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How to Plan a Digital Detox

You can learn a lot of lessons from a digital detox

As I write this, I’m ending a six-week digital detox. I shared at the beginning of January that December was a difficult month for me. In an effort to focus on my mental health, I took a step back from my online work, including social media. I undertake a social media vacation once or twice a year, but this break was longer than usual and done with greater intentionality.

During my social media break, I listened to Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, which takes the idea of minimalism—“the art of knowing how much is just enough”—and applies it to technology. The book’s tagline, “Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” encompasses what I felt like I needed at the end of 2021. There’s just so much noise in the world today, and most of it doesn’t add to my health or happiness.

In Digital Minimalism, Newport argues that we should (re)assess our use of technology by looking at each technology we use—from our smart phones to our streaming services to our social media platforms to every app on our phones—and asking ourselves if the good that technology brings into our life is worth the inevitable trade-offs. (That means we must be honest about the trade-offs, too!)

Newport advocates for a 30-day Digital Detox (or Declutter), where we remove optional technologies from our lives, in order to start from a blank slate. After the Digital Detox, we can honestly assess which technologies we want to reintroduce, and which don’t serve us and our values.

The Digital Detox: How-To

If you are looking for more than just a break from social media, but a restructuring of your technology use, the Digital Detox might be for you.

  1. Choose a 30-day period during which you can remove optional technologies from your life. (Work email, for example, would not be optional; Netflix bingeing probably would.)
  2. Set rules for your Digital Detox. Don’t be too stringent, or it will feel impossible, and you might give up. Don’t be too lenient with yourself, or you won’t reap the benefits.
  3. Write down your Digital Detox rules! Post them where you can see them.
  4. During your 30-Day Digital Detox, pay attention to how you feel. Are you antsy in the first week? Do you start to feel calm and peaceful at some point? What technologies do you miss? Which technologies don’t you miss?
  5. If you’re going to give up optional technologies for a month, you need what Newport refers to as “high-quality leisure” activities to fill that time. Stock up on library books, pick up an old hobby, or start taking long walks with your family—something to repurpose all the time you were spending on technology.
  6. Near the end of your Digital Detox, spend time reflecting on your experience. Write a personal Philosophy of Tech Use. This will be your guide as you make decisions about whether and how to reintroduce your optional technologies.
  7. Reexamine each optional technology. Hold it up against your new Philosophy of Technology Use. What purpose does this technology serve in your life? What are the drawbacks of its use? Does the good it offers you outweigh the negatives?

My Digital Detox Rules

I wrote these rules out for myself at the end of December. Later, I’ll share which ones I followed to the letter and which I bent—and why.

  1. Can access any website on my laptop.
  2. Social media only for work, and only on my laptop.
  3. Kindle only on tablet.
  4. No podcasts, audiobooks, or music on phone.
  5. Communication apps permitted; notifications on silent.
  6. Chrome, Goodreads, Google & Keep Notes on 30-minute daily limit.
  7. Shows/movies only with others.

Rules I Bent or Broke—and Why

When I wrote out these rules, I had already spent three weeks with no social media whatsoever. So, I didn’t follow #2 to the letter—when I was on my computer, I would sometimes spend some time on Facebook or Instagram. The good news about using Instagram on the computer is that it is a very user-UNfriendly experience, which kept my scrolling to a bare minimum.

At some point, I ended up reinstalling the Kindle app on my phone, because my husband and I share the tablet. Totally worth it to stay immersed in a good book!

In mid-January, I had a long solo drive ahead of me, so I downloaded a few podcasts to keep me company during my travels. Again, totally worth it. (I’d rather listen to a podcast I find valuable and interesting, instead of chatter on the radio.)

And when the audiobook Hunt, Gather, Parent became available through the library, I decide to break #4 again and, again, I’m so glad I did. That book had so much valuable wisdom in it.

Finally, I didn’t stick strictly to #7 for the entire month. A couple nights a week, my husband goes to the gym. Once the kids are in bed, I like to watch an episode of my latest favorite. (Call the Midwife season nine was excellent!) I still read eight books in January, so I don’t feel bad about indulging in shows. Plus, my entire family had a bout with COVID in January, so I needed to relax some of the rules.

In my next post, I’ll share the lessons I learned from my Digital Detox, and how writing a Philosophy of Technology Use helped me determine which technologies best serve my values.

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