The Emergency Brake Effect Of Social Media

Productivity, healthy habits, and living well are like a heavy freight train: Very, very slow to start moving but once in motion it can obliterate everything in its path–flying with immense momentum up mountains, careening through valleys, and smashing through blockages. In a similar way, pulling out your phone to check social media acts like a very strong emergency brake. Stopping your studies, your workout, or even a conversation by opening up your phone to scroll mindlessly will bring your freight train full of momentum to a complete stop.


Imagine the following: It’s the first month of school. You sit down to get started by answering some welcome-to-class emails, read through a syllabus or two, and begin to get into the flow. As this process continues, you get a notification. Someone has liked your post on social media. Worse, a friend of yours has just tagged you in a post–how could you ignore that?

Screeching noises, sharp deceleration. This massive train of force is brought to a halt as you look at a video that you won’t remember in two days. You react with a laugh emoji, scroll for a few minutes, and look back at your laptop.

There are a few tabs open; a syllabus here, a welcome email there. Midterm dates and assignment notifications. The thoughts “Where am I? What was I doing?” flash through your mind.

And a lot of effort is expended. If you are particularly industrious and hardworking, you get the freight train started again. Slowly and slowly, the train picks up speed and you enter the flow state yet again. Taking notes, putting events into your calendar, downloading documents. A top achiever!


But yet, another notification. Screeeeeeech!! The train slams to a halt as you open up snapchat, this time a message from someone you fancy. It’s a picture of a bowl of cereal. Great! You reply with one back of the work you were doing, and go through snap stories for a few minutes.

You break free, get the train started but are getting fatigued. It’s a lot harder to start and stop work than it is to continue steadily. As a result, the notes you were taking look a lot harder to get back into than earlier. Strong as you are, the train isn’t accelerating as quickly as earlier. Struggling to pick up speed, you make your way through an assignment when another notification comes from a different social media platform. The train shrieks and comes to a complete stop, this time over a few text messages and a YouTube video “break”. Dang, 22 minutes of YouTube. At this point, getting started again is too difficult so it’s time for a breezy 35 minutes of TikTok to finish out the hour, along with all of the terrible feelings we all feel after burning all that time.

Social Media Is An Emergency Break

If you are being particularly productive, try it. I had this experience earlier as I came back from a run and found Safari on my phone. I typically do not have it installed, and only enable it in situations where it is absolutely necessary. Shoot! The night before I went out for dinner and the menu was only available on QR code. That’s an instance that requires a mobile phone with Safari (although, I could ask for a print menu next time), so I re-activated Safari. Seems like I forgot to delete it. Hm. Maybe there’s something good on here, I don’t use it much…

I opened it up to the Reddit homepage, curious.

Almost 35 minutes passed by, completely killing my drive and motivation. I deleted Safari, took note of what happened and what went wrong, and got the freight train restarted. It took a lot of effort and it really did impact my productivity for an hour or so. Reasonably, because if you use social media for 25 minutes, it eats up 42% of an hour, reducing an hour’s worth of work to 58% of what could’ve been. 35 minutes eats up 58% of an hour, leaving all other work at 42% effectiveness. If you always feel like you’re running out of time during the semester, this may be a cause.

Taking Good Breaks

Taking breaks is important. Burnout, fatigue, and the like exist and are common.

Taking a break, however, does not mean using TikTok for thirty minutes. Screens cause fatigue, commonly discovered by hundreds of millions during covid as Zoom Fatigue.

Designing a good rest-stop for your freight train

Hell of a rest stop!

Imagine you are planning the ideal break for yourself. You’ve been hard at work, however that manifests for you. Where, exactly, would you like to park your freight train? What does a good break look like?

Think of the best rest stops in-real life. They have nice, scenic views. Delicious food, water. Maybe even a friend or two to talk to. Seriously, take some time and imagine what taking a fantastic break that recharges would look like.

If it’s been a particularly draining journey, rest stops have places to sleep. Beds that are made, or even a nice grassy field to lay a blanket in. You know, to rest. It doesn’t even have to be a nap, but laying in bed (without a screen in sight!!) or sitting on a bench watching the clouds go by are both relaxing and restorative. Without a phone in bed, you will lay there until rested/bored and will feel a drive to go out and do stuff again. With a phone, that drive is suppressed, leading to hours in bed but exhaustion and dissatisfaction.

For a good break, maybe even perform some exercise. A couple of toe touches, shoulder rolls. Just some easy and invigorating stretches. Or a full-blown workout!

This semester, on campus at UC Berkeley, this looks like eating lunch on the glade and listening to some music (or just enjoying the birds and people walking by). Packing a lunch is a part of preparing for the day, and not planning is planning to fail.

Nightmare Rest-Stop

The worst rest stops for the conductor of a freight train would be a place with no rest! Maybe even a place that makes you miserable.

It would have NO food, or maybe just bags of chips. You know, junk food–food that tires you out, makes you miserable, and provides no nutritional value. Certainly no vegetables or fruit to be seen! The view would be terrible. Maybe no view at all. Staying inside. Imagine a conductor that stays in the train along an unremarkable stretch of rail. “Taking A Break” by switching to a different tab/different screen.

Recommended Read: How To Maximize Your Misery In 7 Short Steps

No rest, no relaxation. Putting a phone in front of you to scroll through social media is not a break. Your shoulders are hunched, you are looking down at a small screen, inside of a small room. How could that be relaxing at all?


Alright, all this talk of freight trains, conductors, and rest stops is over. Hopefully the analogy helped you visualize what is going on, but if not I’m going to break it down further here.

When we work, there is a peak state called flow. Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”.[16] An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. Also, Csikszentmihályi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.[78] (Source)

It may come as a shock that these feelings can come from challenging work. From making friendship bracelets to writing code for a computer science project in a library, flow state can happen everywhere. It’s a positive feedback loop. As we work, our work becomes better and feels easier while being challenging and we accomplish more and more. We become locked-in and very engaged. This feeling can happen when reading books, going for workouts, hiking, cooking, learning, and more.

That’s what I’m referring to as the freight train. Like a heavy train picks up speed, so do our brains. We begin to filter out noise and enter states of heightened productivity. This state, like all things, is unsustainable. We must take breaks, which is why I refer to the rest-stops. Taking healthy breaks: good snacks/meals, time to reflect, outdoor air and light, etc. Will re-energize us and make us feel better.

Social Media “Brakes”

I talk about social media in this article as an “emergency brake”, but that’s a bit misleading. Emergency brakes are very important. What if a car comes across a train’s path? Lives could be at risk.

In this context, social media is not fulfilling those positive purposes as we can exit flow at any time by stepping away from our work. Social media is acting as a detriment; yanking us out of positive states of mind into a standstill. Personally, my social media usage was terrible. It was all about the worst things happening in the world: climate change, injustice, violence, etc. What a sore! I would be working hard at something and then be interrupted by some horrific war crimes 5,000 miles away, really damaging my wellbeing. The world is mind-bogglingly huge, with lots of positives and negatives happening each second. Frankly, interrupting my work with something very far away was not beneficial for anyone. Being informed is important, so I schedule time to read the news on my own time instead of constant interruptions.

Recommended Read: The Scale Of A Day

Deleting my social media and creating all of these safeguards (web filters, parental controls, etc) is what it takes for me to keep it under my own control. Life without social media has been an immensely positive experience. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I am growing, living, and facing challenges. Before making these changes, life felt like it was just happening to me.

Final Thoughts

May you have a great day ahead of you. I hope the information in this article helps you be a little more empowered to make decisions that benefit you and those around you.

There’s been a week-and-a-half delay with new articles, mostly due to a vacation and blockage. I’m currently waiting for nutritional science professors at UC Berkeley to respond to a few emails I’ve sent. Coming soon, there will be an article talking about food and nutrition, which is why I reached out to them. I’ve nearly completed it, but I am waiting patiently for them. If you wish to read it when it comes out, please sign up for the mailing list 🙂


Kendrick Sharpe

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