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Digital Detox

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If something I want to do has a capital letter Brand Name attached to it – The Atkins Diet, Whole30, CrossFit, Intermittent Fasting – I’m so much less likely to do it and, if I do, even less likely to tell you I did. Maybe I’ll tell you I’m eating more protein and fat, trying to find the source of my allergies, or eating less than usual.

That’s the feeling when I read Dan Clay’s 30 Day Digital Detox plan. See those capital letters? I got a little shiver just typing them out. But Dan’s a really good guy who I’ve worked with on a few web projects and he’s got nothing to sell so I gave the thing a try.

It was, no hyperbole, the second-best thing I did for myself this year (cycling more was the first). Here’s why:

A thought that has always resonated with meis that your life is comprised entirely of what you choose to pay attention to. This detox showed me that my attention was, quite often, somewhere inconsequential. I was not choosing to read short, meaningful content from important thought leaders in my industry, I was absent-mindedly picking up my phone when I was “bored” and scrolling through promotions, jokes, pictures, and links from people I didn’t know in whatever order it was being served. When I read, I wasn’t reading things that expanded my mind or gave me a new perspective, I was reading about people who were doing things I wasn’t, the same old rehashed “crush it with this morning routine” posts, news and opinions that didn’t matter. I wasn’t inspired and I wasn’t motivated, I was mildly depressed and down on myself for not doing more.

Put simply: I wasn’t just losing time, I was actively harming my thought process for the rest of the time that I wasn’t distracting myself. All of this consumption, in the name of doing more and better, was robbing my ability to do just that.

My detox wasn’t about some amazing goal or changing my life forever, it was about getting my focus back, making progress towards things that are important, being more present, and shedding bad habits. It was an incremental step rather than a major milestone. I don’t have a startup I’m building or a book I’m writing or a corporation I’m running but there are so many things on my “make it” list and so many more on my bucket list that are achievable, right now, if I start making meaningful progress.

I’m certainly not the one to tell you whether this is something you’ll benefit from so I’ll just share how I knew it was time for me to try it out:

  • Automatically picking up my phone to check social media or email 20+ times per day, especially at inopportune times (waiting for a light, in the middle of play time, literally as soon as my eyes opened in the morning)
  • Total inability to just space out and think about something unless I was working on it directly
  • Stopping mid-stride in something that required focus to do something meaningless (respond to a non-urgent email, read an article, check a news site)

Here’s how it went:


Our second kid was born a week ago, a beautiful little boy who is still without a name. His birth kicked off a week or so of “paternity leave” (in quotes because I’m self-employed). This time was spent staring at our new addition, deeply connecting with our daughter, and spending quality time with my wife. It was also spent reading and thinking and writing, cooking and entertaining those close to us, and, from time to time, doing an hour or two of work. It’s been fantastic.

Whether or not this is your idea of paradise (it wasn’t mine 5 years ago) is irrelevant. The important thing is that I was able to spend time doing what fulfills me. Even more critical, I was able to determine what is important to me in order to make that choice. This would have been impossible for me to do just 2 months ago.

Why? Because I’ve been on a digital detox, inspired by Dan Clay.

At the beginning of October, after randomly reconnecting with Dan and reading his detox plan, I was struck with a strong urge to give it a try. I was finding myself getting “stuck” in social media more often – mainly Twitter and Instagram – hijacking any focus I had on tasks outside of client work. I’ve also been struggling recently with that familiar “what’s next” feeling about my work and found thinking about it intractable. What was important to me? What were my goals? What did I want to accomplish? It was all a big, loud, swirling mess in my head and as soon as that happened, I was on my phone, scrolling.

Maybe this sounds familiar?

Distraction was a main part of the problem but there was something else going on. I convinced myself that the time I was spending online was important, productive. Hacker News, Reddit, and Medium were keeping me informed, which is vital in an industry that is constantly changing. Twitter and LinkedIn are important sources of new clients so I need to stay plugged in and filling the pipeline. Instagram and Facebook keep me connected with friends and family, which is so tough to do these days with a family of my own. So, during my down time, whether that was playing with my daughter or watching a movie at night or laying in bed, I stayed “productive.”

If I was honest with myself, though, none of these contributed anything important to my life. At most, I’ve found 2 clients in 10 years from social media, I retain very little from the articles I skim, and staying in touch via news feed is laughable.

Going a step further, I believe all of them are harmful in two key ways.

First, these actions easily fill the in-between time where “nothing” is going on, which makes you unplug from what’s around you. This makes you distant to the people you’re with and makes you oblivious to what’s happening right now. I’m not a “phone at the dinner table” guy at all but still, it’s way too easy to pick the phone up and get distracted, especially if I can fool myself that it’s productive. Mindfulness is an elusive but fantastic state to be in.

Worse, though, it hijacks a potentially productive time by providing an effective path away from being focused. Hit a hard problem or a boring task that absolutely needs to be done? It’s easy to lose 15, 30, 60 minutes to the same old digital distractions: checking in, responding to messages, following notifications, updating, reading, etc. Now I’ve lost that time, gained nothing, and still have that task or problem waiting for me. And if I switched out of working on something to do that, I also now have the switching cost coming back.

All of this thinking, though, came after or during the detox. When I started, it just felt like the right thing to do, like it wouldn’t do any harm and might shake up the routine a bit. I’m really good at coming up with potential changes and why but I’m pretty terrible at following through (I’m talking to you, 20 extra pounds). I knew I needed at least a semblance of a plan so I …

  • journaled about it, working through the reasons why I was doing it (I can’t recommend journaling enough)
  • posted a quick image about it on my main networks to publicly commit and hopefully redirect anything important (lol)
  • moved all my distracting apps to a group on the last screen of my phone and turned off almost all notifications
  • came up with a few default actions that I would do if I felt the urge to get distracted (shift around tasks in Trello, journal, read already-saved articles)

And, with that, I started my first 30 day digital detox not knowing how well I would do and what would come out of it. It turned out to be one the best things I’ve done for myself this year and not for the reasons I thought.

First, though, I wanted to speak to a few differences between Dan’s plan and mine.

I allowed podcasts during mine because they really help to get through the cabin-fever fall days with a 3.5 year old, cooking with a glass of wine and a podcast is great, and driving sucks less with someone talking to me. I’m on the fence about this one, though. I’m a huge podcast fan and I typically listen to less current-events-driven content. That said, it’s still a distraction and still feeds the problem with outside influence, which I’ll explain below.

I also allowed text messages. I don’t really see any way out of this for me and I think I’m OK with it. They can be a distraction, true, but only as much as you allow them to be. This is the main way I communicate with a lot of people in my life, for better or worse, so it would be tough not to use it. I’ve been able to turn my phone on silent, face-down behind me while I work so it doesn’t interrupt focus sessions. Another option could be to turn off notifications and just check in twice a day. This one is a work in progress for me.

I still read Hacker News and Reddit. Big mistake. Any and all news should be turned off (especially for a liberal after the election). I also still had newsletters coming in and I think that was a big mistake as well. I don’t subscribe to a lot but the ones that do I really enjoy. For my second time around, I made a list of the ones I turned off so I could go back and decide to subscribe again (or not) after the detox.

Even with the cheating above, the time away from social media and some information sources was both very enjoyable and really informative. For me, the biggest, and most surprising, takeaway by far was how much outside influence was having an effect on me. Let me explain …

A thought that has always resonated with me, and much more so in the last month, is that your life is comprised entirely of what you choose to pay attention to (I read this somewhere but can’t find a good source). This detox showed me that my attention was, quite often, somewhere inconsequential. I was not choosing to read short, meaningful content from important thought leaders in my industry, I was absent-mindedly picking up my phone when I was “bored” and scrolling through promotions, jokes, pictures, and links from people I didn’t know in whatever order it was being served. When I read, I wasn’t reading things that expanded my mind or gave me a new perspective, I was reading about people who were doing things I wasn’t, the same old rehashed “crush it with this morning routine” posts, news and opinions that didn’t matter. I wasn’t inspired and I wasn’t motivated, I was mildly depressed and down on myself for not doing more (this is not uncommon).

Put simply: I wasn’t just losing time, I was actively harming my thought process for the rest of the time that I wasn’t distracting myself. All of this consumption, in the name of doing more and better, was robbing my ability to do just that.

My detox wasn’t about some amazing goal or changing my life forever, it was about getting my focus back, making progress towards things that are important, being more present, and shedding bad habits. It was an incremental step rather than a major milestone. I don’t have a startup I’m building or a book I’m writing or a corporation I’m running but there are so many things on my “make it” list and so many more on my bucket list that are achievable, right now, if I start making meaningful progress.

Maybe this resonates with you. If it did, I highly recommend just giving this a try for a month. The holidays would be a great time to do it too – reconnect with people, focus on what’s important, and disconnect from everything else. This is a very personal journey to take so what works for me might not for you but I found three things that helped me in my first detox:

Re-frame the actions you’re eliminating. Everything I was doing felt productive in some way so part of the key was working through all of these distractions and figuring out, for myself, why they were detrimental:

  • Twitter was just a constant source of distraction and never a source of clients
  • Instagram was a big source of “not good enough”
  • LinkedIn felt like an important place to spend time but it was just me fending off recruiters and scanning updates from people I don’t remember connecting with
  • Medium and Hacker News are a great sources of content but I have learned so precious little despite having read so much there

Journal both when you’re lost and unsure as well as when you’re in the zone and doing great. Though I’ve been journaling regularly for years, this was critical for me during the detox. Unstructured, unpublished writing kept me focused on what I wanted to achieve and mindful about the negativity that started to appear when I wasn’t distracted. This might be my own burden to bear but I’ve found that I use distractions to avoid anxiety, depression, and self-effacement constantly. I realized that before the first detox and felt it strongly during. I needed a way to face these thoughts and feelings because I would be whether I liked it or not. For me, the way to do that was journaling. When I have an anxiety or negative thought, I write it down, exactly what I’m feeling. Then I just feel it, I let it in, I let my heart rate increase and I imagine all the bad stuff that I’m worried about. And then it starts to fade and I go about my day. This is a deeper topic but something to think about if you deal with similar thoughts.

Figure out a default action, especially in the beginning. If you can just kick the distractions and immediately replace them with productive work then, wow, I’m very impressed and please use your powers for good. If not, you’ll need a default for when you feel the urge. I use SelfControl to block web sites, which is helpful, but doesn’t work on a phone. I needed something to do quickly when I picked up my phone and had that familiar “I need a distraction” feeling. I would journal (see above) on Day One (cannot recommend that enough), continue reading an ebook or long form content, take a photo of something, or add something on my mind to Trello.

Good luck to you and if you need a little more motivation, here are few things that helped me to drive home the importance of focus.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – another Dan recommendation, I bought the summary and the whole book and, just a quarter of the way through, I can already see that this was a very important book for me to read, re-read, and disseminate.

Hooked by Nir Eyal – this book is a how-to for creating engaging, addictive experiences. Why would you want to read this? It’s good to understand what you’re up against. I didn’t read this as a way to improve the software I write, I read it as a cautionary tale.

Slipstream Time Hacking by Benjamin J Hardy (PDF) – great free ebook about how to slow time down with focused, hard work and a shift in mindset. Benjamin is a great writer and this is a solid read.

Update: what a perfectly-timed article to find! Cal Newport, author of the excellent book Deep Work, writes in The NY Times about the plague of social media:

The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter.

Great comments on the Hacker News thread as well. Which, admittedly, I shouldn’t be reading!

Replies

Total: 2

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  1. David

    November 20, 2017 at 3:57 pm  •  Reply

    David says:

    Josh, I believe it was the book “The Tyranny Of Email” that first caught my attention to how what was once the siren call of “productivity” became in essence another velvet covered chain. Recently one of the very founders of Facebook himself blurted out that he was concerned but had no idea how his own creation would mess up the minds of kids! That was a startling admission but eye-opening to say the least. I even told the wife that all these “apps” and so-called “social” sites have made people stupid and disconnected from serious thought processes. They sure as hell know how to take selfies and babble incoherently about the latest faux foolishness masquerading as reality but they have very weak skills when it comes to understanding exactly where they are headed. Bernays would be proud.


  2. Rudy Harper

    May 30, 2017 at 10:51 am  •  Reply

    Rudy Harper says:

    Josh,
    This is a piece of salvation for most of us who have been compelled to think that we have a responsibility to respond to any alert, with no attention to context. Our tools own us.

    if one thinks about how important cognitive shifts happen , it becomes apparent that having some intention must be held as to the general direction and depth of those shifts . All shifts are not equal and mostly the ones that come from confronting specific character flaws are the most valuable. This is where “no pain,no gain” makes sense. Checking one’s phone every 30 seconds is an attempt at a cheap fix.

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