Determine If You Need a Digital Detox and How to Do It in 3 Steps | Chris Kresser
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How to Tell if It’s Time for a Digital Detox and How to Do It in 3 Steps

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Technology can offer us incredible benefits, including better physical and emotional health. With a tap on our phones, we’re able to gather personalized data on our sleep patterns, heart rate variability, food choices, and activity levels and turn that knowledge into better habits and better outcomes. We can also use technology to connect and engage with friends and loved ones in spite of geographical distance, be entertained, learn new skills, and sharpen our knowledge about our ever-changing world. Especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has given us opportunities to work from home, to connect with loved ones, and to keep learning without putting our health at risk.

Digital detox
Is it time for a digital detox? iStock/artiemedvedev

Some of the best parts of our modern lives revolve around technology—but, of course, there is a limit to what it can (and should) do for us. When it becomes a crutch or an obsession, tech becomes a problem. If you’re unhappy with your relationship with technology, a digital detox may be in order.

I’m a major proponent of ancestral health: adopting a diet and lifestyle close to those of our ancestors, aligned with our biology and genetics. However, I’m not suggesting we shun all aspects of modern life, and I’m certainly not advocating for a technology-free lifestyle. (I don’t think we could completely leave tech behind, even if we wanted to!) But I do think there’s an opportunity for each of us to evaluate the way we interact with technology and adopt a more balanced approach. It should be a tool that makes your life easier, not an obligation that is constantly pulling at your attention. A digital detox is a great way to cut the cord (temporarily, at least), giving you the breathing room to establish a healthier relationship with tech. Here’s how to do a digital detox (and why it’s worth the time to do so).

Do you have a healthy, balanced relationship with technology? Are you sure? If you find yourself in need of a break, try temporarily cutting the cord with a digital detox. Check out this article to find out how you can disconnect. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

What Is a Digital Detox?

A digital detox is an opportunity for you to develop a healthier relationship with technology. It involves taking time off from technology and instead giving your full attention to the world around you.

Typically, I would recommend taking at least five consecutive days off if possible—but, now more than ever, it’s important to adapt to what your particular circumstances will allow. The time frame and rules of your digital detox are up to you (you’ll find more specific guidelines later in this article). Some people stay away from screens entirely for the full duration of the detox, while others might choose to allow for actions like looking up directions or checking the weather. It really depends on your needs and comfort level. If you feel like any tech usage would be too great a temptation to break the detox, then it’s best to avoid screens altogether.

Personally, I take around 10 days off the grid each year where I step away from technology. I make a plan in advance for how I’ll spend my time away from screens—usually meditating, journaling, and engaging in lots of physical activity. I do allow myself to use maps/directions, check weather forecasts, etc., especially if I combine my detox with a vacation. Each time I take a digital detox, I come back feeling rejuvenated and full of new perspectives and insights. It’s a fantastic experience—one I hope everybody can make time for.

How You Can Tell That It’s Time for a Detox

Technology is such an integral part of our lives that it can be difficult to tell if you have a positive or negative relationship with it. After all, if you work at a desk job or for a large company, you’re likely interacting with tech for the majority of your day (especially if you’re currently working from home). It may even be that you have no choice but to rely on it heavily in order to get your work completed. So how can you tell if your tech use is problematic or if you’ve become overly reliant? Start by asking yourself these questions, but consider them in light of your personal time—not just your work life:

  • Do you have difficulty staying focused and paying attention to tasks?
  • Do you often have trouble listening when someone is speaking to you directly?
  • Do you struggle to organize your tasks and activities?
  • Do you try to avoid or dislike engaging in tasks that require sustained attention and mental effort?
  • Are you distracted easily and frequently by extraneous stimuli, like incoming emails or text messages?

If you answered “yes” to three or more questions, it’s time for a digital detox. 

Our modern lives are ruled by distraction. We’re bombarded with emails, notifications, and other demands on our time every single day. Even in moments of quiet, the temptation to pick up your phone and scroll through social media or catch up on the latest headlines is at your fingertips—literally. The result of that hyper-connectedness is an entire culture—made up of people of all ages and all walks of life—that’s increasingly distracted and unable to focus.

Think about it: When was the last time you went a whole day without touching your phone or a computer keyboard, checking the latest news, your texts or emails, or social media? How about a whole hour? And for that matter, when was the last time you spent more than an hour thinking creatively about something, perhaps envisioning what you’d like to accomplish or achieve or how you might reach a goal, without having your focus broken by interruptions? A digital detox gives you that opportunity.

Our Changing Relationship with Technology in the Face of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new normal for all of us. Businesses and schools are closed, events are canceled, and many of the activities that would’ve given us a chance to connect in person with each other are no longer an option. That, coupled with a desire to stay up to date on the latest news, means that many of us are engaging with tech more than ever before. While your circumstances may not allow you to schedule a full-blown digital detox, now is the perfect time to learn how to take a more mindful approach to your tech usage and to find even small moments to unplug.

Technology-free moments offer you opportunities for quiet and solitude, so you can process things without feeling overwhelmed. They’re chances for play and reverie (which we all need more of right now) and they give you the space you need to really evaluate whether or not you have a beneficial relationship with social media and the news.

I encourage you to take the information in this article and adapt it to your own schedule and needs. It’s crucial that we all develop strategies to cope with our changing reality—in fact, doing so can help us find opportunities to thrive no matter the circumstances. For more strategies to help you adapt to your new normal, check out my webinar: “ADAPTing: Creating Health and Joy in the Face of Uncertainty and Challenge.”

When Technology Becomes a Problem

“The quality of our lives is determined by the focus of our attention.” — Cheri Huber, author and meditation teacher

Attention is one of our most precious resources, and these days, it’s under constant attack:

  • Americans check their smartphones an average of 52 times per day, more often than ever before. (1)
  • College students spend almost nine hours each day on their phones. (2)
  • By age 21, the average gamer will have spent 10,000 hours playing behind a screen. (3, 4)

If you want stats on your own tech usage, try downloading an app like RescueTime, Moment on iOS, or Space for Android and iOS (formerly known as BreakFree). These apps, as well as built-in “screen time” apps that come with most of today’s cell phones, track how much time you spend with tech, and the results can be eye-opening.

Fragmented, distracted attention means we’re not able to filter out the noise of our day-to-day lives and focus on what’s truly important—and, as Cheri Huber said in the quote above, what we choose to focus on defines the quality of our daily life.

We’re hard-wired to respond to distractions. Think about it: our hunter–gatherer ancestors had to shift focus instantly in order to survive in an environment fraught with mortal dangers, from predators, enemies, and natural disasters. Distractibility kept them vigilant and alert to threats from all quarters.

Now, however, this distractibility can work against us, in our personal and professional lives. Many people find it difficult to sustain attention even when they want to, while others can experience a technology addiction that requires serious effort and professional help to overcome. Even if your tech use doesn’t rise to the level of an addiction, maintaining a constant state of distraction can have a detrimental effect on your health:

  • Increased smartphone use is associated with anxiety and depression. (5)
  • Exposure to the artificial blue light that screens emit disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm and can lead to sleep deprivation. (6, 7, 8)
  • Prolonged internet use is associated with increased sedentary behavior—and all the negative health effects that go along with sitting too much. (9)
  • Social isolation is linked with excessive internet use. (10)
  • Tech usage often keeps us indoors in built environments—which potentially means longer exposure to poor-quality air or biotoxins like mold.
  • Constant connection to Wi-Fi means more exposure to electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, which, while the research isn’t yet settled, is classified as a “possible human carcinogen.” (11)
  • We’re being exposed to new, increasingly powerful technologies like 5G—the dangers of which are unknown. (12)
  • We are living in an age of “smart” products—beyond our phones. Cars, appliances, houses, schools, businesses, and workplaces are increasingly wired to the hilt, but is all this connectivity (and the additional screens that come with it) necessary, or does it just make us more reliant on tech (and more vulnerable to getting hacked)?

Technology Usage among Children and Teens Is Particularly Problematic

Kids are especially susceptible to tech overuse and the negative effects that accompany it. In the United States, children under age 2 are spending an average of 42 minutes per day with screens, and children ages 2 to 4 spend a whopping two hours and 40 minutes on screens. (13) Among tweens (kids ages 8 to 12), that number jumps to nearly five hours per day; for teens up to age 18, it’s almost seven and a half. (14)

That’s especially upsetting when you consider:

  • Sleep deprivation in kids and teens is a major problem, and evening tech use is associated with poor-quality sleep and shorter sleep duration among young people. (15)
  • Babies, small children, and young people are potentially more susceptible to EMF radiation, as their tissues’ high water content and their thin skin and bones could concentrate its negative effects. (16, 17)
  • Preschool-age children with higher screen usage showed impaired brain development compared to those with less usage. (18)

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a very helpful list of tips to reduce screen and media usage for your children—in fact, they recommend avoiding it entirely in children under age 2, with the exception of video chats.

Keeping our kids away from screens as much as possible can be difficult, given our busy lives and our own screen habits. Most families include two working parents, and screens can be convenient when you’re struggling to keep an eye on the kids while managing a million other obligations. School closures have also made them more of a necessity as students turn to online classes and eLearning. I understand that completely, but I’m also aware of the potential harm that screen exposure can have on developing brains. Our kids deserve the chance to grow up without the negative effects that screen exposure can cause, and scheduling a regular digital detox that includes your whole family can help children and young adults learn better habits around technology.

Too much tech usage is a common problem, and it can be a difficult habit to break. But, with the support of a health coach who understands behavior change and motivation, it’s certainly within reach.

Health coaches help their clients navigate the challenges that can stand in the way of successful behavior change. They make a living by helping others achieve their health goals and make long-lasting, healthier changes. To find out more about what health coaches do and how to become one, visit the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

How to Do a Digital Detox in Three Steps

As I mentioned, you have flexibility when it comes to planning your digital detox, but here are a few steps to get you started.

Step 1: Set Your Timeline and Your Rules

It’s important to set rules and deadlines before you start your detox, including who (besides you) will be participating and where you’ll be while it happens. At home? Away? (More on that in a moment.) Determine how long you’ll go without technology, and which tech uses are allowed, if any. Even one day or a few hours of digital detox will likely benefit you, so set a timeframe that works with your current schedule.

A successful digital detox starts with communicating your intention to your coworkers, friends, and family. (You can’t really unplug fully if you are constantly getting texts or phone calls from people who are frantic to reach you.) Whenever I go off the grid, I touch base beforehand with anyone who might need to talk to me. I let them know my timeline and whether I’ll be available at all, or which circumstances would warrant a phone call (and I reserve such calls for dire emergencies). I make it clear that I won’t be checking text messages or voicemail, and I set up an email autoresponder to let people outside my company know that I’m out and won’t be checking my inbox. I also include instructions on who else they can contact if they do need to speak with someone urgently. I may also have someone check my email for me to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. If you’re worried about coming back to an overflowing inbox after your detox, you might also consider including a note in your autoresponder that lets people know you’ll be deleting everything from your inbox upon your return. This may sound like a radical move (and in some work environments, it may not be possible), but it is one way to put the responsibility on them to reach out again once you’ve returned to the office.

Then, when it’s time to detox, I make sure that notifications on my phone are shut off, and I unplug! You can determine which notifications you need (if any), but I recommend turning off email and social media notifications at a minimum, as well as any “breaking news” alerts. (You might consider shutting those off permanently, but more on that later.)

Step 2: Plan out How You’ll Spend Your Time

It’s a good idea to come up with some ideas for how you’re going to spend your time during your detox. We spend such a significant amount of time interacting with our phones and computers each day that you’re likely to feel a little lost when you unplug, especially if this is your first time doing so. Planning activities in advance can keep you from reaching for your phone or grabbing your laptop in a moment of boredom.

Here are a few suggestions for how to spend your time:

  • Journal or write
  • Read
  • Take long walks or engage in another physical activity
  • Spend uninterrupted time with your partner or your kids
  • Meditate
  • Learn a new hobby or practice an existing one
  • Use the time to plan a new venture, project, or goal—personal or otherwise

The key is to choose activities that will engage your senses in a way that your daily life doesn’t, that will give you a chance to practice focus and attention, and let you take advantage of the lack of interruptions.

Step 3: If Possible, Consider Getting Away

Vacations are perfect opportunities to unplug. They shake up your existing routine, making it easier to avoid your phone or computer, and they offer loads of other activities that can fill your time. Despite this, we tend not to take advantage of the opportunities that vacations give us: one 2018 poll showed that many of us check our phones more during a vacation, up to around 80 times per day. (19)

A vacation may not be feasible now or in the near future, but if you are able to get away, syncing up your digital detox can give you a better chance to really take a break from tech and have a more fulfilling, restful vacation. You can also try taking a weekend away from technology, or a half-day—even a short time away can help.

General Tech Tips for Healthier Usage

I’m a big believer in taking time off from tech, but a full-blown, multiple-day detox isn’t realistic for everyone. The good news is, there are plenty of ways to establish a healthier everyday relationship with technology that don’t involve going off the grid for days at a time.

1. Disable Notifications

Notifications feed distraction. If you enable these for every app on your smartphone, you’re giving permission to be interrupted and distracted multiple times per day for almost any reason, whether those reasons are important or not. Is that politics/current events news feed keeping you informed, or is it just stressing you out?

To avoid such distractions, I disable notifications for everything except calendar events, phone calls, and text messages. The best way to ensure you’re able to focus and be free from distractions is to be protective of your time and mental space. The New York Times published a great article on this topic, and, if you’re interested in stepping away from notifications entirely, check out the “notification zero” movement.

2. Schedule a Regular Free Day

You don’t need a full five days to benefit from some time away from tech. Scheduling regular rest days, or “free days,” can give you the same benefits without requiring a lot of extra planning on your part. The concept of free days comes from Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach. They involve not only taking time away from tech, but disengaging fully with your work, as well. That allows you to spend time on other pursuits (which have all been shown to carry benefits) like:

  • Play, which improves brain function, relieves boredom and stress, and increases creativity (20, 21, 22, 23)
  • Meditation, which improves stress levels, focus, and cognitive function (24, 25, 26)
  • Being outdoors in nature, which benefits your stress levels and immune function and has been shown to reduce your risk of chronic disease (27, 28, 29)

I personally try to take one and a half free days each week where I don’t go near my phone or computer. I recommend taking a full free day, but even starting with a half-day will bring you benefits—and I bet you’ll enjoy the free time so much, you’ll be motivated to increase it.

3. Batch Your Tech Use

Batching your email and social media time doesn’t just reduce your overall usage; it can boost your productivity, as well. Batching simply means grouping like tasks together and performing them intentionally at a specific time. Jumping in and out of your inbox every time a new email comes in disrupts your focus and keeps you from finishing the task you were working on before the interruption. It also means you’re not giving full attention to your emails—when’s the last time you saw an email come in and promised you’d circle back to it, only to forget to follow up?

Schedule your batched tech usage at specific times in the day and add them to your calendar like you would any other appointments. And choose your time strategically—I save my attention-intensive tasks for the early morning when my focus is best and I check in with email and social media later in the day.

4. Set (and Stick with) Screen-Free Times

Taking small screen-free breaks throughout your day is a great way to get some of the benefits of a detox without jumping completely off the grid for an extended period. Try scheduling an hour or two each day where you won’t interact with screens, and pay attention to how you feel afterward.

Media curfews (i.e., no devices after a certain time) are also extremely helpful for avoiding the sleep-disrupting effects of constant screen time, especially for kids and teens. If teens absolutely need access to a device in the evenings to complete their homework, pick up a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses or install an app like f.lux.

I also recommend setting up phone-free zones in your home where phones aren’t allowed, period. The dinner table is one (how can you connect with your family if your face is glued to a screen?) and your bedroom is another. As I said, artificial blue light is disruptive for your sleep, so it’s crucial that you set your phone somewhere else when it’s time for you to wind down for bed.

5. Spend Time in Stillness or Meditation Daily

Meditation is all about developing a better awareness of yourself—your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. I’ve had a consistent meditation practice for around 20 years, and I’ve personally found it to be helpful for improving my focus. Research backs that up:

  • Just 10 minutes of daily meditation was found to improve attention spans. (30)
  • After only four sessions of meditation training, participants in one study saw better memory, executive functioning, and ability to sustain their attention (along with reduced fatigue and anxiety). (31)
  • Meditation can potentially change the brain’s structure in regions related to awareness, memory, and self-regulation and emotional regulation. (32)

Finding just 10 minutes in your day to sit in stillness and meditate has proven benefits for your focus and your overall health. If you’ve shied away from it in the past, I recommend giving it a try.

I hope this information has helped you evaluate how you interact with tech. Remember, technology is only a tool—one that can be used to achieve great things or one that can become a burden—and how best to use it is up to us. We’re in charge of technology—not the other way around. Adopting a healthy, balanced approach can not only help you improve your focus and attention; it can make tech even more useful in your personal and work lives.