For Thanksgiving, my partner and I headed up to Oregon for a time out from the busy San Francisco Bay area. It was to be a respite — to relax and cook Italian food from Mario Batali's classic cookbook — and, inevitably, to do some work.
He's a law student who contributes research assistance to The Nation in his "spare time;" I write for MNN and manage my own website, so it's fair to say that our work never really stops. I'm not complaining — I love what I do for a living, and I've gotten better about turning off when I need to. I almost always take all of Saturday off and do something outside, like go for a hike or head out to some nearby natural area and read or walk on the beach.
But over Thanksgiving I was out-of-touch and off the Internet from Wednesday night through Sunday. Why? Simply, the Wi-Fi in the place where a friend lets us to stay was out, and it didn't come back despite several calls to the local provider.
On Thanksgiving, I didn't really much care, as nobody was working that day (in the U.S. anyway). But by Friday afternoon it was really bugging me. I considered driving to town and finding somewhere open that offered free Wi-Fi. But my environmentalist heart couldn't do it — it's a 25-minute drive to town in a car that's not as green as I had hoped — just to do some Instagramming? I couldn't justify it.
But every hour or so, I reached for my phone. And I really wanted to get online to ... I don't even know what. I just wanted to. That's not getting things done or even overworking. That's just addiction. (And apparently I'm not alone in pondering this as fellow blogger Lloyd questioned whether we need a digital detox and Katherine over on TreeHugger says we most certainly do.)
It felt weird. It felt like the addictive behavior we all hear about, addiction to things I've never been addicted to: Cigarettes, alcohol, gambling.
So, I had been going a day or so without tech, and thought I wasn't addicted. But plenty of people addicted to other stuff can go a day without, too.
Recognizing the problem
I'm not the only one who has been surprised by their stronger-than-expected ties to tech: Everyone from Arianna Huffington to Tony Schwartz, a high-level consultant and author, have been grappling with this. Schwartz recently wrote in The New York Times about his wake-up call when he realized he couldn't read a book, formerly one of his favorite activities. He was too distracted and distractable, and he had to retrain himself to spend chunks of time with a long-form narrative. He writes:
"Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction."
The fact that "everyone is doing it" is an important part of why this attachment to the Internet/social media/smartphones is so pervasive.
Though of course, other people don't need to wait that long to see a problem:
"When did I realize it was getting out of hand? When I realized it was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I do before I go to bed," says actress Natalie Kent in the BBC video above. Sound familiar?
How to un-digitalize yourself
What's the solution? The thing about a digital detox is that you just have to do it. There's only so much preparation you can do, and while cutting down slowly is certainly a good idea (as in no digital media two hours before you go to bed, or in the morning before you get to work), it's not a full solution.
1. You need to disallow yourself to get online for a chunk of time: Three days seems like a fair place to start, and I understand many people can't take off more time from work than that.
2. If you need to leave yourself a life raft, choose one, and only one. I was still able to check my email over Thanksgiving, key to my peace of mind so I would know if an editor needed me to address a story last-minute or if my website had melted down. (Neither happened.) Schwartz left his text messages on and this might be wise for those people who have teenagers or elderly parents they can't be out of contact with.
So, decide what's most important in your life in terms of emergency contacts or commitments, and then limit yourself to those ways of using your phone or computer. And that's it.
3. Remind yourself about what you loved before you used to spend 20-40 minutes a day on Facebook (that's the average): Was it reading books? Practicing music? Kicking the soccer ball around? Painting with watercolors? Having long chats with friends? Writing in your journal? Make a list of the things you loved to do and bring them along or make them accessible.
This is not about becoming a hermit, so if you want to eat out at a restaurant, go to a dance class, attend a party or movie or lecture or anything else that's not at home that's perfectly fine — you just can't use your phone to look stuff up or tell people what a great time you're having or Instagram your food.
4. Be surprised at your diminished attention span: It will be highly likely that if you normally spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook, check other social media sites and find yourself mindlessly clicking headlines sometimes, you will have a difficult time focusing on the things you used to love. That's normal, and that's part of the detox. Your brain is used to regular hits of new stimulation from being online, which kills focus. You literally have to practice holding your attention on one thing for chunks of time — it might take you five or 10 minutes to calm down and get into it. (Taking a brisk walk, or a shower can be a good was to "reset" your attentions if you get frustrated with your focus.) But the practice will pay off, and you will be able to re-focus again.
The upshot is that as you wean yourself away from less-meaningful time on the Internet, you will re-engage those passions that give you deeper pleasure. So, like all detoxes, I found a significant reward, as did the many others who have written about this. I came back to work on Monday with not only a clearer focus that lasted the whole week, but a level of calm that I had forgotten existed.
In 2016, I'll be doing it again, at least once a month.
And you can too.