From time to time, I do a screen and smartphone detox (I hide my phone, disconnect my router, and keep the TV and laptop turned off the entire time). Usually over a weekend.
Yes, you read that right. No Wi-Fi for the entire weekend. And no screens either. Combined, that means no Netflix.
During one of those connection detox sessions, I was surprised to learn (once Monday rolled around and I went online again) that I had accidentally commemorated the end of the 21st Annual International Screen-Free Week.
That fun coincidence inspired me to do a little bit more research on my approach to spending less time staring at screens, implementing progressive and daily smartphone detoxes, and slowly liberating myself from the silent slavery of permanent connection. And that research led to this article. If you want to really break your smartphone addiction, you should really read this.
International Screen-Free Week is an annual event that started in 1994 under the name TV-Turnoff (remember back when TV was the only thing keeping us from being productive?) and how it works is simple:
You spend an entire weekend replacing digital entertainment (all the downtime you fill up with phones, tablets, computers, and televisions—if it’s for work or actually making a phone call, it doesn’t count) with screen-free leisure activities.
And what are those? Reading, playing, thinking, drawing, creating, writing, moving, spending quality time with family and friends, and whatever else you come up with as long as you’re not staring into a screen.
From Leisure to Takeover
In the past, the television had the greatest power to stupefy us and take over our free time. It’s still present—even more so if we count Netflix—but the new enemy doesn’t just limit itself to taking over leisure time. Instead it seeps into every nook and cranny of time we have throughout our day: it’s the permanent connection syndrome.
Putting the internet on phones has made our lives much easier when it comes to countless chores, but it also enslaves us more than ever.
Now we have a new fear, a fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important because we aren’t connected. According to one study, 30% of those aged 13 to 34 already suffer from it.
Every instant of our day has been colonized by its notifications, messages, rings, and vibrations.
We give up trying to remember things and type them into our phones instead. Or we just shrug and tell ourselves we can google it if we need to (I’m so guilty of this).
We don’t worry about figuring out where we are; we just let our notifications and our phone-checking habits lead us. We pay more attention to whatever message just popped up on our screen than to the person talking right in front of us.
And that’s an important point. Being continuously connected to the web is not only making us stupider and lazier by reducing the size of our brains (yes, really–according to the research of Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford).
It’s also changing the way we interact with others, mingle at social events, and even manage our emotions.
I realize that a lot of us need to stay connected because of work. And I’m saying all this knowing that this technology has allowed me to provide a service to more than 250,000 users all over the world, work with a remote company distributed worldwide, and even spread these words to you right now, wherever you are. We are truly living in an spectacular era.
But when we read our emails and messages before even getting out of bed in the morning, when each vibration or sound instinctively makes us grab our phones, when we can’t resist the temptation to look at social media updates when we’re supposed to be working, when we use TV commercials or the eventual Wi-Fi drop while watching Netflix as an opportunity to quickly check our phones, when we prefer to play with our phones or read that new article instead of enjoying the company of our kids and other flesh and blood human beings… there’s something utterly wrong.
In the Blacksmith’s House
Being a computer geek myself and, on top of that, the founder of a social media website, I know the problem from the inside.
Apart from having been addicted to consuming information, I’ve been an addict (and still am in a way) of those damn notifications–of looking at my email every five minutes, of going on Facebook just to kill time, of looking at my phone when I’m stopped at a red light, and goodness gracious I’ve even committed the sin of reaching for my phone in the presence of other human beings when I feel the slightest twinge of boredom (but I’m sure that you have never ever done this). Even worse, there are moments of the day when it’s easy for me to hide myself in my smartphone rather than be present with Noah, my one-and-a-half-year-old son.
But what worries me most is that if I have succumbed to the permanent connection syndrome, to the insanity of Pavlovian responses to every social media notification, to the crippling fear of being out of the loop for even a second… then what is it doing to the new generation?
The other day, my wife was telling me that she was at the park with Noah and a group of kids around 6 years of age were talking about how many followers each of them has on their Youtube channel.
And I’m not the only one who’s concerned.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and the creator of so many of those devices that we’ve become addicted to, didn’t let his children use iPads in the house.
Many of the CEO’s of tech companies in Silicon Valley enroll their children in Waldorf and Montessori schools, where computers and other electronic devices are banned from the classroom in favor of experiential and social learning. They also typically maintain very strict policies about the use of smartphones and social media at home (so much so that their children refer to being under the rule of the “technological taliban”):
“My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” says Chris Anderson, former editor of WIRED, founder and CEO of 3d Robotics and father of five. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
Given what’s at stake, it’s important to arm ourselves with a few simple strategies for managing not only our smartphone use but our connection to the web in general. As much for the kids as for the adults.
7 Simple Detox Strategies
1. Don’t Carry Your Phone Everywhere
The simplest and most obvious strategy is also the most effective. If you don’t want to feel like a slave to your phone, don’t keep it with you all the time. Start small and move from there. Leave it on the coffee table when you go to another room, put it in a drawer or in a backpack or purse—and, importantly, switch it to silent and turn off the vibrations.
You’ll be surprised at how little you miss it and that you even forget about it.
It also won’t hurt not to keep a source of radiation next to your body 24/7.
2. Turn Off Notifications (or Sounds or Vibrations) for All Apps
I don’t like being trained like a dog to pick up my phone each time it goes off, so any time I download a new app I make sure to turn off any sound or vibration it will make. I’ve disabled all push notifications for apps like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Instagram.
Don’t worry, you won’t miss anything important. If you think you will, it’s just the FOMO talking.
If that seems too extreme and you want to take smaller steps instead, you could turn off notifications for the most bothersome apps. Facebook, Whatsapp, and Messenger, for example, generate a lot of activity on your phone. Quieting those down, maybe along with your email, will make a huge difference.
3. Use “Do Not Disturb” and “Airplane” Modes More Often
When you’re eating, working, training, meditating—any time you want to concentrate— and have your phone with you, turn the Airplane mode on.
Don’t worry about incoming calls. You can return them as soon as you reconnect.
And if it’s an emergency—I mean a real emergency—you’ll always end up finding out some other way.
4. Don’t Sleep Near Your Phone
Try keeping your phone in the living room at night, or somewhere equally far from your bed. That way, looking at your phone won’t be the last thing you do before falling asleep or the first thing you do after waking up.
5. Disconnect the Internet at Night
You don’t need have Wi-Fi signals swarming your house when you should be resting, so turn off your router at night. Or better yet, program it so that it turns itself off at a certain hour.
6. Schedule Time for Attending to Important Things Online
“At such and such time, I’ll check all my new messages and emails and I’ll answer them, too.”
Remember, you don’t have notifications. So you can deal with your emails and messages when it’s good for you, not whenever they happen to pop up.
You can do it mid-morning and mid-afternoon if you want. Also, be sure to set a time limit so you don’t end up using it as an excuse to use it more than you should.
7. Schedule Time for All the Other Stuff
“At such and such time, I’ll check Facebook, Instagram, and VisualizeUs to see if anything cool or interesting has been posted.”
Once again, set a time limit. Don’t let this scheduled time turn into an excuse to waste your whole day bowing to social media.
Detaching From Our Screens and Connecting to the Present
This year’s International Screen-Free Week has already gone by. But you don’t have to wait until next year to put some of these strategies into practice so you can spend less time staring at screens and more time enjoying the present.
Start by applying just one single strategy. Pick whichever one seems simplest to you, just make sure you do it consistently.
You’ll see results in no time at all.
It’s time to detach from your phone and reconnect with your life.
Let me know what single strategy you’ll be applying and how.