Your eyes dart to your computer to your phone and to your computer again. Your mind spins. Your heart rate quickens. You pounce when you see a notification pop up.
You’re in an argument online. And it’s taken over your brain and sucked away most of your day. You want to win. You want to look smart. And you won’t “give up” until you’ve made your point to the nth degree.
Banter and debate can be really fun—like brain candy. But brain candy turns acrid when it becomes the only thing you’re eating all day because your healthy interest in sharing your opinions has turned into an obsession with “winning.” Online arguments can consume hours—or even days of your life, especially with all the heated current events this year. And that can be a potential problem.
If you find yourself in the situation where online fighting is taking so much time that it’s having a negative impact on your work, life, and overall mental health, it’s time to step away from your phone—after reading this article of course—and get some perspective.
I’m a time-management coach and author, the perfect person to teach you how to stop yourself from spending too much time arguing with people online.
Why the Compulsion?
Verbal debate has been around for generations. It’s natural, normal, and good to share opposing views and to hear the arguments on both sides. But what’s especially difficult in regard to online arguments and the quest to keep your mind focused on something other than the debate is that there are no boundaries.
Online, who you can argue with is not limited by who you can see in person or even by who you know. Depending on the forum, almost anyone in the world at any time of the day or night could share their opinions with you about a certain topic you posted about online. And anyone in the world at any time of the day or night could post about something that you then read.
There is no telling yourself: My mind is at rest now. But once I get to that event, Bill will be there, and I’m going to tell him what I think about XYZ. Instead, if you’ve given in to this addiction, your mind is never at rest. You’re ever alert looking for what you can attack online and thinking about how to defend yourself. The reason for this insatiability is that you’re addicted to the flood of adrenaline and dopamine that comes when you feel like you “win.” The only problem is your “winning” can have an incredibly high cost in terms of the burn rate on your time. And when you feel you won online, you’ve rarely changed anyone’s mind. Instead, you stand as the triumphant king of a lonely land smoldering with the ashes of people you’ve decimated with your words who are less likely than ever to ever listen to your side again.
Is that really winning? I personally think not.
Choose the Right Forum
One of the reasons that online fights kindle so easily is that we don’t have the ability to modulate what and how we share in the same way that we would a more personal conversation. Think of it this way: In college, you probably described your weekend activities to your mom very differently than you did to your dorm mate. And even now, how you share your opinions about things with your buddy at the bar would probably look different than with your boss.
But whenever you post something controversial online, and particularly if you make that post public, you’re inviting people with very different views than you to see it and you’re potentially setting yourself up for a fight.
In some cases, you may feel so strongly about a certain topic and have such an urgency to share it with a large number of people, that maybe it is worth putting out there. Come what may.
But what I’ve personally decided is that most polarizing topics are best discussed real-time one-on-one or in a small group with people who I actually know. That gives me the opportunity to share my perspective in a way that is respectful of my audience. And gives me an opportunity to hear them. We may still not agree in the end. But I’ve actually seen these kinds of personal discussions lead to people changing their minds in a way that I’ve never seen online arguments bring results.
Time-Saving Strategy: Choose to not post something that you know will provoke an argument if you don’t feel it’s a good use of your time to argue online about it. Stop the fight before it starts. Instead share those thoughts and feelings with people who you actually know where you can have a meaningful discussion, journal them out for yourself, or take other productive action in support of your opinions.
Respond From a Place of Strength
When you do decide that it’s worth it to post something online that triggers an argument, you need to choose your response. Sometimes the strongest, most powerful thing that you can do is to simply choose not to engage.
The person with the greatest strength is not the one who always responds but the one who chooses when and how they respond. They may want approval, but don’t need it. And they understand that most people make decisions emotionally and then explain them intellectually. So beating someone over the head with facts likely will do nothing to change their mind, let alone their heart.
When I know that someone is only commenting on something I wrote to create drama and has no genuine interest in a healthy discussion, I will often abstain from responding. I know I could respond, but why would I when the response would only lead to more belligerent comments? That’s a waste of my time and energy. And it’s a waste of yours.
Time-Saving Strategy: If going back and forth all day long is sucking away your attention from activities that actually matter to you, you’re not “winning” by responding to everything. If you truly feel you can engage in a productive discussion, then respond and see where things go. If you know that your reply will only trigger another attack, or the comment comes from a bad-faith argument, either don’t reply or reply with something very neutral such as, “I hear you.” For good measure, consider turning off your notifications so you don’t even see when someone comments until it’s a good time for you to check. If you need to, vent to someone who at least understands you. It will feel more satisfying and validating than online fighting.
Comment With Humanity
People typically express anger when they’re feeling vulnerable—often times the emotion they’re actually feeling below the surface is hurt, fear, or anxiety. When someone shares something online from a place of fear, you need to really think about whether sharing your comment will add anything to the situation or simply make them more anxious and volatile.
Have you ever changed your mind about something important because someone wrote a scathing comment? Nope. You probably just felt hurt and angry and even more adamant that you would never agree with them.
If you actually want someone to change their view, you typically need to come from a place of acknowledging your common humanity. Share your perspective in a way that’s not charged with negative emotions and then give them time and space to decide what they will do.
So the next time you’re thinking about commenting and sparking an argument, really think about whether that will bring any good to you or to them. When in doubt, don’t.
Time-Saving Strategy: Refrain from attacking. It’s OK to see something and not react to it, not comment on it, and just keep moving on. It’s not your responsibility to inform or educate everyone in the universe about how they’re wrong or what they’re missing. Think about what you would want done if you were in the opposite position and then do that. It will save you time and save others pain.
Yes, there may still be times when you feel you need or just want to speak up online. If so, that’s fine. But if you’re finding that your online arguments are not only time consuming but also destructive to yourself and others, you may want to consider other ways to get out your energy and use your time: go on a run, learn a new language, write an amazing post, or start playing an instrument. In the end, you’ll be happy you did.