Detaching yourself from your phone and truly unplugging can seriously improve your life. And you can do it without worrying about what you’re missing
Chances are your smartphone is within arm’s reach right now, if you’re not already using it to read this. We’re spending more time than ever on our digital devices—anywhere from one to two hours daily, depending on which study you consult—and with the flood of incoming texts, emails, calls, and push notifications, it’s rare if our screens stay dark for more than a moment.
While there’s no doubt technology has made our lives easier in many ways (remember roadmaps?), research suggests that our addiction to it is real. “Every new notification or text triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that drives us to seek rewards, so you keep coming back for more," explains Levi Felix, co-founder of Digital Detox and Camp Grounded, which run tech-free weekend getaways for adults.
This vicious cycle is taking a toll on our health, mental wellbeing, and relationships. Surveys and studies have reported an association between various tech and depression, anxiety, and decreased marital satisfaction, to name a few.
Ending that cycle, however, doesn’t need to require an anguishing separation trial with your gadgets. With a few simple steps, you can stay plugged in and “detox” at the same time, helping you feel more fulfilled, calm, and connected—IRL, that is—to the things that really matter. “When technology no longer dictates your life, you’ll feel like you’re truly living to the fullest,” says Carson Tate, founder of Working Simply in Charlotte, NC, who helps clients establish a better work-life balance.
To cut back on your digital dependency, turn off your phone’s push notifications for social media apps, Felix says, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, news sites, dating apps—anything that sends an alert when someone contacts you or likes a post. [Tweet this tip!] Starting with one or two, set a specific time of day to check each and a time limit for how long you’ll spend on the site, such as 20 minutes. “This way you’re not going offline entirely but rather choosing when to access your social media sites and networks,” Felix says. “This puts you back in the driver’s seat.”
They may not be the best cuddlers, but we can’t resist getting into bed with our phones. In a 2012 Qualcomm survey, 50 percent of Americans reported sleeping with their devices next to their beds, and another 15 percent leave theirs somewhere out of reach in their bedrooms. If you do so because your phone doubles as your alarm, watch out. “You’re inviting the whole world—every Facebook friend, reporter, blogger—into bed with you,” Felix says. Switch to a real alarm clock, and when it buzzes, give yourself 10 to 20 minutes, or even an hour, to ignore your devices as you prep for the day. “You’ll be able to start your day on your own terms, not someone else’s,” Felix says, “and feel more inspired and rested, and less anxious.”
It’s pretty inevitable that you use your phone to listen to a playlist while on a run or lifting. But although music is a proven way to pump up your effort, stopping mid-interval to answer a text or like an Instagram photo isn’t the most productive way to burn calories. Before you lace up to exercise, turn your phone to airplane mode or do not disturb, Felix suggests, so there’s no temptation to check it. You’ll not only sculpt a better body, you’ll be more likely to reach that blissed-out, endorphin-soaked mindset by focusing on your workout, not your social network. [Tweet this tip!]
“Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon before running a mile, you need to ease yourself into taking breaks from the digital world,” Tate says. Start by putting your phone down for 15 minutes without looking at it one day. The next day, break away from technology for 30 minutes, and so on. Or designate one day a week to stay away from one social media platform completely—say, Twitter-free Tuesdays.
When you feel ready to take the full-day plunge, a weekend day is a good choice since work pressures tend to let up. Sundays are probably your best bet, as it’s typically intended for rest and relaxation. Place your phone in a drawer and spend the day connecting interpersonally—not electronically—with family and friends.
Since not being connected 24/7 has practically become a cultural taboo, many people’s biggest fear about doing a digital detox is that others won’t be able to reach them. If you’re ready to take the leap to a whole day or weekend of unplugging, put in place what Felix calls “digital safety nets.” Tell family, friends, and colleagues that you’ll be going off line—and use technology to do so. At least one week in advance, send emails, texts, and tweets, and set up an out-of-office away message. You can also write on your social media profiles that you’ll be unreachable for that period of time.
To ease your mind, consider leaving your phone with a trusted family member or friend who will know how to reach you if something truly urgent comes up. Then keep in mind: What’s really an emergency? “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen while I'm offline?’” Tate says. Most likely whatever may happen during your unplugged period won’t be life-threatening or even all that important.
When you’re on a diet, it’s smart to keep single-serving dark chocolates on hand to nosh if a molten cake craving kicks in. Do the same thing for a digital detox, Tate says. “Have activities available to distract you when the urge strikes to check your phone or laptop.” Consider buying magazines, a book, or a new nail polish, or head out for a walk and simply take in what’s going on around you. “When you are fully present in the moment, you’ll feel more thoughtful, your stress levels will dial down, and you’ll develop stronger relationships as you chat with friends and family,” Tate says.
Identify the sites or apps you’re spending all your time on and ask yourself why you’re drawn to them, Felix says, then create a way to find that satisfaction in real life. If you’re inspired by artistic photos on Instagram, visit an art gallery with a friend. Or if fitness blogs are your go-to, organize a run or hike with your friends. And when the itch to post a photo arises, create your own “Instagram filter,” Felix suggests: “Make a frame with your fingers, and take a mental snapshot of that sunset or beautiful bouquet for yourself, not your followers.” It really can enrich your experience. “Science shows that when you engage with a moment with all of your senses, you’ll be more likely to remember it later on,” he explains. “The same recall doesn’t occur when you’re too busy snapping photos.”
Now that "FOMO" has officially entered the Oxford Dictionary, we know we’re not the only ones feeling anxious about what we’re passing up. Whether you’re sitting at home and know a party’s going on, or you’re lying in bed and yoga class started five minutes ago, be okay with where you are. “Tell yourself, ‘Wherever I am is exactly where I need to be,’” Felix says. “Remember that the choice you made is the right one for you at that time.”
Later when you turn on your phone and are flooded with party pictures on Facebook and Instagram montages of fun-filled weekends, remind yourself that social media shows only the highlights of others’ lives, Felix says. People choose the flawless photo, add the best filter, and draft the perfect caption, so of course everyone’s lives are going to look awesome—although chances are they’re not so shiny behind the scenes.