The National Day of Unplugging is coming up, from sundown March 3 to sundown March 4. As much as I try to put down my devices on a regular basis, the most I can manage is an hour at a time, and that’s a big deal. A 24-mandate for a digital detox sounds like heaven.
To do it right, I consulted a dear college friend, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who happens to be a recognized authority on keeping our use of technology in check. He is also the celebrated writer of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Basic Books, 2016) and The Distraction Addiction (Little Brown, 2013).
After speaking with him, I’m not only ready to spend a day away from social media, but also to spend some time in the digital detox laboratory exploring my relationship with my phone, how it influences the way I move through my day and the effect that has on my relationships and parenting. This is a big opportunity!
Here is what Alex told me:
The digital detox movement started in Silicon Valley (of course). In the 1990s, people who work in the tech industry started finding the constant press of technology increasingly exhausting, and started crafting rituals to give them a break from their work and their devices.
What makes a good digital detox?
It’s active, not passive.
Don’t just sit around wondering what’s on Instagram. A successful digital detoxes gives you time to do things you might not have time for during your usual connected life. Whether it’s going for a hike, a day at the beach, cleaning out the closets or finishing that knitting project, an active detox will give you a greater sense of accomplishment, and take your mind off your digital life.
It’s important to make digital detoxes a practice, not a one-time intervention. It’s like dieting: a crash diet isn’t nearly as effective or sustainable as changes to your daily diet, more exercise and maybe the occasional fast. The first couple times you do a detox, it may literally feel painful (your brain will think, I miss you, delicious dopamine), but before too long you’ll start feeling the benefits, both during the detox and after. So have a schedule (every Sunday, for example) and keep to it.
Think about the devices or services that you find most distracting and time-consuming; those are the ones you want to turn off. If you’re compulsive about checking your feed for likes and shares, stepping away from social media will be your highest priority; if you can spend hours binge-watching the latest Scandinavian crime show, it’s streaming media. Nobody turns off their refrigerators, but almost everyone puts their phones on vibrate.
A digital detox gives you a chance to step away from your usual media habits. In so doing, it gives you space to ask why you use devices the way you do. It shows that your relationship with your online life isn’t hard-wired, but is one that you can change to better suit your needs. Finally, it gives you a chance to imagine how life would be better if you remade your connection with your devices.
A fashion writer once said that the difference between men’s clothes and women’s clothes is that men wear clothes that are cut to fit them, while women have to fit their clothes—literally standing and walking differently depending on whether they’re wearing something low-cut, or high-cut or off-the-shoulder. Too often we end up fitting our lives and ourselves to suit our technologies; it’s time to recognize that we can make our technologies fit us.
If you’re a parent, create a whitelist on your phone so your kids and caregivers can reach you no matter what, even when the rest of the world is on silent. This isn’t a silent retreat (unless you want it to be, in which case go for it), it’s a rebalancing.
It’s REAL real time.
One of the cruelest ironies of digital life is that while it promises to deliver things in “real time,” that “real” time keeps getting faster. Digital detoxes connect you with a slower, more natural kind of time, one that you measure by the sun’s cycle rather than by microprocessor cycles.