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How To Do A Digital Detox – Without Giving Up Your Phone

All around us are signs of increasing smartphone dependency and addiction. And the signs are being reported by users themselves – not just others complaining about their habits.

60% of US college students consider themselves to have a cell phone addiction with one in three young Brits saying they can’t sleep because they’re addicted to their phones. But it’s not just young people – 44% of American adults say they couldn’t go a day without their mobile devices and 15% of UK adults say their smartphones make them feel they are always at work – with more than half admitting that they had a negative impact on face-to-face conversations with friends and family. One recent study found that the average person now spends 4.8 hours a day on their handset.

Very few of us want to log-off completely. But how do we get a break when we’re feeling like we might be approaching digital burnout? Here’s our guide on how to do a digital detox without completely giving up on technology.

#1 Pin down motivation

Habit changes start with “Why?” If you’re not clear why you’re doing this, if you’re doing it for someone else, or if you just think ‘how to do a digital detox’ is an on-trend subject to be reading about, then – you’re almost certainly bound to fail.

Sit down with a journal and pen in a quiet space and ask yourself “Am I happy with my phone and tech habits?” “What would I want to change?” and “What would a future me look like with healthier habits around tech?” and get writing. The responses you commit to paper are going to crystallise what the motivation is to make changes – and they’ll be a useful guide to revisit if things get a bit tough along the way.

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision”.

James Clear, author

#2 Set personal objectives

Thinking about how to do a digital detox can lead you down the path of wondering whether you need to go weeks or even months without your device and what the ‘rules’ are for logging off.

There are no rules!

A digital detox experience is a very personal one. We like to compare your relationship with technology to your relationship with food. Everyone has very different nutritional needs depending on their lifestyle, age and habits. In the same way, we all have very different uses of technology. And where a paleo diet might be perfect for one person, another may find that going gluten-free, or being vegan, is what they need to do for optimum health.

So, take a minute to look back at the answers to your “why” questions and think about what a really healthy digital life would look like to you. How often would you be on a screen, and how often would you be off? What habits do you have now that you’d really like to change? Is nighttime use a problem for your sleep, for example? Or is it mindlessly scrolling through social media for hours during the day that is wasting your time?

Set a few simple objectives, we suggest perhaps starting with three. Don’t make them too rigid or ambitious (avoid words like ‘never’) and frame them in positive language “I will prioritise sleep over checking my phone”, for example.

#3 Design boundaries

Set clear boundaries around your tech use – what are your ‘do not cross’ lines?

We’ve been in the business of writing about how to do a digital detox for some time now, and we always stress the importance of creating and enforcing simple boundaries around your tech use. Use of technology itself is not a problem. It’s the unfettered, 24:7 type of use that leaves you with no time to do anything else that is. We like to think about designing three types of boundaries;

  • Boundaries around time (“I only check my work emails up until 9pm, and after 8am”)
  • Boundaries around space (“My phone is away from the table when I’m eating”)
  • Boundaries around people (“My phone is out of sight when I’m 1-2-1 with anyone”)

Have a go at designing boundaries that feel like they might achieve your goals. But don’t worry, they aren’t set in stone, you can change and tweak them as you go along.

#4 Put your smartphone out of sight

We’ve been clear that this guide to doing a digital detox is not about throwing away your smartphone or giving up tech altogether. But, we do want to encourage you to get into the habit of putting your smartphone out of sight from time to time. That’s because of the power of persuasive technology that’s built into our smartphone user experience.

Persuasive technology originated in the Silicon Valley tech platforms of the late 1990s. Behavioural scientists, psychologists and user experience designers in those billion dollar businesses have worked over the last few decades how to hone the features on our smartphones that grab our attention. Notifications, badges, buzzes, sounds – all of these pull you back into using your device when you may have just decided you were going to stop for now.

“If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you. It wants things from you. Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”

Tristan Harris, Founder Center for humane technology

It’s almost impossible to resist these clever tricks as they’ve been specifically developed to attract us, but they only work if you can see or hear your smartphone – they’re not magic. So, one of the simplest and most overlooked way of dealing with tech overuse is just to put your smartphone completely away where you can’t see it. It sounds ridiculously simple – because it is.

#5 Make tech tools work harder

Tech companies have responded over the last few years to increasing complaints and concerns about persuasive tech and have introduced a raft of tools to help you log off. They’re not as effective as simply putting your phone away, but they do increase your chances of being able to focus on one task at a time without being distracted by notifications and alerts.

  • Focus Mode on iPhones and iPads –  means you can use Do Not Disturb to silence calls, alerts and notifications that you get while your device is locked. You can also schedule Do Not Disturb and allow calls from certain people.
  • Digital Wellbeing on Android –  contains a suite of tools including ‘bedtime mode’ and ‘work profile’ which means you can choose what type of notifications you receive at certain times.

There are also stand-alone tools, independent from the operating system of your phone or device that can help with blocking distracting content – Freedom lets you temporarily block apps and websites so you can focus more. And Forest plants a tree in the real world when you hit the targets you set yourself for not using your smartphone.

#6 Simply switch off

Over 50% of smartphone users never switch off their phones. But simply switching it off, like putting your phone out of sight, is one of the simplest ways of resisting the demands of persuasive technology. If you want some more reasons for switching off more often;

  • It saves the electricity you use when you leave your phone plugged in overnight.
  • It helps preserve the battery of your smartphone, extending its life.
  • It helps the phone run more efficiently – it clears open apps and memory leaks.

Try just doing it for a simple ten minutes, while you’re fully engaged doing something else absorbing, and build up to longer and longer periods of time.

#7 Pace yourself

Bad habits take time to develop and in the same way good habits take a little time before they start to become automatic and part of your day. Don’t go all-in with the most ambitious goals or boundaries you’ve set for yourself and set yourself up to fail. Start with small baby steps to flex your digital detox muscle and build from there.

We suggest trying turning your phone off for 10 minutes today. Or pick one day next week and try eating one meal with your phone away might be good places to start.

#8 Protect sleep

One of the key reasons we’ve found that people start to explore how to do a digital detox is around the deteriorating quality of sleep. The daylight-simulating light from our smartphones and devices interferes with our sleep hormone, melatonin, and can get us feeling hyper-alert and vigilant just when we want to drop off.

When you’re thinking about your goals and boundaries, consider the existing quality of your sleep and whether one of your goals might be on how to cut back on nighttime screen scrolling to improve it.

#9 Listen to feedback

Those around you have probably commented on your tech habits if they’ve started to get out of control. Listen to any feedback they give you as you start to work through your new habits. Often people notice things about us that we don’t notice about ourselves so if they’re telling you you seem less anxious and stressed and that you seem rested in the mornings then pay attention. (Equally, if they’re telling you that your habits of ignoring them when you’re on your phone don’t seem to have changed).

Go slowly through all the steps you’ve set yourself so you don’t get too overwhelmed. Try out using a timer to limit the time you spend on each goal or task and start by giving just one or two a day a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how simple it is to get through them all, and you’ll quickly start to notice a difference.

For more about how to do a digital detox and take a break from tech without switching off completely – pick up a copy of our new book: My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open. Available to order here.

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How To Do a Digital Detox Without Giving up Your Phone
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A practical and realistic guide to living healthier with technology without giving up your phone completely.
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Time To Log Off
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