forgotten because of the ephemeral nature of social media. I’m not saying my writing is more valuable than before; only that I value each word a bit more now than I did a year ago.
Something feels right about that.
My health without social media
This comes in two forms: mental and physical health.
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram caused me more anxiety and stress than I even realized. The constant opinionated noise and comparison on these platforms is hard to overstate. I knew right away that I wasn’t going to miss the hot takes.
I don’t have any metrics. I didn’t track my mental health during this year. But in general I feel less anxious today than a year ago, particularly less social anxiety.
Regarding physical health, I discovered (and rediscovered) some outdoor hobbies this year. It’s hard to know whether this is correlation or causation. But I joined a couple adventure races, played many tennis matches, and easily walked and ran at least 500 - 700 miles last year, averaging a little more than 10 miles per week.
Again, I can’t say social media necessarily caused me to get outside more. But it’s also not unreasonable, given that I regained hours of my time back that used to be spent scrolling.
Should you give up social media?
In general, I have no beef with social media. I think these platforms offer more pros than cons for most people, especially creatives and entrepreneurs who benefit from easy access to publicity, digital advertising, and customer feedback.
My general belief is that if you love social media, then stick with it. If you don’t care for it, then delete the platforms before they occupy another unnecessary minute of your life.
My relationship with social media going forward
The big takeaway of this year is that I love life without social media.
That said, social media does offer clear benefits to me as both a writer and business owner. I’m going to try to get 90% of the benefits of social media for 10% of the cost. That means only going back to the social media channel that is least distracting and promises the highest return for my vested time.
I’ve determined that that channel is LinkedIn. I’ll begin publishing my articles and ideas to LinkedIn once again as a means to network with future clients and distribute my ideas and stories.
It’s an emotional experience choosing to return to social media. I’m proud of who I’ve become this past year. The decision to get off social media was a productive one.
The great thing about freelancing is that you don’t need many customers to make the venture viable. The viral nature of social media isn’t necessary for running a freelance business. It’s more advantageous for me to attend conferences and rub elbows (at safe social distance) with clients, or create niche articles to rank on Google, than to post one-off tweets. Sure, both will work. My preference is for the former.
That said, I am also a writer. I love seeing people engage with my ideas and stories. Social media fosters this writerly engagement better than any channel. While I still dislike many aspects of social media, I’m excited to reengage from a measured distance on LinkedIn.
As far as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are concerned, for now I’m staying away. I doubt I’ll ever return to Facebook. Twitter has promise but I also sort of hate it. Instagram is the most enjoyable of these platforms, but I haven’t missed it, so why bother?
In preparation for publishing this article, I logged back into LinkedIn. I was immediately reminded of both how valuable this platform is for connecting with clients and how noisy it is with irrelevant content.
I had 42 missed messages from the past year. Almost all of them were recruiters asking about full-time roles. But buried between the InMail messages were several real inquiries about my copywriting services that could have turned into great projects.
Looks like my return to LinkedIn will start with a few apologies.
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