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What I learned about myself after half a year of digital detoxing

Before sitting down to watch television, my great great grandmother would always wear her best dress, do her hair, and put her make up on. When asked about the reasons of this peculiar behaviour, she would reply: “But what if THEY (meaning people in the TV set) are watching me as well?”

My great great grandmother

Fast forward 70 years, and it turns out my great great grandma was not that wrong.

An active user of any modern technology is always available. You have the benefit of accessing any information, wherever and whenever you want it, but at the same time you become always accessible as well. Anyone can call or text you at any given moment in time. Just like my great grandmother felt herself permanently exposed in front of the ubiquitous eye of a TV set, so do we find it increasingly difficult to put the boundaries up between our online and offline lives, and keep control of our agenda.

An increasing sense of overwhelm, fatigue and a lack of control over my life were the main reasons that got me to seriously consider digital detox. I’ve spent 12+ years in senior digital marketing positions with global internet brands, which means I was connected pretty much all the time, I was not sleeping. I sometimes slept with my phone as well. Clients loved to be connected all the time, and were expecting me to do that, too. Remarkable is the fact that my responses at 3am on weekends to the client requests did not seem to help much, as clients always had another five questions to ask, and so we were constantly looped in digital communication without making much progress. You know the feeling when you spend the whole day replying to emails, and at the end of the day you walk out of the office with the question – what exactly have I done today? This was my story. I was stressed, the client was stressed, the team was exhausted, and emails just kept arriving.

Giving up my smartphone

I somehow made it until the end of my last contract, and when I was done, I decided I wanted to have some headspace to think about what was next, and cutting the time I spend online will help me with that. I switched off all notifications on the phone, took the Facebook app off and logged out of the email. Little did I know of how our brains worked at the time. I lasted about half a day, when I discovered myself logging into Facebook through an internet browser and not the app, and checking manually about 10 times whether a new email has arrived. I didn’t want to do it and I kept doing it.

Long story short, I tried various tricks including blocking apps, but the only thing that seemed to work 100% was when I didn’t have my smartphone with me. So after a few months of trying to make it work I decided to give it up altogether, and exchanged it for a very basic Nokia, that could only receive and send text messages. My smartphone was inherited by my mother, who now reports becoming totally addicted to Facebook and thinks of passing it to my grandmother.

Not having a smartphone has produced unexpected results. In addition to the much-anticipated sense of regaining control over my life and an improved quality of sleep, I suddenly started talking to more people in real life. It didn’t just happen at bus stops when I was trying to figure out when the next bus was due, or trying to find my way around the city. I simply was finding it much easier and more natural to talk to total strangers. Looking back at that, I think this was probably due to how much more attentive I became to the outside world, as well as my brain attempting to occupy itself with something (in this case, conversations) when it was deprived of the screen time. Another unexpected result of giving up my smartphone was the creation of my business, Consciously Digital, that helps people remain productive in an age of digital distraction.

Walking my talk

Giving up my smartphone was the first step, and several weeks ago I decided to go deeper and declutter my home. Being self-employed, I somewhat struggle to put the boundary between work and non-work, especially because most of the marketing for my business is still via the web. Although I got rid of my smartphone, I would still end up every so often working in bed with the laptop on my chest at night. Not too cool for someone who’s running a digital detox training business, you know, and not helping my productivity much either. My will power muscle isn’t well trained, and for me, the only way not to eat any chocolate is not to buy any chocolate. So I took a radical step and got rid of all tech devices at home, either moving them into my office (they’re productivity tools after all, aren’t they?) or selling them.

Boy, this was much harder than the first step. It was ok not to be connected when I was in the street and when something was happening around, but when all of a sudden I was at home taking the well-deserved rest, my brain instantly started reminding me about 100 things I could be doing online. I felt such an urge to immediately make a correction to my blog post whenever I came home after work, that after a few days of moving my laptop to the office I started taking it back home. I consciously had to stop myself from doing that. Taking into account that I tend to get more things done in the office than at home, I understand that my brain is still struggling to accept the artificial boundary I’ve created between my working and non-working time. However, I keep training it every day, and I see my overall awareness and time management skills slowly improving.

What I’ve learned

In these 6 months of digital detoxing, I’ve learned quite a lot about myself and how my brain works.

Firstly, I realised I was spending a lot more time online than I thought I was. This is quite a typical characteristic, and I start my courses by asking people how much time they think they spend online, and then suggesting to take a test or install an app to track how much time they really are connected. It turns out, on average, we underestimate how much time we’re connected by 2 hours.

Secondly, I felt that the impact of being always on had a much bigger influence on me than I had thought. The moment I took back the control of my agenda and claimed my non-screen time, I started feeling much calmer and more in charge of my life. All it took was to switch off notifications and to not rush to respond to every incoming message or call.

Thirdly, I hate to admit it, but I discovered I am much more addicted than I thought I was. Even in my best days, my fingers automatically opened Facebook when I was supposed to be writing a blog. I had to use all the possible online blocking apps, and offline self-management techniques, including mindfulness, to keep myself on track daily. The moment I feel tired, and am not controlling my online behaviour, I can easily slip into the old pattern.

Fourthly, with the success of digital detox, I inevitably started being more aware of my physical state and my food preferences. Taking control over one area of my life made me start doing exercise on a daily basis (something I could never have made myself do for years), and watch more carefully what I’m eating. I also noticed that on the days when I’m overloaded with internet, I tend to ignore my diet and exercise routine, and so try to make a conscious effort to stick to it. Being conscious in what I do online also made me more conscious about what I do in the real world.

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