SITFO: Shut It the Fuck Off
Our phones are FOMO devices, a way to make sure we never miss out on anything. It’s significant that the first word in the acronym FOMO is fear. We clutch our phones like security blankets, hoping they will soothe us, when ironically they do the exact opposite. They are agitation devices, little battery-powered fear machines.
It’s also significant that the word FOMO didn’t even exist before we had smartphones. In the pre-smartphone era, we missed out on stuff all the time. This didn’t scare us. When we felt sad, afraid, or anxious, we bought things: shoes, cars, boats, more shoes, houses. Pick your poison. Consumer culture is driven by the belief that if we just buy enough things, we can fill some empty existential void inside ourselves. Of course, nothing ever fills that yawning pit of despair and neediness. But instead of giving up, we keep going back for more retail therapy.
Now we try to soothe anxiety by consuming not just pointless, trashy things but also pointless, trashy information. We stuff ourselves with as much as we can, three things at once, at double speed, until our brains leak. Noise distracts us and helps us avoid confronting things that scare us half to death—like death. Worried about work? Depressed about a breakup? Feeling bored, anxious, restless, nervous? Tune out and watch TikTok.
Ironically, a lot of people turn to TikTok to get help with their mental health—even as it wrecks their mental health. Just like splurging on shoes or cars, gorging on information doesn’t fix your problems; it just makes them worse. The Anxiety Wheel rolls on.
The internet is never going to become a quiet place, no more than football stadiums or Midtown Manhattan will. The noise will never go away. But we can. For the sake of our physical health and psychological well-being, we must.
STFU on Social Media
The best way to stay off social media is to keep busy doing something else, says Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Making resolutions and relying on willpower will not do the trick, Newport says. Instead, he recommends a one-month “digital detox,” during which you forgo all digital technology you do not absolutely need. After that, you can go back, but do it slowly, in increments, small doses—becoming a “digital minimalist.”
You might not be ready to handle a one-month digital detox, but there are other ways to become a digital minimalist. Here are some clever ways to limit your social media use:
Conduct an inventory. Chances are you are spending a lot more time on social media than you think. Your phone can track your usage and give you a daily or weekly report. How many social media apps do you use? How many hours a week do you spend on each one? Which ones do you use the most? Which one do you find the most addictive? Which one do you find the least useful? Such an inventory will help you make a game plan. And seeing how much time you’re wasting might prompt you to take action.
Delete apps from your phone. Force yourself to use social media only via a browser on your computer. That way you can’t just grab your phone and start snacking on social out of habit.
Uninstall and reinstall. Nimesh Patel, a comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer, limits his Instagram use by uploading and then deleting the app each time he uses it: “I check it in the morning, and then I delete it. Then I check it at night and delete it again.”
Indulge, but set limits. Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, recommends scheduling a certain amount of time every day to do nothing but use social media. But don’t let yourself use it at any other time. The key when using social media is to engage in “mindful scrolling,” which means fully concentrating on what you’re doing, being “all about the phone for those minutes, as if it were your job,” Brooks advises.
STFU as Medicine
Seek out silence, and you will find yourself feeling calmer but also more refreshed, with more energy and a greater capacity to be creative. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates retreats alone twice a year to a cabin in a forest for a “Think Week,” where he disconnects from electronics and reads books and research papers. Even quick opportunities— a few minutes at work with no phone, no computer, no music—can recharge your brain battery. If you’re struggling to solve a problem, get up, walk away, and do not think about that problem. Go for a walk. Set up a forest bathing appointment. Sit quietly and let your mind wander and drift. Think about those studies that found that silence causes you to grow new brain cells. Close your eyes and feel those neurons springing to life.
Researchers have found that doing something boring makes people more creative. They suspect it might be because the brain, when bored, goes looking for things to do. It feels unsatisfied, so it goes into Search mode. Thanks to smartphones, we can keep ourselves from ever being bored. There’s always a distraction. But that distraction is unproductive. Our brains become occupied with empty activity, which leaves no room for daydreaming or creative thinking.
Keep a talk journal. Dieters keep food journals where they write down everything they eat. STFU practitioners can do something similar, spending some time at the end of the day to think back on the conversations they had. How many were meaningful? How often were you able to really listen? Did you have one conversation that went really well? If so, how did you accomplish this? Writing this down will reinforce the habits you are trying to cultivate.
This sounds like a lot of work, but so is going to the gym—and the payoff from STFU is easier to obtain than six-pack abs. You’ll feel happier, calmer, more in control, more optimistic, and less anxious. You’ll also sleep better. You may even find that you’re less prone to angry outbursts and catastrophizing.
The physical benefits—new brain cells, a stronger immune system, reduced likelihood of developing heart disease—are not as readily apparent, but I’ve decided to trust the science and take that part on faith.
STFU at Work
Here’s a novel idea. In a world where everyone is making noise, the best way to stand out might be to STFU. Build a brand around quiet competence and actual accomplishments. Be secure and confident enough in your abilities that you don’t need to race around desperately seeking attention on Twitter.
Humble leaders outperform their showy counterparts. A study that tracked 120 teams comprising 495 employees found that the best teams had “leaders who demonstrate humility—through self-awareness, praising others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback.” Humble leaders create teams that have 75 percent less stress, 50 percent higher productivity, and 40 percent less burnout. Companies are casting aside the notion of a leader as someone who is charismatic and attention seeking, who craves the spotlight, and are instead embracing the idea of leadership as a quiet, humble pursuit.
STFU leaders inspire STFU companies, as their example is driven down through the ranks. Relentless self-promoters are out. People who admit when they don’t have an answer and who give credit to others are in. Humility has become such a sought-after skill that it’s baked into personality assessments used by recruiters. Patagonia, the clothing company famous for its great corporate culture, screens job applicants for humility. So does Taj Hotels, a global luxury hospitality chain headquartered in Mumbai.
Soon, we may look back on the past fifteen years as an aberration, a period when the workplace temporarily lost its mind. If you really want to catch the attention of your managers and improve your chances of getting promoted, be quietly competent. Be humble. It’s a rare quality these days.
Be the person on the team who knows how to STFU.
STFU at Home
On the island of Okinawa, a village called Ogimi has the highest percentage of one-hundred-year-olds of any place on earth—and the ikigai is off the charts, according to Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, who visited Ogimi and interviewed the oldsters. Ikigai has a lot in common with the “meaningful, substantive conversations” that University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl found to be the key to better mental health and a stronger immune system. Talk less, listen more, avoid small talk, make real connections. It’s a pretty simple recipe.
STFU is selfless. It brings out the best in the people around you. Listening to someone, putting all your attention on them instead of on yourself, does magic. Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, once contrasted the experience of having dinner with two big-shot British politicians, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”
Imagine having that effect on everyone in your life. Imagine making your kids happier, more independent, better able to succeed. Imagine unlocking their creativity so that they can solve the world’s most challenging problems. Imagine being able to bring out the best in your friends and relatives or even the random strangers you meet in your day-to-day life. Then imagine that goodness radiating outward, as our kids, friends, and relatives do the same for the people in their lives. There is more to STFU than just talking less and getting more for yourself. If enough of us learned to STFU, we could make the world a little bit better for all of us.
STFU in Love
According to Marty Nemko, a psychologist, career coach, and NPR host, people stop paying attention to you after only thirty seconds. So, when you’re having coffee with that person you just matched with on Tinder, it’s not enough to stick to the 60–40 Rule and balance out the talking between the two of you. You also need to break up your comments into smaller chunks.
Toward this end, Nemko developed the Traffic Light Rule. For the first thirty seconds, you have a green light and can talk away. But at the thirty-second mark, the light turns yellow. Your partner’s attention has started to drift or, worse, they might be hoping you will wrap things up. You can go through the yellow light—but proceed with caution, and only after reading the other person’s facial expression and body language. If their eyes are glazing over, put the ball in their court.
At the one-minute mark, you’ve hit a red light. Your Tinder date has stopped hearing what you’re saying and is instead checking out someone else in the back of the café. Go on much longer, and they will take out their phone and open their Tinder app to see who else they’ve matched with.
“There are rare times you should ‘run a red light’: when your listener is obviously fully engaged,” Nemko advises. “But usually, when an utterance exceeds one minute, with each passing second, you increase the risk of boring your listener and having them think of you as a chatterbox, windbag, or blowhard.”
Nemko suggests stopping at the thirty-second mark to see if your partner wants to hear more. If they do, they will ask. But they rarely do. If you need to explain something that takes more than a minute, Nemko recommends breaking it into thirty-second sections and stopping at the end of each section to ask a question. “Is this making sense? What do you think?”
Nemko admits that it’s hard to keep things short, but he emphasizes that abiding by the Traffic Light Rule is not entirely about being generous or polite. You’re not helping the other person; you’re helping yourself: “You’ll get more of what you want if you trade in your talk-talk-talk self for someone who truly listens as much as he or she talks.”