Have the pings and dings, buzzes and ringtones that emanate from your digital devices become the soundtrack of your life? Living in a 24/7 world that rarely unplugs can take a toll on your mind, your relationships and even your body. That’s why there’s a quietly growing movement toward incorporating a “digital detox”—consciously taking breaks from your electronic devices—to help you improve the way you feel and function, day and night.
Are you up to the challenge? Read this, and you will be.
THE HEALTH BURDEN OF OUR DIGITAL MINDERS
Here’s why it matters: Research tells us that smartphones, tablets, Web-connected car radios and other digital devices (now including smartwatches lashed to our wrists) keep us continually distracted during the day and make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. They can become addictive stressors, interrupting the ability to relax and to think deeply or creatively. “Part of this ‘techno-stress’ is the vigilance of being on guard and having to respond, the continual anxiety of what’s next,” says clinical psychologist Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York City and author of Stress Management for Dummies. “The other element is if you’re tied to a machine, it really consumes you so that you’re on autopilot.” You’re not as present as you might be to the experiences…and the people…in your life.
And it isn’t just mental stress, either. Devices with screens emit a certain type of blue light that works on us biologically, delaying the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, even when you don’t want it to, such as in the hour at night before you go to bed, says Holly Phillips, MD, an internist in New York City and author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough. Plus, using e-devices for long stretches can cause neck stiffness, dry eyes, headache and fatigue.
HOW TO GO ON A DIGITAL DETOX
You can approach your own digital detox as a big deal or a little deal—either way, you will benefit. If you have the time, money and motivation, you can go on a full-core unplugged adventure. A week of unplugged camping can reset your body clock so that you wake up and go to sleep earlier and have less disrupted sleep, one study found. A think tank even took a crew to the Moroccan desert for four unplugged days and found that they stood up straighter, had better eye contact, enjoyed more creative conversations, experienced sharper memory recall—and slept better. It’s not formal scientific work, but it’s suggestive and makes sense. You can even sign up for digital detox camps for adults.
Most of us aren’t motivated to make such radical moves. That’s OK. The good news is that you don’t have to go that far to start to free yourself from electronic captivity. Our experts suggest these much more practical tactics to incorporate digital detoxes into your everyday life…
- Give yourself regular time-outs from technology. Take a complete break from all electronic devices for a period of time (even five to 10 minutes) every two hours so you can get a mental break from digital drain, Dr. Phillips advises. That is, your phone, computer, tablet and all other buzzing pinging devices are turned off.
- Even when your phone and computer are on, it’s wise to schedule set times for checking and answering e-mails during the day (say, at three-to-five-hour intervals) and steer clear in between.
- Turn off the volume. To prevent yourself from reacting every time there’s a ding, ping or buzz, disable most (or all) notification alert sounds on your smartphone. (Do you really need to hear a ping every time you get a new e-mail?) And at times when you’re not inclined to take calls on your smartphone, don’t just ignore it when it rings—instead turn it off or silence it. Why put yourself through the stress of having to hear and consciously ignore the ring?
- Let apps help you disconnect. Download an app that will limit your usage or disable your smartphone for a period of time of your choosing. Examples: Digital Detach (for Android devices, $1.99), Digital Detox (for Android devices, free) or Moment (for Apple devices, free).
- Create a digital sunset. Take an e-mail vacation for at least a few hours after work. And at least an hour before bedtime, power down all your digital gadgets (and anything with a screen), Dr. Phillips advises. Use that time to let your mind and body relax and get in the mood to snooze.
- Try going digital-free one day a week. Make Saturday or Sunday (or another day of your choice) a day of digital rest. That’s the whole nine yards—not checking e-mail, logging onto social media or playing games on your smartphone. Too much for you? Try if for half a day.
- Concerned about being reached in an emergency? “That’s what where the old-fashioned landline phone comes in,” says Dr. Phillips. “For evening or overnight emergencies, I recommend letting family and friends know that they can reach you on the landline, but to reserve ringing it for truly urgent matters.”
What to do during that “down” time? Engage in the here-and-now, and let yourself be fully present in your life. It may feel strange, or even stressful, in its own way at first. But this will soon pass as you feel the burden of digital stress lifted off your shoulders and begin to reclaim yourself. As Dr. Elkin puts it, “Finding times when you can disengage can help you lead a more authentic life.”