Your brain on a device detox: What it feels like and why you need one in 2021

As the head of Microsoft, Bill Gates used to spend a solo “Think Week” by himself in a cabin somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

No friends.

No family.

No distractions.

Gates would use the week to read papers and ideas written by Microsoft employees or learn more about potential investments. This practice led him to write the famous “Internet Tidal Wave” paper, masterfully changing the course of Microsoft’s history. It’s where he laid out Microsoft’s Tablet PC and was the first step towards launching Microsoft Explorer in 1995. 

Last year I decided to one-up the billionaire philanthropist and spend a weekend in the Virginia woods without technology––no phone, laptop, or TV. I’d come to a personal and professional crossroads, feeling the weight of my career amplified by social media. I needed some time away from people and devices to do something I hadn’t tried in years: sit alone and think. 

The only words I can use to describe the experience are “life-changing.” No self-help article or micro-bullet journal will replace the feeling of true detachment. I rented an Airbnb twenty-five minutes away from the nearest town, surrounded by running creeks and sprawling forest.

If you’re someone who always thought about spending some time alone in nature without tech, I’m living proof that you can do it. I went from working one hundred miles per hour down to zero in a matter of hours, and the clarity I brought back with me supplemented better decision-making, productivity, and creativity for months. 

Now, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The first eight hours were actually pretty rough. As a part-time writer, a slice of my income relies on volume. Going several days without writing initially made me feel like I was falling behind. But that’s exactly why I needed a detox. I also remember experiencing significant notification FOMO despite knowing I had a clear schedule.

Another positive benefit was the ability to singularly focus on one thing at a time. Without a way to be reached, I didn’t have to think about answering anyone––which is honestly half the battle sometimes.

Even if I’m working out or having a conversation, I have a tendency to start writing emails, articles, and Tweets in my head.

Being alone for 48 hours allowed my brain to slow down and relearn how to process a single thought instead of trying to think one step ahead. As the hours went by, time slowed down. I went on a nature walk, cooked dinner, read on the balcony, and did plenty of reflective journaling. 

Despite the small sample size, I will be doing a digital detox again. Even if you can’t go on a small trip, try doing it for a weekend from the comfort of your home. See how much self-discipline you have and resist the urge to connect. Until then, here are three things I learned during my digital detox to implement right now:

1. Set rules for how people reach you

Our lives have literally become wired to the point where an hour alone without technology feels…strange. 

As Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus wrote, “Our smartphones provide an endless stream of bite-sized, delicious information for our brains to consume. It’s easy to get hooked, even to feel addicted. And most of us would prefer not to feel this way.”

Part of our addiction comes down to accessibility. You don’t need to be connected through email, texting, Instagram DM’s, Facebook Messenger, Slack, and GroupMe. Pick two core methods of communication and ignore the rest.

After my “device detox” I went from five active emails to two and set strict times for when people can reach me during the workday. I realized most of the content and notifications I consumed every hour was meaningless garbage.

2. Make bad phone habits more complicated

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about increasing the steps it takes to indulge a bad habit: “The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger.

Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”

I used to work with my phone out on the desk. Anytime someone sent me a Tweet or a text, it would buzz and I’d be tempted to pick it up. To reverse this habit, I now leave my phone in a drawer in another room. If I feel an urge to use it, I have to bypass several physical barriers to indulge the bad habit. 

Discipline is a decision. Help yourself make the right one.

3. Manipulate your phone settings

The best decision I made in 2020 was to put time limits on my social media apps. I’ve always been on the lower end of social media usage––but my love of sports highlights and rumors makes YouTube dangerous. Daily thirty minute caps on time wasting applications will make your bad habits more obvious and easier to break. 

Another helpful tip is to reconfigure your phone to optimize productivity. I turn notifications on every app off during the day and categorize my home screen to prevent scrolling. Currently, my phone has sixteen folders, each serving a different purpose. Like you would clean out a closet or refrigerator, I go through every couple of weeks and delete unnecessary apps. 

Social media’s impact on our mental health has been widely covered. But I think this explanation from Jacqueline Nesi, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, drives home an important point we forget to talk about: “Social media can be a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, but excessively using social media—at the expense of in-person interactions with friends or family—can negatively impact relationships and well-being.”

Remember, a device isn’t just hurting your wellbeing. It’s negatively impacting those around you. 

4. Do not disturb

Obviously, we can’t be expected to go completely off the grid. Digital minimalism, or application of the minimalist philosophy to the role of technology in our lives, is my ultimate goal.

To drive this point home, I’ll leave you with an epic quote from author Ryan Holiday: “Because it’s my life and it’s ticking away every second. I want to be there for it, not staring at a screen.” If that doesn’t change your mind, I don’t know what will.