Lessons Learned from a (Short) Digital Detox

Audio Edition Coming Soon!

It’s never been more important to live with purpose, on purpose. To live intentionally.

— Colin Wright, The Becoming Tour

I’ve learned that I don’t do “intention” very well. Habit and convenience are extremely powerful and seductive forces. It’s easy to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term pleasures. As someone with an addictive personality who doesn’t handle discomfort well and struggles with self-discipline and depression, I feel pretty susceptible to these temptations. It seems like the bad habits, such eating too much sugar and compulsively checking Facebook, are the ones who gain a foothold. They sneak in and become difficult to dislodge, probably because they appear harmless and require little to no effort.

This year, I took a four-day vacation by myself to the beach. I decided to do a mini-digital detox by wearing a watch instead of keeping my phone with me and spend as much time outside as I could, as long as the weather held. I also planned to spend any rainy hours in a comfortable room continuing to write or read. But things didn’t go quite the way I’d planned. While the view of the ocean from the motel was lovely and the weather remained good, the room I was staying in was… well, not very pleasant. Musty-smelling, moldy, and so saturated with humidity that leaving anything outside a plastic bag meant it would be damp within a few minutes. On top of that, even though the motel technically had wi-fi (which I could get if I sat out on the balcony), I couldn’t get it in the room itself.

I was rather upset and frustrated at first, but I soon realized that this could be a blessing in disguise. A gross room with no wi-fi meant I had to stay outside during 90% of my visit. It forced me to be parsimonious with my time on the internet. If I was going to use it, it had to be for a specific purpose, not just random searching or mindless scrolling. Get on, get off, and save data for the GPS. On the beach, I discovered the joy of wearing a watch. You might wonder what the point of a watch is. I mean, you can just check your phone, right? But opening that phone also opens the temptation to “just check one thing” and before you know it, what was supposed to be a 2-minute check-in turns into a 2-hour deep-dive. A smartphone can do too much. A watch only tells time. That is it’s sole purpose. Using a watch instead of a smartphone and being cut off from the internet meant the number of distractions dropped to near zero. I literally had nothing to do except read, write, walk, and think.

“The Jetty” (Personal photograph; taken Sept. 19, 2018)

How long has it been since you’ve sat down and just thought? Not trying to solve problems or balance obligations, but just free, unstructured thinking? I do usually get some quiet time each day (usually in my rocking chair while covered in cats), but the complete change of locale freed my mind from the usual litany of cares and responsibilities. I could shift freely from thinking to writing to reading and then take a nice, long walk when I started feeling antsy. I could let my mind wander, allow the subconscious to mull over problems with plots and characters, or to just quietly reflect. Watching the ocean is perhaps the most soothing and relaxing experience I can have each year.

While doing all this thinking, I realized that for several months I’ve been filling up my quiet moments with noise. I enjoy listening to podcasts when I’m washing dishes or folding laundry or sweeping the floor. It lets me learn and keeps me moving through my tasks without feeling like I’m “wasting time.” But then I started listening during breakfast. During dinner. Just wandering around the house. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t thinking about writing. I wasn’t researching or prepping or anything. Just floating along with the words under the illusion of “becoming well-rounded and informed.” A friend recently expressed surprise at my listening to podcasts while doing chores, as that time is when they let their imagination flow and mull things over. By filling that up with chatter, I wasn’t giving my subconscious time to chew on something and see if a solution formed. I was too busy shoving new material down its throat. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop listening, as I do enjoy these podcasts, but I must be judicious and intentional about when and why and how long I do it. (My new goal is to listen to only one podcast episode each day during either a single chore or on my commute.)

Like so many things, it’s difficult to know how these insights will be applied to make positive changes. Inertia is hard to overcome, and it’s easy to make lofty goals that are ambitious but impossible to realize. However, I do have the results of my four-day detox for inspiration: 10 pages handwritten over the course of 2 days for 3 different projects. That is four times my normal daily output! If I could keep that up, I’d have a rough draft done within two months rather than a year! (Of course that doesn’t include editing, revising, betas, etc… but we’ll cross that sea when we come to it.)

Have you ever done a digital detox? What did you do and for how long? Was it helpful? What helps you tune out distractions and get down to business? Are there any habits in your life that seem innocent, but have a hidden cost? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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