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I feel like I should be writing this with pen and paper. But that would make it hard for you to read, so we’ll make do. I want to start this by being totally honest, I desperately need a digital detox. I am horrible at this and really need help to do better. In a way I’m preaching to myself here, because I know the science, I know that an overly digitally connected life is actually bad for my brain, spirit, and offline relationships. But that doesn’t make it easier to actually make healthy changes. So today we are going to tackle the digital detox. Why you ask? There are a host of reasons.
We used to think that the harder you worked the tougher you were, and that to get even tougher you should just “push through.” That we could make ourselves more productive by working harder, that more was better. But studies are actually showing the opposite, that our brains desperately need downtime just as badly as our bodies do. And one of the things that keeps us from getting that real downtime is our digital on-time. Our devices keep our brains constantly stimulated to the point that we never get the “off” time we need of our brains to recover and reset.
And so we get more and more tired, and more and more burned out. Which, if you are like me, means more time starting at a computer screen numbly scrolling through Facebook, and hence the loop continues.
Perhaps the one thing we need more than any other (OK, after water) for good health is good sleep. And our digital lives and assaulting that too. Multiple studies have shown at this point that the light from our digital devices is keeping us awake, breaking our body’s natural sleep triggers, and making already sleep deprived Americans even more so. And just using a filter to change the color of that light isn’t a cure all. The very fact that our devices keep our brains so stimulated at all hours can be just as problematic. It comes back to downtime, and our lack of it.
I would be willing to bet money you’ve found yourself halfway through dinner with your tired spouse and realized that both of you have been silently clicking around on your phones for the last 30 minutes. Even when you put them down you find yourself reaching for them instinctively at every ding or beep, and turning them on every few minutes to see if a new notification has popped up. You might even have the phone in your hand and Instagram open before you even realize what’s happening. It happens, but it’s getting in the way of conversations and relationships. It’s making it harder for us to sit down and keep our attention on the person in front of us for more than a few seconds at a time. My mother, who was a teacher, lamented how commercial television shows with their constant commercial breaks had shortened children’s attention spans. I cannot even imagine what she’d say if she were still teaching today.
There are a number of smart phone apps (I use QualityTime) that will track how often and long you use your phone and even which apps you are spending the most time with. Downloading one of these and running it for even a few days might turn up some surprises. Most of us spend far more often instinctively checking our phones than we’re even aware of. It’s just a habit. By the end of the day my battery is nearly dead and I’m scratching my head says “but I hardly used it…” The truth is, I used it a lot, it just wasn’t meaningful interaction. You may already have an idea of how digitally plugged in you are, or you might not. Start by taking stock. Just how often are you on your computer, smart phone, tablet. How often do you check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? Do you spend the evening watching TV and scrolling through Pinterest?
Getting a handle on just how much digital stimulation your brain is being assaulted by is a good place to start but it’s a safe bet that if you are here and reading this you could use a digital detox.
The Digital Detox
No matter what your usage patterns, if you are a 21st century person you could use a digital detox. And the good news is there are lots of ways to do that. I’ll walk you through a few possibilities and invite you to put together what works for you and your life. Obviously all our needs are different, our routines and different, and our usage patterns are different. But there are some constants that we can talk about.
Blue Light Special
One: Nighttime. The first and most obvious is nighttime use. Basically it’s bad. Unnatural light is bad enough for our brains and breaks our connection to natural sleep patterns, digital light is worse because it tends to be aimed straight into our eyes and it tends to be full of that blue light and triggers our active day brains. Despite what we may think none of us are actually immune to this phenomenon. It’s wired into our brains and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.
You have trouble falling asleep and so you spend longer and longer on our phone or tablet or laptop trying to “tire yourself out,.” But the screen light and the stimulation of the device itself keep your brain in a state where it thinks it should be awake and functioning, not headed to rest. And so the cycle gets worse and worse and we all get seriously cranky.
Too Much Stimulation
A digital detox is meant to give your brain, heart, and body a break from constant stimulation and the glow of the screen. There are as many ways to do this as there are people in the world. One of my favorite Youtubers did a whole year without internet in what turned out to be a life transforming experience. She recently released a book about the spiritual journey it set her on and that journey’s outcome. Your detox might not need to be nearly so extreme, but you too may find the results of stepping away from your screens to be enlightening, and refreshing.
Basically you set limits on your usage of mobile devices, your computer, or the internet in general. If you’re a parent of teenagers you might not be able to turn off your cell phone all together in case they call, but you can still take part in this exercise. Simply modify as necessary, I will give suggestions for the ways technology can help you in this as we go!
The simplest detox routine is to create an evening routine that weans you off digital stimulation and gives your eyes a rest. Start by setting up what your boundaries will be and how you can enforce those boundaries. Remember, the more of this you can automate the less likely you’ll be to break the routine, so when there are digital solutions for cutting back, take them!
Make It Automatic
Set automatic “Do Not Disturb” rules on your phone. This is simple to do on Android and Apple. For example, on my Android phone it goes into silent mode at 10pm every night and will make absolutely no noise (except for alarms) until 7am the next morning. Be sure to setup exceptions, for example, Android allows you to specify contacts whose calls and texts will always alert (such as elderly parents, your spouse or children). But be very select about who you allow to ring through, the office probably doesn’t need to call you at 2am, it can wait. Silencing all alerts, calls and texts during your sleeping hours will help you get better and less interrupted sleep. All of that stuff can wait until you wake up, really.
Make It Quiet
Set aside digital free time before bed to decompress and allow your eyes and body to naturally prepare for sleep. 90 minutes is ideal, but if you only have 30 minutes start with that! Lower the lights, read a book, take a bath, talk with your spouse, or “talk” with your spouse. Avoid television, your phone or tablet, and the computer. You’ll be letting your brain decompress and prepare for sleep in multiple ways.
First, removing the particular artificial light created by these screens will help remove the “day” trigger for your eyes and brain. But even more so your brain needs the constant stream of entertainment and data to cease if it is to slow down and prepare for sleep properly. Chose slow, quiet activities for this time of night to encourage a preparation for bed.
We often don’t think about how important our mornings are. But many of us wake up, grab our ringing phone to turn off the alarm and then lay in bed staring at it for far too long. Before we know it we’re mired in work emails, we’ve had the woes of the world delivered right into our bed, and the todo list has chimed onto our screen at the same time. It’s enough to make me grumpy right off the bat. I’m better at disconnecting at night than I am in the A.M. But I need to be better at both. A morning digital detox looks a little different from your night detox, but not a lot.
First, don’t look at your phone first thing. Put together a morning routine that works for you that doesn’t involve your phone. Get up, have a glass of water, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast and compare schedules with your significant other. Maybe get the kids out the door for school. But leave the email for later. Whatever you do, don’t read your New York Times alerts. Email will wait until you’re in the office. And the tragedies of the world will still be there whether you know about them immediately or not. So let them be. Take care of yourself, exercise, eat something.
Day Without Digital
Taking the detox a little further you might find it helpful to go an entire day without your digital devices. For some people this won’t be possible, or some modification might be required (you might need to allow some numbers to ring through for instance). But most of us if we’re honest can do this. The practice is much like the ancient Jewish sabbath (or shabbat) practice in which one day a week is set aside as special. On that day Jews refrain from certain actives like spending money, traveling long distances, or anything that could be construed as work. Essentially a day is set aside for rest, reconnection with God and relationship with one another. And by extension Jews are reminded that the world will continue to spin if they stop being frantically busy for one day. It’s a lesson we could all use.
A digital sabbath is just what it sounds like, a day when we turn off the computer, put the phone on silent mode, put away our tablets and turn off the television. The result? Well, a much quieter life for one.
But the key things are these:
- We disconnect from the 24/7 news cycle. The vast majority of what is beamed into our homes as news is not something we can affect in any way and yet we are bombarded with it constantly. Taking one day away from the awareness of what is happening beyond our small circles does not mean we don’t care about the world, or that we are not involved. But it does acknowledge that we will not individually solve the world’s problems. It also is honest about the fact that we need downtime and time to ourselves or we will burn out. Compassion fatigue is real.
- It allows our lives to move to a different rhythm. Instead of being constantly interrupted by emails, texts, phone calls, and other alerts we get to actually devote our attention to what we’re doing. A board game, a walk, a meal. They are simple things but when our attention isn’t constantly being called away to something else they can become something more: a chance to reconnect with our loved ones or ourselves.
- Spending a day without something will make you aware of how much you use it without thinking on a regular basis. It makes clear where our digital devices have become a crutch. We use them to avoid silence, to numb boredom, and to avoid awkward conversation. But all of those things (and more) that we use our devices to avoid are necessary. Boredom is a key component in creativity, a brain that is never allowed to be bored also never really thinks up new ideas. Silence is absolutely essential to our spirits, we need it to get to know ourselves, to actually deal with our own stuff. Silence can be uncomfortable, but it’s incredibly necessary. And those awkward conversations are still conversations, they are still chances to connect with each other. Avoiding them won’t make them less awkward, but having them can turn into a delightful surprise.
How about a long weekend, a week, or two without that digital fix? This one might be harder, or easier depending on where you are doing that vacation. If you are in another country, or hiking into Yosemite the no internet thing could be seriously easier to accomplish. Either way, it’s often a good idea, and you don’t have to go cold turkey to get benefit. Take your device with you and use it to plan the next day’s activities, or as a GPS on your road trip. But make it a point to turn them off at all other times, leaving yourself untethered and out of touch.
It’s good to be reminded that if you don’t answer email for a few days, or respond to phone calls and texts the rest of the world will continue, unhindered. We are trained to run to catch a ringing phone, to respond immediately to text messages as they pop up. But 99% of the time none of these things are so urgent they cannot wait a few hours or even a few days. Setup an out of office vacation responder and maybe even remove your email from your phone for the duration of your vacation. You might be surprised how much stress it removes not seeing the number of unread email counts climb. They’ll still be there when you get home, but you’ll have spent a lovely few days not worried about them and that can put things in perspective.
Looking for less dramatic ways to do a little bit of everyday detox? Or perhaps some other things to add to one of the above strategies? Below are a few simple things you can do to “detox” from your digital habit just a little bit everyday.
- Remove social media from your phone. Really, we don’t need to be that connected. I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone over a year ago and don’t miss either. I kept Instagram because it’s a source of beauty for me and zero stress or drama. But I’m happy to say that getting rid of the rest of my social media apps helps keep me just a little more distant and a little more peaceful.
- Use silent mode more often. My phone automatically enters silent mode overnight and anytime there is an event on my calendar. This avoids those awkward phone noises in the middle of a meeting but it also means when I schedule time for my self-care on my calendar, my phone respects that too!
- Turn off alerts for most of your apps. Games, personal email, shopping apps. None of these things are so urgent that they need to be interrupting our day. In Android you can disable an app’s ability to send alerts in the Settings area. (Android and Apple).
- Reduce the email load: There are a couple ways to do this. You can use one of a number of services to unsubscribe you from mass emails. (See this article and this one for ideas.). If you are a Gmail/Inbox user you can have these services sort your email and bundle all advertising emails together so they can be easily trashed at once, you don’t even have to look at them if you don’t want. This one tip has reduced the amount of time I spend on email in a day by more than half.