Do you get anxious if you accidentally leave your cell phone at home for the day? Are you constantly checking for new messages, emails, or social media updates, even when you are in the restroom? Do you text and drive despite knowing the potentially deadly consequences? Are you staring at a screen for the majority of your day?
There are many studies that show how technology can contribute to high levels of stress, strain on relationships and family, attention deficit disorder symptoms, certain mental disorders, and even health problems including possibly cancer. As much as it may pain you to consider, it could be time for a detox, a voluntary reduction in your use of technology. The more things you’re hooked into, the harder this will be and the more anxiety it will produce. But if conducted in a thoughtful manner, a detox can help you release some of the negative buildup of your technology use and give you the break you need to make better choices going forward.
Here are some steps to help guide you through this process:
1. Plan Your Progress
Technology is so much a part of our lives, you’ll need to be intentional about what you’re going to give up, for what reason, and for how long. This isn’t something you can do haphazardly, or you’ll just end up reverting back to old habits. The key word is intentional. You want to go into this with eyes wide open so you can monitor and respond to your responses and reactions to digital deprivation. Develop a plan, then, and stick to it. This will help you weather the squalls of anxiety that can threaten to overturn your best intentions.
2. Start With a Small Break
You may consider a tech detox as a sort of digital fast or cleanse, and cringe at the concept, thinking you’re going to have to do the cyber equivalent of never having another piece of chocolate while living on tofu and grapefruit. Relax. Those kinds of diets don’t work with food, and I doubt they’d work for technology either. Instead, start with a baby steps.
For example, if you’re going to go see a movie with your family or attend your child's soccer game, leave your cell phone in the car. Give yourself permission to spend a few hours concentrating on just one thing — enjoying the movie or game with your family. If you're the kind of person who needs to review email every 15 minutes, give yourself permission to check it less frequently, say, every hour. Start small and allow yourself to experience incremental victories.
3. Don't Just Reduce or Remove. Replace, Too.
When you decide to stop doing something you enjoy, you create a void. Whatever you were doing filled some sort of need, and ceasing that activity will cause that need to resurface. If you don’t fill that need, that void, with something else, it’s going to feel like an enormous black hole. Be proactive; as you decide what you’re going to reduce, determine something positive, healthy, and uplifting you’re going to replace it with.
Suppose you decide you're going to reduce your amount of Facebook time during the week, from daily to only every other day. On those non-Facebook days, you could arrange to meet in person with a friend and go for a walk or meet for coffee and an old-fashioned conversation. You could walk the dog, or window shop with a family member. You could finally tackle clearing out that extra bedroom or painting the hall. If you’re filling up the time with something good, doing without the digital won’t seem so bad.
4. Clarify Your Goals
Along those same lines, be specific about why you're doing the detox. Write down your goals, and then reduce them to short, memorable phrases you can repeat to yourself when the going gets tough and you’re tempted to Google the latest gossip.
5. Set Clear Rules, and Stick to Them
Decide beforehand what the parameters of your detox are going to be. If you decide not to check work emails from home in the evening, specify the hours you can check them. The more specific the parameters, the less room there will be for cheating. And then, don’t cheat. Just because you made the rules doesn’t mean you get to break them. This is also why it’s important to start small; the fewer the rules, the easier it will be to keep them. Then, as you rack up victories, you can expand your goals. As you gain successes, the first targets will begin to seem natural and less restrictive.
Be sure to determine the consequences ahead of time as well. You don't want to cheat, but at some point you probably will. So when planning your detox, also plan for failure. Decide ahead of time how you’re going to reset when you do take that call during the school play or smuggle your phone into your luggage during a weekend away. Nobody is perfect, and you won’t keep your convictions perfectly, so give yourself a break. Know a side trip is coming, and provide yourself a way back to the straight and narrow.
6. Take Advantage of What You’ve Learned
The goal should not be merely to see how long you can do something, just knowing that you’re just going to dive back in with renewed passion, enthusiasm, and a sigh of relief. One goal of a tech detox should be to learn that you can truly live without it, but that’s not the only goal. You should also strive to use the detox to learn more about yourself and how you interact with technology in all aspects of your being, what I call the whole person: emotionally, relationally, physically, and spiritually. By paying attention to each of these areas during a detox, you can learn how technology is useful to you in each area, and how it can actually be harmful.
7. Take the Next Step
Armed with the knowledge you've gained about yourself and your technology use, establish new long-term boundaries. Knowledge is not enough to modify behavior; you must apply what you’ve learned in order to change patterns. Learning is like growing; if you stop, you atrophy. Take what you’ve learned, keep growing, and keep moving toward a more positive and healthy integration of technology in your life. Technology is always changing, and you need to stay flexible in order to keep up without becoming controlled by it again.
Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of over 26 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz's book Hooked.