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Digital Detox: How to Disconnect, and Why It’s So Good for You

  • If the thought of missing one notification makes you break out in a cold sweat, you might be due for a digital detox.
  • Overusing technology is bad for your sleep, your relationships, your productivity, and your self-esteem. Even a small break from technology can help your brain relax and recharge.
  • You don’t have to live in the woods to benefit from a digital detox. Start small and limit your screen time. Getting rid of distractions will improve your focus and sleep, and it’ll free up more time than you’d think.

How long can you last without checking your notifications? If the thought of missing out on one “important” text or tweet makes you break out in a cold sweat, you might be due for a digital detox.

It’s tempting to think that the people who need to unplug are totally addicted to technology. The reality is that almost everyone can benefit from disconnecting, even for a day. Studies show that overusing technology is bad for your sleep, your relationships, your productivity, and your self-esteem.[1]

According to addiction therapist Cali Estes, PhD, founder of The Addictions Coach, a lot of her clients report increased happiness by shutting off social media or putting away their phone after dinner. “Even if it is a small change, your brain will relax and recharge.”

Here’s what you should know about the benefits of disconnecting, including actionable tips to finally unplug — and no, you don’t have to live off the grid forever.

When technology isn’t good for you

Stress response due to technology overuse

It’s impossible to step away from technology, and it’s not practical to suggest you can’t use it at all. The problem is that overusing technology makes it more difficult to live your life on your own terms. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Using technology after dark keeps you awake: Blue light from screens messes with your natural sleep-wake cycle. It also increases your risk of serious illness like obesity, cancer, and diabetes.[2]
  • Social media use is associated with toxic behaviors: Specifically, narcissism, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem — especially among teens.[3] [4] [5]
  • Overusing technology makes you less productive: Need to concentrate on a problem at work? You can’t reach that golden flow state of productivity when you’re constantly distracted (and stressed) by notifications.[6]
  • Smartphones are especially disruptive: According to a 2014 study, using your smartphone for work at night makes you less productive and engaged the following morning.[7] The results were more pronounced than other forms of technology, like tablets and TV.  

Why you should break up with your phone (even for a little while)

Woman using smartphone

Overusing technology makes it more difficult to focus on the experiences that truly bring you value. In Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey’s new book, “Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Thinkers Do to Win at Life,” Asprey writes about minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn, who periodically lives without a cell phone or internet. When Millburn brings those small luxuries back into his life, he “sees how they can enhance his life while remaining conscious of the ways in which they are wasting precious time and energy,” Asprey says. Listen to his interview with Millburn on this episode of the Bulletproof Radio podcast.

Follow Millburn’s example. You don’t need your cell phone or laptop. Sure, technology can make your life more convenient and entertaining. But most of the time, it’s more fulfilling to let your mind wander, have a face-to-face conversation with a loved one, or take a walk outside. These experiences can’t be matched by a text or a Facebook post. Instead of spending your time doing things that matter to you, technology is sapping your attention.

“We all need a digital detox,” says clinical psychologist Lisa Strohman, PhD, founder of Digital Citizen Academy. “Check your screen time. Are you doing things offline with at least a balanced number of hours as you are online?”

Think about it. You’re surrounded by screens and notifications morning and night. Say you spend an hour per night watching your favorite show. That’s 7 hours per week camped out in front of your laptop or TV (after you’ve already spent 8 hours at your computer for work). What if you spend that time working out, prepping your lunches for the week, reading a book, or working on your side hustle? How much more would you get done in a week, a month, or a year?

“A digital detox gives our minds and bodies an opportunity to restore their natural rhythms,” says Jennifer Weniger, PhD, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center. “It can enhance relationships and productivity. It can provide you with a genuine opportunity to feel mentally and physically relaxed.”

According to Weniger, there are some clear warning signs that you need a break from technology:

  • You constantly check your smartphone throughout the day (even when it’s not necessary).
  • You struggle to have face-to-face conversations.
  • You make careless mistakes because you’re always distracted.
  • You aren’t sleeping well.
  • You’re sedentary for long stretches of time. (Find out why that’s dangerous.)
  • You don’t spend time outdoors because you spend your free time looking at screens.

“There are some advantages to technology, such as instant access to information, but we as a society need to learn how to moderate technology so that it does not take over our lives,” Weniger says. “We need to control technology, and not allow technology to control us.”

Fortunately, you can take a few steps today to take back control of your time. Keep reading to find out how.

How to do a digital detox

Nobody is saying you need to go live in a cabin in the woods for a month (although spending time in nature is good for you). Start by identifying two important variables:

  1. How much time you spend online
  2. What you want to do instead

How much time you spend online

Man using smartphone

If you have an iPhone, you can check your most-used apps and average screen time in your phone’s settings. Go to “Settings” and tap “Screen Time.” Tap on your phone’s name to view your most-used apps, how often you pick up your phone, and even how many notifications you receive per app.

Then, think about how often you use screens throughout your day. Do you look at your phone as soon as you wake up? Do you switch between your phone and computer at work all day? Do you watch TV while you eat dinner?

Based on that data, decide how you want to proceed. If you want to be hardcore and go without any screens at all, rock on — but maybe save that goal for a weekend. If you have a job that requires computer screens or cell phone access, your boss might not appreciate your digital detox.

Instead, lay down some ground rules based on what’s realistic for you. Start small. Here are some ideas:

  • Swear off your most-used social media app for a week. Completely turn off notifications for that app. Tell friends they can call or text you if they want to reach you.
  • Turn off notifications during work hours. Check your messages at designated times throughout the day, like once every other hour.
  • Swear off screens after dark. Once the sun sets, keep your phone, laptop, and TV powered off. Turn off electronics in your bedroom, and black out LED screens. Pay attention when your body naturally starts feeling sleepy.
  • Change your notifications: Unsubscribe from email newsletters that clutter your inbox. Turn off the vibration setting on your phone. Does that red notification alert stress you out? You can turn it off in your settings and app permissions.

What you want to do instead

Person writing in planner instead of using technology

Everyone has 24 hours in a day. Without technology sapping your free time, what do you want to do instead?

  • Get creative: Draw, dance, write, paint, or get creative in the kitchen. Creativity is good for you — it helps build new connections between neurons and sharpens your brain. Learn more here.
  • Work out: Exercise is good for your brain, your body, and your mental health. You don’t need a ton of time to reap the benefits. Check out this 13-minute dumbbell workout you can do instead of checking Twitter.
  • Spend time with people you love: Grab dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in ages. Have a meaningful conversation with your partner. Invite your neighbors over for a board game night. Cook a complicated recipe with your family. Create memories that you can’t replicate with a phone in front of your face.
  • Unwind: If technology is an important part of your self-care routine, make sure you’re replacing that time with something else that gives you peace. Learn how to meditate, try a yoga class, spend some time in the sun, or take a long bath at the end of a stressful day — it’s better for your body than watching TV.
  • Go to sleep: Once you start limiting screen use, you might discover that you start feeling tired earlier in the evening. That’s your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle telling you to go to bed. Listen to it.

Taking a digital detox sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s a truly personal endeavor. When you aren’t sheltering your attention behind a screen, you might realize you have more free time than you think. And really, that’s the biggest benefit of a digital detox: It helps you take more control of your life and your attention so you can focus on what really brings you joy — whatever that may be.

So, don’t be afraid to disconnect. It’s good for you.

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