Why digital detoxes don’t work and what to do instead.

Why digital detoxes don't work by Cathy Jacob at CathyJacob.com

Photo by Nicolas Menijes

Practical strategies to reclaim your focus and your life.

Digital detox has become popular enough to have its own Wikipedia page. Wikipedia defines it as “a period of time when a person voluntarily refrains from using digital devices such as smartphones, computers, and social media platforms.”

A digital detox operates on the premise that we can fix a dysfunctional and possibly addictive relationship with our devices with a trial separation.

While heavy users of digital media may exhibit the characteristics of addiction, for most of us, our relationship with our smart phone is more like one with a bad roommate. It doesn’t respect our privacy, it’s constantly interrupting us, and it keeps persuading us to do things that aren’t in our best interests.

Four reasons digital detoxes won’t cure you of your technology habit.

  1. Digital detoxes by definition, are temporary. The problem is, most of us rely on technology to do our jobs and live our lives. Unless you are going to pack your backpack and live in the wilderness for the rest of your life, you need to learn the best way to live with technology not without it.
  2. Digital detoxes are meant to reduce your stress and give you greater peace. However, many people suffer intense anxiety when separated from their devices. While not a recognized anxiety disorder at this time, this response is prevalent enough to have its own name – “nomophobia.”
  3. Coming back to your devices after an extended absence can trigger a whole new level of stress and anxiety as you try to deal with the backlog of messages needing your immediate attention.
  4. Finally, detoxes don’t help you learn to use technology in ways that are healthy and productive. It’s like a trial separation without counselling. When you return, you resume your old unhealthy relationship.

Giving yourself a holiday from digital and social media is not a bad idea. It can be a great way to get a temporary break and some perspective. It’s just not a fix for the problem most of us are having with it.

Seven ways to get control of your digital life.

If your smart phone is running your life, chewing up hours of your leisure time, or interrupting you constantly, here are some practical strategies to show your phone who’s boss.

1. Work from the inside out.

You can’t fix something you can’t see. The key to fixing your relationship with your devices is to figure out what is triggering you to unconsciously reach for them in the first place.

Most of the time, it begins with a low grade, almost imperceptible feeling of discomfort. It might be boredom, impatience, or anxiety. Whatever it is, you reach for your phone as a means to avoid those feelings.

“Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality.”

From Indistractable, by Nir Eyal, BenBella Books, Inc.

Learn your internal triggers – the emotions, feelings, and situations that create the urge to grab your phone.

The next time you are working on something or in the company of others and you have the urge to pick up your phone, pause. Ask yourself, what’s the discomfort I’m trying to avoid? Practice just experiencing the feeling rather than reaching for your phone. Wait 10 minutes and see if the urge passes.

For more on this, Indistractable by Nir Eyal takes a deep dive into how to manage your internal triggers and become more distraction proof.

2. Create tech-free zones in your home.

Just as there may be certain places in your household off limits to the family pet, the same should be true for your devices. My top two recommendations are the bedroom and the dinner table.

The health risks of insufficient sleep are well-documented. According to the Sleep Foundation, using technology in the bedroom makes it harder to fall asleep, reduces overall sleep duration, disturbs sleep with sounds and blinking lights and disrupts the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that aids sleep. For more specific tips on how to make your bedroom tech-free, see Technology in the Bedroom | Sleep Foundation

At the dinner table, the mere presence of a phone, even when placed face down on the table can be detrimental to connection and conversation.

Researchers at the Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, conducted a fascinating study to examine the impact of placing a mobile phone on a nearby table during conversations between pairs of participants. Even though the phone did not belong to the participants, the researchers concluded that its mere presence inhibited interpersonal closeness, trust, and reduced feelings of empathy.

At the dinner table, smart phone use distracts everyone, even if only one person is using it. Or it’s sitting on the table making noise. Make mealtime a time for connection and conversation. Use it as a time to charge your devices in another room.

But before you lay down the law, respect the impact of device free meals on others in your family. Don’t dictate. Have an open conversation. In some cases, having the phone out of sight may cause anxiety for some members of your family. Don’t judge this. Invite family members to come up with their own ideas to keep their use of devices from interfering with meal time. Maybe you agree to take quick device-check breaks between courses to keep your kids from wolfing down their meal just to get back to their phones.

Finally, give your tech a space of its own – to recharge, to rest, to be alone. In our home, we have a charging station inside a cabinet located near the front door. At bedtime, everybody gets their own room. It’s a win / win – we all get a good night’s sleep and our devices never run out of battery.

3. Create tech free spaces at work.

Consider making face-to-face meetings tech free or tech light. If you are meeting one-on-one with a colleague, don’t just turn your phone to vibrate, turn it to silent and put it out of sight. Consider creating tech free common areas to enable better connection and conversation.

Talk to co-workers about how to make video calls less distracting and more productive. The temptation to multi-task while on video calls has a dual impact. It fragments your attention, making you more apt to miss information. Further, your inattention is distracting to others.

When I’m facilitating a meeting, in person or via video, I can feel the whole room become distracted and unfocused when just one person stops to check their phone or attempts to multitask. Even if they are off camera, (or especially if they are off camera), you can sense that you don’t have their attention. Conversations take longer and are less connected. People feel disrespected or devalued. It becomes more difficult to get alignment on important decisions.

Make your meetings shorter, more connected, and more tolerable by agreeing to give them your full attention.

4. Create distraction-free blocks of time in your schedule.

If you want to increase job satisfaction, reduce stress, and dramatically improve performance, schedule time for what Cal Newport calls Deep Work.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from knowledge workers, managers, and executives, is that they don’t get any thinking time. Their attention is pulled in multiple directions. To reduce the pressure, they engage in what they believe is multi-tasking but is instead, task switching, which slows them down and decreases accuracy.

Many of us have roles that require deep work – time for reflection, planning, reading and research, creating, writing, or problem solving. Deep work is any work that requires significant cognitive resources. It’s also high value work that can deliver big dividends, greater meaning, and job satisfaction.

Block regular time in your calendar for deep work and put your devices on do not disturb.

If this seems unacceptable in your culture, it may be time to have a team conversation about the need to accommodate interruption-free focused time for the sake of productivity, performance, and mental health.

5. Schedule time for your devices.

A distraction is only a distraction if you’re doing something you did not intend to do.

Reviewing email, engaging in social media, responding to texts are not distractions if you choose to engage with them. In most cases, you need to do this to do your job.

Most of us treat this activity as either necessary background noise that needs constant, ongoing attention or a guilty pleasure that we indulge in to procrastinate.

If you schedule time for these activities that has a hard start and stop, you can enjoy or endure them, guilt and stress-free.

Checking email, texts, social media feeds and internal messaging platforms are what I refer to as “bit work” or as Cal Newport calls it “shallow work”.

This does not mean that it’s unimportant or of low value, simply that it does not require periods of deep focus.

The issue is this kind of work can be a massive time suck, can be frenetic, and can lead down many time-wasting rabbit holes if you don’t put clear guardrails around it.

When you schedule and restrict your “bit time” to a few prescheduled sessions per day, the pressure of a time limit can help you resist distractions that offer little value and eat up gobs of time. When you limit your time on work-related email and other platforms, you become more disciplined and skilled in their use. It is worthwhile to learn strategies and skills for using these platforms effectively so they don’t dominate your life.

6. Use tech to manage your behavior around tech

You can use apps that can be programed to limit your screen time and limit access to social media apps at certain times of day.  You can also use Do Not Disturb settings that will ensure you are not interrupted but enable important people in your life to get through to you in an emergency.

For recommendations on the best tools for this purpose, read The best screen-time apps to get your digital life under control | Digital Trends

A tool that has been a huge time-saver for me and keeps me out of internet rabbit holes is an app called Instapaper.

“Read later” apps like Instapaper or Pocket allow you to capture and store digital content to read on your timetable. Because I subscribe to a number of email newsletters, news sites, podcasts, and blogs, this app gives me a place to store and retrieve this information when I actually have time to focus on it and dramatically reduces the time it takes to process email.

7. Enroll others to join you.

Email, chat, text, social media are all relational tools. Your use of them impacts not only you, but the people you engage on them and the people you neglect because of them.

Any significant change is easier and more likely to work if you enroll others to do it with you.

The key word here is “enroll”, particularly if some of the people you want to join you are your kids or co-workers. It won’t work if you demand, bully, or judge others on their use of technology.

Start with open conversations that explore how you’re using it now, the impact it is having on how you feel and how you function together.

Eyal, devotes a whole chapter in his book on “How to Raise Indistractable Children.” He advises that you respect your children’s need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Engage them in a conversation about their use of technology, its impact on them, and what they feel are reasonable limits. Help them feel competent and in control by supporting them to manage, set, and respect their own rules around technology use.

Engage in a conversation with your colleagues about your team culture and how your use of these platforms reflects it. Explore how your use of technology supports you and how it creates stress, irritation, and anxiety. Create agreements around how you will use it in ways to improve productivity, lower workplace stress, and support leisure and family time.

Who and what deserve your attention?

“Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, and even your self are the creations of what you focus on.”

From Rapt by Winifred Gallaher

Because of its power to capture and control your attention, your relationship with technology is critical to your health and well-being. It is also critical to your leadership and your performance.

Who will control that relationship – the organizations that want to profit from your attention or you?

Looking for more? Subscribe to The Slow Sip, my free monthly newsletter packed with articles, podcast episodes, practices and practical recommendations to help you transform your relationship to work and life.

    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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