Recently, I spent 30 days off of social media, just to clear my head. Some days, I think social media is the greatest thing ever invented – 9 hours, 157 links, and 3 Justin Bieber memes later, I start to have my doubts. The first 30 minutes/day I spend on Twitter is great for business, but I imagine the graph of productivity by time spent looks something like this:

Twitter productivity graph

So, 30 days later you might be wondering what I learned from all this. Here's the recap...

The world kept turning.

It's always a bit disappointing to realize that you're not the center of the universe. I went offline for 30 days and no one died, no one called the cops, and it still takes roughly 365 days for the Earth to orbit the Sun. Bin Laden is still killed and Kate and Will are still married, even though I didn't talk about those events on Twitter. No one was snuffed out of existence because I didn't Like them on Facebook (unless, by ceasing to exist, everyone instantly forgot about them – you never know).

I went through withdrawal.

We don't like to think of addiction as something that applies to us – that's a word reserved for meth heads and Charlie Sheen. I'm not your typical addict. One of my grandfather's was an alcoholic, and yet I can have a drink every week or two with no problems. I can walk into a casino in Vegas, play the $20 I put aside on the slots, and walk out, chalking up the loss as entertainment.

Sometimes, though, my behavior online just isn't healthy. I don't know if it's technically addiction, compulsion, or just avoidance, but the label doesn't matter. If you repeatedly click on the same half-dozen sites for an hour (when they didn't even update) to put off doing what's really important to you, that's an addiction, in every practical sense of the word. Social media's standing between you and real life at that point, and you have to fight to find the balance.

I think I realized the balance was tipping the wrong way for me when I was playing Mafia Wars a couple of years ago. I had 2 accounts in play, I was 600+ level on one, and I had a multi-sheet Excel workbook to track my inventory. One day, we were out in California with my wife's dad – he was in the hospital and only had a few days left to live. I had to take a break from the hospital room and went down to the lobby to check email and unwind. A few minutes later, I was checking my Mafia Wars character to make sure everything was up to date.

There was nothing wrong with needing a break in that moment, but suddenly the absurdity of worrying about worthless stats on an imaginary character in a pointless game really sunk in. Here I was, surrounded by real life, and I needed to take it in, for better or worse. The sad thing is that I didn't even like playing the game – it had become just another item on the to-do list and was actually creating stress. I quit and deleted the other account soon after.

When I started the challenge, I almost had to sit on my hands to keep from checking Facebook and Twitter. I almost visited social media sites without even realizing what I was doing, until I eventually had to remove all bookmarks and block the sites (thank you, StayFocusd). I didn't realize it was quite that bad until I tried to quit.

I got a lot more done.

The point of this post isn't to bash social media (keep reading), but the unavoidable reality is that all of this participation takes a lot of time, especially when you're in an industry where everyone is online all the time. Part of my challenge was to mark out some time for a project, and I decided to write 30GO30's first e-book (coming soon). In 2 weeks, it was basically done. Sure, it's only 30 pages, but I expected it to take 2 months.

So, I started an infographic I've been putting off. It's mostly done. I finished reading 3 books, and one of them was 500 pages long. I came up with guest-post ideas to cover the next 2-3 months, wrote some of them, and even illustrated a couple. Some days, I had my client work done, put in some time on long-term projects, and realized it was only two-o-clock in the afternoon. I'm not trying to show off – I'm just sincerely amazed at the difference.

I got to write just for me.

I live for approval. That's not healthy either, but that's a whole other post. I decided to keep up my posting schedule (plus a couple of posts for clients) during my 30-day hiatus, and something very interesting happened. I suddenly had to write for me. It wasn't about hitting Publish and waiting to see how many Likes and Re-Tweets I got – it was about writing and rewriting until I was happy with what I had created. It was strange not to have an echo chamber to shout into, but it was liberating, too.

My Klout score dropped!

If you're on Twitter much or work in marketing, you're probably familiar with Klout. Apparently, being off Twitter for 30 days was enough to drop my score from 56 to 42. That's 14 points, or a 25% drop in online prestige!

Klout score graph

The upswing at the end is due to my one day back of chattering like a pack of hyenas that broke into the espresso machine. No offense to the folks at Klout, who run a perfectly decent site and service, but my 14-point fall had roughly zero discernible impact on my real life.

I felt disconnected.

You're probably starting to wonder why I ever let the challenge end. About 2 weeks into it, I felt the compulsive side of things really start to fade. I wasn't jonesing for a Twitter fix, and I was feeling good about getting my focus back. At the same time, though, I really started to wonder what people were up to. I'm not saying that online communication is 100% "authentic" or the same as a good in-person chat with an old friend, but as someone who works from home, it's often how I connect to people, friends and peers. I started to genuinely miss it.

It affected my work.

I actually did this experiment about 2 years ago, and one of the big differences I noticed this time around was how much more important social media is to my daily work. It's not just how I keep up and stay relevant to the outside world – it's a kind of currency. If I want people to support my work, I naturally need to support theirs. It's not just quid-pro-quo – I work in an industry full of amazing people doing excellent work and I want to support them. After even a week offline, I started to feel like I was letting people down.

Frankly, it also made my own projects nearly impossible to promote, including (and especially) 30GO30. For better or worse, social media is critical to my business in 2011.

So, here I am again.

The reality, for me, is that social media is a big part of my life. I don't just mean for entertainment or in some vague, elusive sense of "branding". I estimate that it's driven roughly 60-70% of my current customer base. It's also important for my personal life – staying in touch with friends I don't see much, meeting new friends, and getting to know colleagues better.

So, once again, it comes down to the "happy medium". I put it in quotes because the uphill slog of reaching the middle ground rarely seems to be happy, in my experience. There's usually a lot of kicking and screaming involved, plus some sobbing in the corner. Eventually, though, we find it, if it doesn't kill us first.

For me, it's just the recognition that social media has real value to a point, but I have to make time to shut it off and focus on what matters to me. Carving out 30-minute blocks for projects, for example, has been a huge productivity boost. I don't have to quit Twitter and Facebook cold turkey, but the world will keep spinning if I don't hit refresh every 15 seconds.

23 May – james

Dr Pete, I'm glad you did this...because I have only thought about it and never had the guts to actually do it. ;) Care to share if you think there is a good way to keep the sharing/reciprocation of content & projects out there while staying focused on productivity w/out social media distractions? Is it still 30 min every morning for you or do you think somebody could handle those relationships and reciprocation once/week for an hour? Thoughts? Thanks!!

23 May – Eric Pratum

Glad to have you back on Twitter. I had missed your tweets.

23 May – Jennifer Hofmann

The thing I like best about this is that you called it an experiment. The attitude of curiosity and discovery makes it so much better -- and more ripe for learning. I like that you talk about the withdrawal so honestly and how you missed the connection from real people.

You've done a great job of sharing your experience. Having done this experiment myself, I most enjoyed feeling what "normal" is like without social media. Just the contrast of it.

Thanks for sharing!

23 May – Dr. Pete

@James - It's tough, when social media exists in the stream, so to speak. You can't really compress it into a once/week activity, IMO. I've taken the opposite approach. I carve out 30-minute blocks for my important tasks, and stay off social media (and even email) during that time. I always make time for 1-2 long-term projects, too. Then, what I do with the spaces in between those blocks isn't a big deal.

@Eric - Thanks, Enabler! ;)

@Jennifer - Isn't it funny how something that's barely existed for a couple of years now seems like an essential part of our day? The internet is barely 15 years old, in anything close to its current form, and yet we seem to have no idea how we got along without it. I find myself thinking about that all the time.

23 May – Robert Wenger

Nice post. I really enjoyed that revenue per time on Twitter graph. :)

I used to be addicted to failblog and along with Facebook and Twitter. That combination would even keep me from going to bed at times. Once or twice I discovered myself staring at the screen and noticing that it was about 5 am. Unfortunately I didn't break that habit with my own willpower (real life came in and forced me to break it), but at least now it's broken.

23 May – Dr. Pete

@Robert - I think that's what worries me -- the point where you stop enjoying the site and just start compulsively clicking links to avoid doing something. It's the online equivalent of channel surfing. I think watching a TV show you enjoy to relax is fine. Sitting on the couch and clicking the remote from 7pm-2am and not living your life because it's easier to channel surf isn't fine. Sometimes, it's hard to spot the difference.

23 May – MikeTek

I begrudgingly rejoined the 9-5 working drones a few months back, and since that time my social media involvement has dropped significantly. Especially on Twitter.

I miss it more than I thought I would - mainly, the humor and the sense, however vague, of belonging to a good crowd. No offense to my new coworkers...

Lately I've had an unexplained urge to delete my Facebook account, and I think the lack of authenticity is at the root of it.

There were days when to send a letter was an undertaking. It had to be carried by a man on horseback, through the weather, for days/weeks before it arrived, wax seal and all, in the hands of the recipient.

Now I can fart out a DM tweet to just about anyone in less than 15 seconds.

Something about the ease bothers me. When I hear from an old friend on Facebook, it means less every time. If it's so damn easy, what does it demonstrate? Less every day.

On the positive side, there are some damn clever, genuinely awesome people I'd never have come across were it not for the social web - including you, Dr. Pete. You are the people who keep me coming back.

But I think your experiment should become practice for many people. A grounding experience. We're forgetful animals - we need reminding.

23 May – Dr. Pete

@MikeTek - I find myself wondering if the value proposition would be the same if so much of my industry wasn't on social media, but, of course, I can only speculate about that. I do enjoy keeping up with people on Facebook who I otherwise would've just lost track of. There, I don't see it as shallow interaction, because I know the honest alternative is that I wouldn't talk to them at all.

24 May – Jen Sable Lopez

I've thought about doing this many times, but how can I do it when my job revolves around social media? I'm not sure I could spend my day in Twitter and Facebook only for work, and never comment from my personal accounts. The only time I came close was when I had surgery and I turned off my work email. My husband stood there and made me do it. And it was a joyous thing. :) 3 straight weeks without work email, and as you said, life went on.

Thanks for trying this experiment and for writing about it. I missed you on Twitter but am glad I could still bug you on email and IM. ;) Oh! And I loved that you were so on the ball that I could move you up a day in the SEOmoz blog schedule and you didn't bat an eye.

@MikeTek I wondered what the heck happened to you. :)

24 May – Andrew David Baron

Dr. Pete, I have commend you on your 12 step program. lol

All kidding aside, this was an incredible undertaking to say the least. I'm not sure if I could actually do it. I mean if I don't even check into the bagel place where I usually go in the mornings...I get the jitters.

I can't even begin to imagine not doing it for 30 days.

I'm beginning to do the actual opposite of this activity. I want to do a complete immersion of Social Media for 30 days. Just about every activity would be documented. Think Truman Show, without the cameras in the bathroom. lol

I've already started this on a very small level with my artwork. Updating Facebook & Twitter every 5 minutes during my drawing. Soon I'll have a video feed while I'm drawing and will crowdsource my concept, technique, colors, etc.

@MikeTek Good to have to back man! Was wondering WTF is Mike? Hope all is well man!

24 May – Dr. Pete

@Jen - I think the biggest takeaway for me is that I can shut it all off for 30 minutes to focus on a task - I might miss something, but it's not the end of the world. I think that's a practical goal even for full-time social media folks - sometimes, you need to take a break from it and devote your mental resources to just one thing.

@Andrew - The closest I came to complete immersion was when I spent 24 straight hours on Twitter to ring in 08/08/08 in every time zone. That was a bit crazy, but it was a learning experience, too. Wow, I just realized that that was almost 3 years ago.