Digital detoxing in the real world

It’s easy to disconnect when you’re on holiday, but how can we manage our technology in regular life — during a normal working week — so we’re not slaves to our phones?

There’s nothing like a few weeks with no mobile signal to make you realise how much time you’re losing to your phone.

When I got back from holidays last month, I got totally slammed with digital overload. I constantly checked my phone for messages and emails, and replied faster than a first responder emergency team.

It sucked. I wanted my empty time back. All that gazing at the scenery and reading of actual books. That ability to just sit and let my mind wander. The feeling of superiority to all the screen junkies on the train.

After some serious googling, and a self-imposed digital detox, I’m happy to report it’s possible to wrest control back from your phone, and it doesn’t hurt much at all.

Going cold turkey

My plan was to go cold turkey with my phone for a week, and then reintroduce the bits I could handle one by one.

It was during a regular working week, so I could do all the usual stuff at work, but outside I couldn’t do anything that required wifi or data. It was like being back in the ’90s with my old Nokia and no laptop.

No iview. No googling at the drop of a hat. No photos. And every time I went to check my phone, I had to take a screenshot instead so I’d know how bad my habit was. (This was the best idea ever. I’m stupidly competitive, and I love a bit of data, so on that first day seeing the time between checks get longer and longer was the kind of instant reward that kept me going).

I lasted two days. And I cheated a bit.

Resist the urge to check your phone

But those two days were actually enough to kick-start the break. They showed me some easy wins I could make to claw back some of that highly sought empty-mind time.

The single biggest thing was to stop checking my phone every time I wasn’t doing something else. I used to start checking as soon as I woke up, before I got out of bed — and once I’d flipped that switch, I’d be on screen-checking duty all day.

The thing is, there’s nothing much that can’t wait a couple of hours. I’m a science writer, not a transplant surgeon. And if I don’t value my time, who the hell will?

What worked for me

  • Day 1-2: Every time you reach for your phone, take a screenshot so you’ve got a record of how long you last between checks. It doesn’t just show you how bad your habit is, it’s instant gratification when you start checking less often — perfect for the competitive addict.
  • Now decide how often you’d want to check it, and when it suits you. For me, the biggest thing was to not check it in the morning until I was about to leave the house for work (I never want to miss a message saying work is cancelled today). Breaking that morning habit of checking set me up for the day, and took a level of ‘busy’ out of things like brekkie, walking the dog and walking to the train. It really made the start of my day more relaxed — no small thing for someone prone to anxiety. I don’t have a set schedule for when I can check my phone, but when I reach for it I do a mental ‘how long has it been?’ and stop mid-reach if it’s less than an hour.
  • Keep your phone on silent, so you’re not tempted between your screen-check times. FOMO is one thing, but FOMARIC (fear of missing a really important call) is what stops us from leaving our phones at home or turning them off. I actually missed a call from my sister when Mum fell and broke her hip, and only got the text two hours later. But as bad as I felt for missing the call, it didn’t change anything. In fact, the guilt probably made me more attentive. I don’t have kids, so I didn’t have to deal with the parental version of this — how do you do it?
  • Don’t carry it in your hand for the same reason. Having to reach into your bag/pocket or walk into another room gives a delay that makes it easier to have a self-imposed intervention.
  • Don’t check it when you’re doing anything else, including moving. My walk to the train and the train ride itself are a gift of 30 mins each morning, instead of a time to send/check messages, make calls or play games. If the increase in the number of pedestrians getting hit while texting, and the fact that multi-tasking doesn’t work won’t change our behaviour, winning 30 minutes of free time (it’s like an early morning tea!) might do the trick.Want more ABC Health & Wellbeing?Subscribe for weekly our update of Health and Wellbeing news, features and opinion from around the ABC. Or you can like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.
  • Set a limit on the things that are your real time-suckers. Nerd alert: I spent way too much time playing Solitaire and — for a break — Sudoko on my phone. Now it’s my in-bed-before-sleep treat. I try to keep it to 15 minutes or until I get a decent score. My go-to apps in the morning were weather and the train times. Now I just carry a brolly and take my chances with the train — they come every 10 minutes and did I mention I’m not a transplant surgeon? I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, but others have suggested deleting the app from your phone and only checking it on laptop/desktop. I am so not getting into that conversation.
  • Tell your regular contacts that you’re doing a digital detox. Turns out it’s rude to just disappear. And it gives you an out when people try to contact you. Others have suggested setting up an “I’m unavailable from 1-4” auto-reply, or changing your Facebook profile to “offline” for a bit. I’m not that organised, but it seems to work.

It’s been three weeks since my digital diet and so far so good. I’ve mostly got my mornings back, my sister and mum are still speaking to me and I’ve unsubscribed from more email lists than I ever knew I was on.


By Bernie Hobbs
(Source: abc.net.au; October 20, 2016; http://tinyurl.com/zo48o85)

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