Digital detox: How to stop wasting time on the internet

Rediscover what you used to enjoy. Engage in the activities you “never have time for.” Fill the digital void.

We all waste a lot of time on the internet these days. And due to mobile devices, we do it everywhere, not just at home.

(In fact, right now there is enormous pressure on moi to make sure you feel reading this is productive and not just more time-wasting on the internet. Yeesh.)

So how do we address … Oh, dear me, I almost forgot to include the obligatory scary statistics that are essential when talking about how technology is ruining our lives. Alrighty, better check that box…

Holly Shakya of UCSD and Nicholas Christakis of Yale did a study of over 5200 people titled, “Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study.”

And, boy, that title is quite the time-saver as far as my job is concerned, lemme tell ya:

Our results show that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.

By the way, that research wasn’t published in the “Fancy Pants Journal of Happiness” or the “The Review of Ivory Tower Digital Studies” Nah. It was approved and published by “The American Journal of Epidemiology.” Yes, that’s the study of disease.

Email, texting, Netflix, Xbox, 64 flavors of social media … The screens have declared victory. We’ve got an iPhone in one hand and we’re waving a white flag with the other.

And for those who grew up in a screen-dominated world, it’s even worse. Teens spend an average of nine hours a day consuming media. And their rates of depression and suicide have skyrocketed. I’d love to tell you those things are totally unconnected but SDSU psychology professor Jean Twenge says, “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

What do we do?

Cal Newport wants to start a revolution. He calls it “Digital Minimalism.” Put the baseball bat down; we’re not going neo-luddite and smashing the machines. We want to control how we use tech — so it doesn’t control us.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people engage with these tools.

And Cal’s the right guy to guide us out of this mess. Not only is he a bestselling author — but did I mention he’s also a professor of computer science at Georgetown? He’s the furthest things from a technophobe and knows a lot more about our digital world than you or I do.

His upcoming book is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

Let’s get to it …

The digital minimalism manifesto

Screen time has become the default. And that’s a problem. Waiting in line? Look at your phone. Sitting on the toilet? Look at your phone. Friend said three words that weren’t fascinating? Look at your phone.

You don’t pick up a hammer unless there’s a nail around. It has a specific purpose. But we don’t see our digital tools like that. Cal says we need to.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time in a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

Our devices provide plenty of benefits. But we’re often really bad about balancing that with the costs in an optimal way. Social media can make us happy, but face-to-face time makes us happier and one usually comes at the expense of the other. But social media is more convenient. So we don’t make the best choice; we make the easy choice.

These technologies took hold pretty suddenly. Most of us haven’t taken the time to decide what place they have in our lives so they don’t take over our lives. That’s addiction.

We want to be more deliberate and intentional about our technology use. No nail? Don’t pick up the hammer. But you reflexively pick up your phone the second the movie of your life feels like it’s scoring less than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value – not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: they’re comfortable missing out on everything else.

We don’t need to toss our phones but we do need to perform some cost-benefit analysis and decide what works and what doesn’t. Henry David Thoreau put it best over 150 years ago.

From Walden:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

In the moment, we think our overuse of tech comes at no cost. But then we wonder where Sunday went. Why we always feel like there’s not enough time. And why we haven’t seen certain friends face-to-face in six months.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

So how do we start making changes? We’re going to rehab, pal. No, you’re not checking into a facility — but I hope you like the taste of cold turkey …

The 30-day “digital declutter”

You’re going to take a 30-day break from optional technologies. (Yes, really. This has been done before by a large number of people and surprisingly few of them died from it.)

During the 30 days you’re going to rediscover the things that bring you joy which don’t involve a screen. The things that made you a human instead of a well-trained click monkey.

After the month ends you’re going to re-introduce only those technologies that have a net-positive effect on your life. And you’ll do it in an intentional way with a specified use plan that maximizes your life, not your time online.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

Much like decluttering your house, this lifestyle experiment provides a reset for your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized, in proper minimalist fashion, to support your values instead of subverting them.

And this isn’t some theoretical idea. Cal actually ran this experiment with his mailing list before writing the book. When he first launched “OPERATION: DIGITAL DECLUTTER” he expected 40-50 people to participate. He was wrong …

1,600 did. So you are not alone.

What’s the first step? Defining what “optional technology” means to you so you’re clear on what is no longer kosher for the month.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

… consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

In other words, default to “verboten” unless there’s a really good reason. Nobody’s saying you have to ditch your work email, your microwave, or your electric toothbrush. But Facebook, Instagram and video games are out. Delete all not-mission-critical apps from your phone.

Sure, some technologies are largely optional but have “critical use cases.” Personal email, texting, etc. These need “operating procedures.” Set time limits or create filters so only messages from important people get through.

And everything else digitally tempting that cannot be outright banned gets rules. Maybe you do watch Netflix, but only socially, never alone for the 30 days. Maybe you listen to podcasts, but only on your commute. If you find yourself debating how to handle something, ask a smart friend to make the judgment call.

(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)

Okay, all your digital drugs have been flushed down the toilet and you’re going to stay clean for 30 days. … But now what the heck do you do with your time?

Detox + high-quality leisure

30 days. Mark it on the calendar. Believe it or not, there was a time before smartphones and the internet, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And people were happy. Probably happier than you are now.

The goal of the next 30 days is not merely to suffer. You want to reset. To break bad habits, realize what is important, and rediscover all those things you enjoy that never scream LOW BATTERY.

Don’t just treat this as merely a detox. Much like dieting, if you eat healthy for 30 days but then go back to your old ways, you’ll just gain the weight back. You need to fill the digital void with some new, more rewarding activities.

Screens aside, what do you enjoy? What do you miss? What have you been meaning to do?

Reading books. Starting a hobby. Exercising. Learning to cook. Hiking. Seeing friends. Playing sports. Being the parent at the playground who is actually looking at their kids instead of their phone.

What have people mentioned to you in the past few years that you replied to with, “That would be great but I don’t have the time”?

Well, like it or not, you’ve got more time now, Bubba.

Cal recommends setting a goal for the month. Maybe pick the songs you’re going to learn on the guitar and have a party at the end of the 30 days where you will play them for friends. That gives you a plan and a deadline. … And the threat of embarrassment if you don’t follow through.

(To learn 5 secrets from neuroscience that will increase your attention span, click here.)

Okay, the 30 days are over. You’re leaving rehab. But how do you make the transition without returning to your bad habits? Well, we’re gonna get some help from the most unlikely of places …

Managing technology (courtesy of the Amish)

“But the Amish don’t use technology.”

Wrong.

The Amish use tractors but not cars. Many have electricity but it’s not connected to the municipal grid. And while personal phones are prohibited, many towns have a community phone booth.

What’s the deal? How do they draw the line? It comes down to values.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with repect to these values.

Tractors help them feed their family. Approved. Cars mean people drive to other towns instead of spending time with friends in the community. Banned.

You just did 30 days hard time. So what tech really makes life better? What has far more upside than downside? What was more time-saver than time-waster? You have a blank slate. What should be welcome back in your neo-Amish lifestyle? Cal offers 3 rules:

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:
1) Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough)
2) Be the best use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better)
3) Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

Yes, you’re still gonna do some aimless web-surfing and Netflix bingeing from time to time. We’re not going to be unrealistic here. But how do you manage that going forward?

The calendar and the clock are your friends.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.

(To get Cal’s tips on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

Sounds good but the phone is always there tempting you. It buzzes and rings and calls to you, literally. How do we handle it?

“Do not disturb” is the new default

Your smartphone has a “do not disturb” setting. Just leave it on by default. Or you can schedule when it will automatically turn on and off. And, yes, you can designate certain numbers and texts that always get through. Play with the settings until you find a balance that works for you.

And you want to respond to texts in batches. Designated periods of time where you respond to everything rather than an incessant back and forth that pretty much eliminates your ability to concentrate.

And if you’re really feeling bold, try leaving your phone in the glove compartment of your car when you drive somewhere. You can go get it if you really need it, but you’ll be much more likely to pay attention to the friends you’re with or to turn to that book you were smart enough to bring.

And what about other devices? We discussed how the general purpose nature of digital tools can be problematic. So to restrain your impulses Cal recommends turning your general purpose devices into single purpose devices. The Netflix app and social media are only on your iPad. There’s nothing but work stuff on the desktop. Texting notifications only show up on your phone.

This allows you to put certain devices away and focus on one thing at a time.

(To learn Cal’s tips on the best way to manage your time, click here.)

Okay, you’ve graduated rehab and joined the Neo-Amish. Let’s round it all up and answer the big question people always ask: “If I’m spending dramatically less time texting, emailing and using social media, isn’t that going to hurt my relationships?”

Sum up

This is how to stop wasting time on the internet:

  • The 30-Day Digital Declutter: Designate optional technology, build rules around the non-optional, and then go cold turkey for a month.
  • Detox and high quality leisure: Rediscover what you used to enjoy. Engage in the activities you “never have time for.” Fill the digital void.
  • Managing technology (courtesy of the Amish): Think about what’s important to you and only re-introduce tech that best addresses those things. Weigh benefits and costs.
  • “Do not disturb” is the new default: No notifications unless they will stop you from getting fired or prevent a child from drowning. Texting in batches. Make devices single purpose.

So if you make these changes, won’t that mean fewer connections with people? Will you be cutting yourself off from the world — all too much like The Amish do?

No doubt you’ll reduce the amount of low quality interactions you have. But if you just make a few tweaks, you can trade shallow connections for deep conversations and improve your important relationships.

Cal recommends having “office hours” much like a college professor might. Designate set times on set days during which you’re always available to talk. Cal learned this from a friend who established 5:30PM on weekdays as his office hours. It’s no accident that’s when he’s stuck in traffic commuting.

This not only spares him from constant texting and emailing, it actually deepens his important relationships.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

The logistical simplicity of this system enables this executive to easily shift time-consuming, low-quality connections into higher-quality conversation. If you write him with a somewhat complicated question, he can reply, “I’d love to get into that. Call me at 5:30 any day you want.”

But that still leaves the problem of less time on social media and friends who might get upset that you’re not “liking” all the pictures of their new baby. Again, we want to trade frequent shallow connection for less frequent but more meaningful conversation.

From Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

One person I mentioned this strategy to, for example, expressed concern that if she didn’t leave a comment on a friend’s latest baby picture, it would be noted as a callous omission. If the friendship is important, however, let the concern about this reaction motivate you to invest the time required to set up a real conversation. Actually visiting the new mom will return significantly more value to both of you than adding a short “aww!” to a perfunctory scroll of comments… You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emjois can provide.

Visit. Pick up the phone. Send a hand-written card. Those are the things that touch us. Don’t be the digital ghost. Be the real friend who reaches out.

“Liking” is something we should do with people, not with buttons.

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This article first appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

Eric Barker|is the author of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong." He is also the author of the website by the same name.