Although I have spent almost 30 years carrying out research into “technological addictions,” it’s only quite recently that such addictions have crept into the mainstream. Technology has slowly taken over our lives — and even though a small number of individuals are genuinely addicted to technology — we could all benefit from some “digital detoxing.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary, digital detox is “a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world.” I have to admit that I often find it hard to switch off from work (mainly because I love my job). Given that my job relies on technology, by implication it also means I find it hard to switch off from technology. Here are my tips for cutting down on technology use.
- Digitally detox in increments. For some people, going a few minutes without checking their smartphone or email is difficult. For many, the urge is reflexive and habitual. If you’re one of those people, then your best bet is taking baby steps, or learning to digitally detox in small increments (i.e., go on a “digital diet”). Start by proving to yourself that you can go 15 minutes without technology. Over time, increase the length of time without checking, say, Twitter, Facebook and email (e.g., 30 minutes, 60 minutes, a couple of hours) until you get into a daily habit of being able to spend a few hours without the need to be online. Another simple trick is to only keep mobile devices partially topped up. This means users have to be sparing when checking their mobile devices.
- Set aside daily periods of self-imposed non-screen time. One of the secrets to scaling back technology use to acceptable levels is to keep aside certain times of the day technology-free (mealtimes and bedtime, for example are a good starting place. In fact, kitchens and bedrooms should be made technology-free). For instance, I rarely look at any email between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., as this is reserved for family time (cooking and eating dinner). Another strategy to try is having a technology-free day at the weekends; in other words, not accessing the Internet for 24 hours. However, watching television or using an e-reader is fine. Another simple strategy is to have technology-free meal times (at both home and at work). Don’t bring your smartphone or tablet to the table.
- Only respond to emails and texts at specific times of the day. Only a few individuals are ‘on call’ and have to assume that the message they receive will be an emergency. Looking at email, say, just three times a day (9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.) will save lots of time in the long run. Turning off email and social media, disabling push notifications, or simply turning the volume setting to silent on electronic devices will also reduce the urge to constantly check mobile devices.
- Don’t use your smartphone or tablet as an alarm clock. By using a standard alarm clock to wake you in the morning, you will avoid the temptation to look at email and texts just as you are about to go to sleep or just wake up (or in the middle of the night if you’re a workaholic).
- Engage in out-of-work activities where it is impossible (or frowned upon) to use technology. Nowadays, leisure activities such as having a meal or going to the cinema don’t stop people from using wireless technology. By engaging in digitally incompatible activities where it is impossible to access technology simultaneously (jogging, swimming, meditation, outdoor walks in wi-fi free areas) or where technology is frowned upon, like places of worship or yoga classes, individuals will automatically decrease the amount of screen time.
- Tell your work colleagues and friends you are going on a digital detox. Checking emails and texts can become an almost compulsive behavior because of what psychologists have termed “FOMO” (fear of missing out), which refers to the anxiety that an interesting or exciting event may be happening elsewhere online. By telling everyone that you’ll be offline for a few hours, they’ll be less likely to contact you in the first place and you’ll be less likely to check for online messages in the first place. Alternatively, put your “out-of-office” notification on for a few hours and do something more productive with your time.
- Reduce your contact lists. One way to spend less time online is to reduce the number of friends on social networking sites, stop following blogs (but not mine, of course!), delete unused apps and unsubscribe from online groups that have few benefits. Also, delete game apps that can be time-consuming (e.g., Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga).
- Get a wristwatch. One of the most common reasons for looking at a smartphone or tablet is to check the time. If checking the time also leads to noticing a text, email or tweet, you’ll end up reading what has been sent. By using an old fashioned wristwatch (as opposed to new smart watches like the Apple Watch), you’ll automatically decrease your urge to reply to messages.
- Think about the benefits of not constantly being online. If you are the kind of person that responds to emails, texts and tweets as they come in, you will write longer responses than if you look at them all in a block. The bottom line is that you can save loads of time to spend on other things if you didn’t spend so long constantly reacting to what’s going on in the online world.
- Enjoy the silence. Too many people fail to appreciate being in the moment and allowing themselves to resist the urge to log onto their laptops, mobiles and tablets. It is at these times, which some people might interpret as boredom, that we can contemplate and be mindful. This could be made more formal by introducing meditation into a daily routine. There are also many places that run whole weekends and short breaks where technology is forbidden and much of the time can be spent in quiet contemplation.
- Fill the void. To undergo digital detox for any length of time, an individual has to replace the activity with something that is as equally rewarding (whether it is physically, psychologically or spiritually). When I’m on holiday, I catch up on all the novels that I’ve been meaning to read. In shorter spaces of time (such as sitting in boring meetings) I doodle, write to-do lists, generate ideas for my blog, or simply do nothing – that is, but be mindful and aware of the present moment. In short, I try to be productive (or unproductive) without having to resort to my technology.
- Use technology to beat technology. One thing that can shock technology users is how much time they actually spend on their mobile devices. Working out how much time is actually spent online can be the first step in wanting to cut down. (For instance, someone I once worked with was shocked to find he had spent 72, 24-hour days, in one year playing World of Warcraft). Tech users can download apps, like Moment, that tell them how much time they’re spending online. Being made aware of a problem is often the first step in enabling behavioral change.