How To Digitally Detox In 5 Awesome Steps

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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

The phone on the dinner table. Waking up to check email alerts. Being glued to your laptop on the weekends. Relying on your Google Calendar to get through your day. Feeling a major knot of anxiety every time you’ve got more than five new alerts on your phone… Though these habits might seem innocuous on their own, the extent of your addiction — yes, addiction — can really be elucidated when you ask yourself just how long it’s been since you last looked at a screen. For most of us, it’s a couple seconds or minutes. The longest you’ve unplugged? Probably just around the time it takes for you to get a night’s worth of sleep. 

The consequences of becoming that reliant on our digital toys might not seem like a big deal. After all, technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not more complicated, and the fact that many of us can’t get through a dinner without pulling out our phones at least once is compromising our abilities to connect with people, ideas, and experiences that aren’t beamed out from a screen — and in some ways, this can have some pretty disastrous emotional consequences. While there are entire camps dedicated to “detoxing” our digital lives (of note, Camp GroundedThe New York Times-covered retreat that provided us with DIY detox tips), we don’t think you have to pony up major moola to wean yourself off of the phone. 

Whether you need help streamlining or motivation to really pare down, we’ve got five life-changing ways to truly unplug for every level of online addiction, from a few easy tweaks to some major revelations. 


Level 1: Give Yourself Some Space

Our interconnectedness is so severe these days that any separation from our devices feels, well,unnatural. How plugged in we are affects the way we work, blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, the in-person networking and online networking. Try to create some boundaries between yourself and technology, creating “online-free” zones in your life: the car, the walk to work, even your bed. These are tips and tricks we can all use, no matter how toxic the tech in our life may feel. 

Don’t sleep next to your phone; buy an alarm clock. 
Levi Felix, founder of Camp Grounded, the digital detox program recently profiled by The New York Times, says, “I think anyone who sleeps with a cell phone in their bedroom can use some form of a digital detox. It’s a sign that you need to rethink your relationship with digital technology.” So, we took an impromptu office poll, and most of our R29ers sleep directly next to their phones. As such, we are constantly bombarded all night — even if our phone is on vibrate.

According to a 2012 poll conducted by Qualcomm (note: Link is a .PDF), 50% of Americans sleep directly next to their phone, and 29% of all Americans admit that their phones are the last thing they look at before sleep and the first when they wake up. This means that your brain begins to associate your bed, a place of rest and rejuvenation, with productivity. That way, you can immediately nix the impulse to reach out and check your emails when you wake up in the middle of the night. For Christmas one year, media mogul Arianna Huffington gave all her friends the same alarm clock, “…So they could stop using the excuse that they needed their very tempting iPhone by their bed to wake them up in the morning,” she says

Try to refrain from emails/social media until after you complete your morning routine. 
Hopping on Facebook and then answering some emails may make you feel like you are getting a start on the day, but hopping online first thing may make you feel more rushed. With one in four people checking Facebook before getting out of bed, a morning routine is eschewed for a brief flash of online activity — which, in the worst case, may lead to skipping breakfast. Here’s an idea: Reward yourself with a five-minute check-in after you are ready for your day. 

Skip constant at-work Facebooking.
Hey, this is a nice surprise: Studies show Facebook at work doesn’t derail productivity. In fact,according to Business Week, being allowed to log-on to social networks can help employees become more efficient. The Facebook break, for instance, is a modern (and more healthy) smoke break. 

Yet, this is only applicable when Facebook is used as a treat, not as a constant occupier on your most frequented tabs. By consistently leaving your Facebook window open, the temptation to regularly check in is harder to fight. Working with constant distractions does not a productive employee make — and it’s nearly impossible when your bestie is posting Maru’s newest videos


Level 2: Become MORE Tech-Friendly 

Wait, what? More technology? This doesn’t make sense. For those of us who are looking for a slightly more amped-up way to disconnect, increasing our closeness with devices seems totally counterintuitive. Yet, with a few hacks, your email and notification systems can actually decrease stress. 

Turn off your FB notifications on your phone. 
Those push notifications? They represent the ultimate digital FOMO, insinuating that there is something going on online that needs your attention immediately. Turn off your alerts so you aren’t in contact connection with FB. That way it feels like a “treat” to log on instead of a constant barrage of “Likes” and posts. 

Organize your email. 
Our social editor, Lexi Nisita, uses Gmails “multiple inbox” feature to organize her emails, keeping important missives on top. Another idea is using filters, making sure that sales, retail announcements, and mass emails go to a specific folder and skip your inbox. (Google’s own how-tos are exceedingly helpful in this regard.) Nisita also has 10-15 people “starred” on Gmail, which means that her phone alerts her when they text or email, like bosses, boyfriends, parents, or news editors who demand her time and attention. That way, when important people email, she knows it, decreasing the amount of pop-ups and push messages sent to her phone. 

This sounds crazy, but try working offline.
Have an email to respond to? A report to file? Try shutting off the Wi-Fi for 30 minutes. With 60% of disruptions at work coming from email, IMs, and social networks, a little offline time can help you focus and feel less bombarded.


Level 3: Manage Expectations…Including Your Own

Ah, level three. These suggestions aren’t for people who are hoping for an easy solve, but for individuals looking for some real-deal solutions…which may mean making some difficult changes to do a true detox. 

Communicate to your boss about times you won’t be available online.
When CEO Baratunde Thurston hopped offline for 25 days, he had to make his intentions crystal clear. “A week before D-day, send an email to a list of those who communicate with you on anything more than an occasional basis, alerting them to your departure. Make it clear to them that this is serious — no one will believe you’re really capable of ditching the digital life.” Of course, a 25-day break is serious, but a weekend away from work is reasonable. Try pulling your superior aside and coming up with a time that works for both of you to go radio silent to replenish. 

Communicate to your loved ones about times you may have to be online. 
Sure, this doesn’t quite help with a tech detox, but by telling those around you about times you have to be plugged-in — nights before important meetings, major deadlines, Sharknado live-tweetings — helps them feel more in-the-know and less bombarded by you being online all the time. 

Embrace FOMO. 
Guess what: Stepping away from the Internet means missing out on the funny cat meme everyone is laughing about. But embrace the distance. Felix adds, “Take time once a week to take a digital detox — where you don’t use anything. Carry a journal on them, so if they want to jot something down, they aren’t pulling out their phone — which comes to represent the entire world.” Seeking that mood-lifting jolt of online approval is literally addicting, and disrupting that false sense of connection can help you find “approval” and satisfaction IRL. The best way, in our opinion, to combat FOMO is to ensure that whatever you are doing when your phone is off is enriching, positive, and constructive. 


Level 4: Experiment Going Free 

The phones, the emails, and the constant social networking pressure is becoming too much. Some serious changes need to be made before you send your MacBook flying through a window. 

Try a temporary turn off. 
Tessa Miller, the contributions editor at productivity hub Lifehacker, encourages a true break when possible. “A technology detox is a necessity every now and then — we all get tech “burn out,” and it’s important for both physical and mental health to pull your brain away from the screen. (Or most likely screens, plural.) Detoxing doesn’t have to be extreme for you to “reset.” Or, you might not need a set amount of days at all — it could be as simple as removing the most distracting apps from your phone, turning off push notifications, or just shutting your device off for a set amount of time every day. Just hitting the off button has been shown to reduce stress

Take real steps to put things on hold. 
Four words: Out-of-office message. Sometimes turning it on at 5 p.m. on a Friday and back on at 8 a.m. on Monday can help you feel in control, especially if you instruct people how to get a hold of you in the event of an emergency. Another idea is putting all of your accounts on hold: NetflixFacebook, and most cell phone plans can easily be put on hold (for phones, just cancel data). A week without streaming data can give you the reset you need. 

Ask for help. 
For truly dire cases, Levi Felix recommends asking for help, both online and off. “Set guidelines for yourself and tell the people around you, ‘Hey, I am going to try to not use the Internet or the phone in these hours.’ Don’t be afraid to broadcast this announcement to everyone.” 


Level 5: Get Help. Detox Right. 

There have been a plethora of studies linking heavy Internet usage to depression. If you feel like you are spiraling out of control, you may need to reach out to a professional. If you are about to pull a Marge Simpson in the Sherry Bobbins episode, however, a complete detox might be just the remedy. 

Go somewhere and leave the phone behind. 
Says Felix, “Everyone who spends a few hours a day online could use a detox. If you the feel social pressure that suggests you should alway be available, you should rethink your relationship with technology. We aren’t all doctors and firemen. We don’t always have to be on call.” A tech-free vacation is a great idea, and Felix’s own organization announced its 2014 summer camp hours today, for anyone interested. But just taking a real retreat, externally imposed or not, is a great idea. “Camp Grounded started throwing parties where you had to check your phone at the door, and now no one can fill awkward moments with texts and messages. It inspires real communication.” 

Speak to a professional. 
If you are struggling with real issues, consider speaking to someone about ways to unplug. It doesn’t mean you are an addict, because, as studies prove, our addiction to our phone can be both the effect andcause of depression. Head over to read about treatment possibilities. 

Give yourself permission to unplug.
Most importantly, don’t force yourself to turn off your phone, allow yourself to power down. When confronted with difficult cases, Felix reminds someone to give “permission to not use a phone instead of taking the phone away. Then, replace idle time with activity, so you are engaged in real life and connected with the community. When that happens, there is no tech withdrawal.” Once you commit to a detox, use it as a status update — of your own personal happiness.

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