On a recent Saturday, I had quite an odd morning. I woke up, reached for my phone to check my email, but stopped myself before grabbing it. I got out of bed and instinctively reached for the Fitbit on my nightstand, but then stopped myself. I didn't open my computer, log in to a streaming music service, and listen to music as I made a pot of coffee.
I was doing a “digital detox” for the weekend, and within five minutes of waking up I was already becoming more aware of just how large a role technology plays in my life.
Why a Digital Detox?
I was inspired to do a short-term digital detox partly because I like a challenge, and partly because I thought that taking a break from digital technology could have some significant health benefits. It scared me to learn that time spent on your smartphone is a reliable predictor of depression, especially since Americans in my age bracket check their phones, on average, 50 times per day.
We're also getting worse sleep because of our smartphones, we think we can multitask on a zillion devices but really we can’t, and we're increasingly becoming addicted to the internet. All of this is scientifically shown to be killing our productivity and making us less happy.
In short, we’ve all gone technology mad. While there are tremendous benefits to the modern, connected world, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
More people are realizing that there are benefits to taking a step back every once in awhile. It can help us gain some perspective on just how much we crave the dopamine hit that comes from checking social media, and whether we can find a new sense of calm by unplugging for a while.
I decided that I would go all out, and ban not just my phone, but all internet- and screen-related technology. That meant no computer, no TV, no Fitbit, no digital music, no internet use whatsoever.
What I Noticed
After my initial disorientation that first morning, I took to the project quite well. My anxiety and agitation quickly gave way to a feeling of freedom.
I’ve been known to do quite a bit of computer work on the weekends, whether on side projects or for my main job. Knowing that I couldn’t work, and not having to feel bad about it, felt like a weight off my shoulders. I felt more engaged with my surroundings, and more able to think about big picture topics, as opposed to fretting about what I was going to do the next hour or two.
I say this not to brag, but to show that I really do think there can be deep benefits gained by stepping out of the unceasing flow of digital information from time to time. And I found that I'm not alone in this regard.
There's been a growing movement over the past decade geared around the idea of unplugging. It seems like more and more people, from lifestyle bloggers to burned-out tech workers and writers are finding benefits in stepping away from the screens from time to time. There's even a National Day of Unplugging! (It’s coming up on March 9th.)
The movement is bolstered by the flood of studies that show we're more productive after giving our brains a break, that spending time in nature and away from devices can improve cognitive functioning, and that giving our minds time to “wander” can improve creative thinking.
That all being said, it’s not like I didn’t think about my devices, or desire some screen time. There were a couple times, especially as I was reading, when I had a strong urge to use the internet. Ordinarily, when I read something I want to know more about, I pop open my computer, head to Wikipedia, and look up whatever it is I want to dig into. I didn’t realize how powerful this urge was until I could no longer do it.
I also noticed that I really wanted to glance at the TVs playing in restaurants. I didn’t care if they were playing a C-SPAN rerun of a city council vote on zoning issues. Some deep part of me just wanted to see pixels on an LCD screen.
So, after making it all the way to Sunday night without faltering, I will admit that I stole a glance through a window while walking by a bar. I saw one play of a football game: A running back ran left for one yard. I can’t think of a less satisfying way to break a digital fast. The experience reminded me that most TV can be safely ignored without fear that you’ll miss something interesting.
Tips for an Unplugged Weekend
Based on my experience, I’d offer the following advice to others who want as smooth an unplugged weekend as possible:
Let people know that you’ll be unavailable. I emailed my immediate family and told them to contact my wife should something urgent come up. If you're a more social person than I am, you might also want to make a Facebook post telling your friends that you’re not mad at them if you don’t respond to their texts for the next 48 hours.
Minimize your social engagements. I attended a party the Friday night before I started, so I felt like I got some human contact in before the detox began. I made no plans the weekend I’d be tech-free. I didn’t want to be trying to coordinate with friends without a cellphone. I know people used to do it all the time, but I still don’t know how. I figured it’d be easier to have a low-key introspective weekend.
Have a few physical books handy. I checked out several books from the library in different genres, and ended up reading large chunks of each of them. I would have gone a bit stir crazy if the only reading material in the house was books I’d already finished and whatever junk mail showed up.
Turn off your phone and computer and put them out of sight. My phone was off, but I left it out on the kitchen table all weekend. Every time I passed it, I was tempted to do just one quick pass of Instagram. This would have been less of a problem if it was buried in my closet.
Pick a weekend with nice weather. I ended up spending a ton of time outside, as it made it easier to avoid the siren call of my computer and Netflix. It helped a lot having beautiful weather.
I’m not going to pretend like I went through a profound transformation. It was just 48 hours, after all. But, I had a good enough time that I'm planning to incorporate a few of these unplugged weekends throughout my year. Maybe even one per month. It was that nice.
Finally, the experiment made me think of how we all intuitively know that exercise is useless if you never let your muscles recover. No one in their right mind would train with heavy weights for eight hours a day, seven days a week. You'd simply get burned out.
Yet, we put our brains through the equivalent of an exhausting physical workout, day after day. The constant stimulation from our phones and computers never gives our minds a chance to truly rest. Maybe it’s time we think of our brain more like a muscle, and give our noggins some downtime. If you do, you might be surprised at how refreshed and energized you feel.