How to plan and survive a digital detox

Digital detox

We’re addicted to our phones, overwhelmed with data and struggling to unplug from our devices, while also being terrified of losing them.

We look at them as soon as we wake up, dozens of times during the day, and last thing before we go to bed at night.

Elizabeth Hughes, digital wellness campaigner and executive coach, says: “The more we interact with technology, the less we are present with ourselves and other people, because we are constantly being bombarded by messages and data.”

“The neuroscience shows that it hooks us in with a hit of dopamine and makes it even harder for us to do those things that are really important to us.”

The creator of the Digital Detox Project – a program that helps people develop healthy habits with technology – Hughes has mapped out eight simple steps to plan – and survive – a digital detox.

1. Take a look at your habits

Firstly, notice how you use technology and your habits around it. Observe how often you pick up your phone. Ironically, you can even use an app to track it.

If you’re looking at your phone, note whether you’re using it intentionally, or whether you’ve simply become distracted, Hughes says.

“How am I using it? How often am I using it? And how am I feeling when I'm using it? Do I notice that buzz that I get, or do I notice a real letdown? And then is that really helpful for me?”

“How many times do you check your phone, but you don't action anything?”

2. Work out your priorities

Remind yourself what’s important to you, like interacting with people you love, or getting enough sleep. For instance, if you need to get a good night’s sleep so you can wake up early, think about that if you find yourself scrolling on your phone late at night.

It takes practice, Hughes says. “Notice when you've fallen off track, and bring yourself back.”

3. Be kind to yourself

Devices are designed to keep us hooked, Hughes believes. So if you’re struggling to put the phone down, don’t beat yourself up about being undisciplined, because then you’ll crave the dopamine hit that technology gives you – and the cycle continues.

“Then you stay on the phone because you think, ‘well I can't do this anyway’. And it just makes it worse.”

“Have compassion and kindness for yourself when you're trying to make a behaviour change around technology.”

Remember that you’re working against technology, neuroscience and your physiology, which can all make breaking the digital habit very challenging.

4. Make small, simple changes

There are some small, simple ways you can limit your technology use each day. For instance:

  • Ban phones at the dinner table
  • Turn off all screens half an hour before bed
  • Don’t look at a screen until after you’re ready to leave the house in the morning

“By limiting screen time in the evenings and mornings, you'll give yourself enough of a break for your brain to switch off.”

“If you use your phone too close to going to sleep, you won’t get the quality sleep that you need.”

5. Got young kids? Then set limits

If you have children, it’s all too easy to use an iPhone or iPad game to distract them so you can get things done.

But in the long run, it sets up a bad habit, and often ends in tantrums when you take the device away, Hughes says.

Younger kids need firm boundaries around when technology can be used, she says. Set technology-free times, such as during dinner, and when you’re spending time with family or friends.

Remember that parents are the ultimate role models, Hughes says. Put your phone away and out of reach when you’re with your kids.

Of course, if you don’t have kids, the same applies when you’re with friends and family: put the phone away when you’re together.

6. Help teens develop good habits

If you have teenagers, sit down together and discuss the rules and expectations around phone use, Hughes says.

Work out a reasonable technology time limit per day – and if they expect 10 hours, remind them that experts agree that 2 hours of any screen time each day is the maximum.

For example, your teenager might get 20 minutes a day of screen time after they’ve done any homework or other jobs around the house.

7. Take a weekend off

Weekends are a perfect time to practice weaning ourselves off our heavy reliance on technology.

Firstly, work out what you hope to achieve and what you need to do for it to be a success.

“What are the things that would typically stress you out? Why would you need to have the phone? What are the things - the brain dump - you need to do on Friday night before you park your phone or device for the weekend?”

For example, let family members know that you won’t be as contactable by mobile over the weekend.

If you don’t want to turn off your phone all weekend, you can just turn it on once a day to check if there were any calls or messages.

8. Prune your apps

“Fertilising and pruning your online garden” is another way of limiting digital overload, Hughes says.

“Get rid of all the stuff that comes in on your phone that you don't engage with.

“If you're going to have apps on your phone, have those that you want to engage with, such as groups that you'd be comfortable contributing a written comment, or ones that lead to intelligent conversations outside of the virtual world.”

Elizabeth Hughes is a digital wellness campaigner, creator of the Digital Detox Project and executive coach.

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