Sometimes it takes disconnecting to really learn how to connect. Here are the lessons gained from a 7-day digital detox experiment.
"We all need to focus on the many, many ways technology can lead us back to our real lives."
– Sheryl Turkle
When was the last time you completely switched off? Until recently, I couldn’t recall the last time I didn’t take my phone into the bathroom with me.
A recent study found that the average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day, equating to roughly 2.42 hours. Recalling an average day, my guess is that my count is close to double the average.
Each time I check my notifications appears seemingly harmless – rewarding even, as each Facebook Like or Instagram heart sends a rush of dopamine to my brain.
Yet in reality, hours of my day mindlessly disappear before my fingertips.
According to Sherry Turkle, psychologist and author of Alone Together, our little devices in our pockets are psychologically powerful. “They don't only change what we do, they change who we are.”
Curious about what affect this relationship was having on my brain, emotions, connections and conversations, last year I decided to switch off from the internet, email, and social media for seven days.
A lesson in paying attention
During the first night being internet free, I found myself reaching for my phone on autopilot and scrolling through old notes and texts messages, my fingers missing the company of the screen.
But it didn’t take long for such cravings to subside. By day three it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I even remembered I had a phone. There was also a notable change in my general disposition – I felt lighter.
Without the distraction, I felt sharper. I found myself more in tune with the people and happenings around me. My mind didn’t wander back to something I had just read in thedigital world – or find reach for a distraction at any given opportunity.
Much of the time, we don’t even know what we are missing when we are absorbed in our phones or digital worlds.
A Princeton University study found that we process information better when taking notes by hand or reading print, and I felt concentrating on analogue conversations and events had a similar effect.
There were instances where it felt as if I’d predicted the future, but really I had just been paying better attention.
Heart on sleeve; not phone on table
I thought the most difficult part of switching off would be disconnecting from friends and family. The convenience of online makes it easy to share a quip with a friend and stay up to date with their world. I was sure I’d be missing out, but it was far from being the case as I quickly filled the internet void with in person conversations.
Remarkably, I had more time for conversations, for reading, for being in my own mind and not turning away from it.
Not only was I getting the real updates from people – not the edited highlight reel we portray on social media – but being phone free meant I was more engaged.
Studies have shown the mere presence of a smart phone on a table can lessen the quality of a conversation and lower the empathy exchanged.
As Turkle explains, when we strive to be connected to all the difference places we want to be, we end up hiding from each other as we turn to technology to feel connected, but in control.
A friend once told me about a recent date where the man pulled his phone from his pocket, held it in front of her, switched it off, put it away, and centred his attention right on her – there no where to hide. If such a committed gesture isn’t an aphrodisiac, I don’t know what is.
Feeling comfortable with uncertainty
What we are doing when we compulsively reach for our phone in moments of awkwardness or boredom is escaping uncertainty.
Artist, writer and filmmaker Miranda July acknowledges that some of our best ideas come to us when we felt a bit lost, but we are losing the art of being okay with not knowing.
“All those little moments when you are like, ‘Uh, what do I do next? Who am I? – you now look at your phone and refresh, refresh. It is a big problem for me, it is like someone just took away the livelihood, so I have to work really, really hard to protect this thing.”
An antidote to stress
By the end of the experiment there was a notable decrease in my stress levels. Push notifications have been found to be a toxic source of stress, alongside the pressures to respond to email promptly including nights and weekends.
Constantly checking in keeps us on an endless treadmill of requests for our time and attention. Instead of leaping off or slowing down, we continue to feed the stress.
Despite now recognising the slight ping of anxiety each email induces, I was still afraid of what I would miss out on during this experiment – work opportunities, events, conversations, happenings. It is this fear of missing out, or FOMO that what keeps us plugged in, keeps us checking in and comparing our offline and online lives.
But it turns out the internet doesn’t miss you when you’re gone. No one expressed dismayed that I hadn’t posted anything to my 16K+ Instagram following, or replied to an email, or left several days between messages. Because I wasn’t feeding the online communication beast, there wasn’t an onslaught of emails or messages to come back to.
* * *
The real hurdle wasn’t lasting seven days without checking social media or email, but in redefining my relationship with my devices post-digital detox. A few hours after switching back on, I found myself in my usual habit of strolling-and-scrolling. The twitch that causes my cursor to roll over to Facebook midway through working soon returned.
It would be unrealistic for many of us to cull email or social media completely, but we can strive towards controlling it, rather than letting it control us. As the adage goes, rule your mind, or it will rule you.
After all, switching off isn’t a revolt against technology and social media, but perhaps a movement towards anti-escape. I want some conversations to be unedited. I want to notice what’s around me, not just what’s happening in my palm. I want to feel uncertain and see what happens rather than reach for the pseudo-comfort of my phone. I want to be mindful of my time and how I use it.
Tips for a digital detox that don’t require a 7-day retreat
You don’t have to switch off for seven days to set new boundaries between you and your devices. Here are some simple suggestions you can try today.
1. Delete and block
Install a Pomodoro timer for your web browser to block websites for allocated periods of time, or try the browser extension News Feed Eradicator.
The Freedom app is great for blocking social media apps and websites on your mobile and browser.
You can even take the plunge and delete entire apps, or at least turn off notifications to limit distractions.
2. Don’t walk and text
Make a pact to keep your phone away when you are walking or commuting and take a book with you on public transport instead.
3. Create a switch-off time
Commit to switching your phone off during dinner or events – actually turning it off, not just silent!
4. Have a dedicated email or social media hour
To avoid slipping into an email or social media vortex, instil an email hour at the beginning of each day – or thirty minutes in the morning and afternoon – to build your capacity for focused work.
5. Make the bedroom a no-phone zone
A wind-down routine is a great way to get a good night’s sleep. Switch off at least thirty minutes before bed, make a cup of tea or read a book and be sure to leave any electronic devices outside the bedroom or away from the bed at night.
And while you’re at it, if you’re anything like me, you may need to make the bathroom a no phone zone, too!