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If a Device is Your Vice: The 7-Day Digital Detox Challenge

When you think of mindful moments, you probably don’t recall a time when you were staring at your smartphone. “Spending a lot of time attached to your device tends to make mindfulness more difficult to cultivate,” says Cameron Gordon, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In order to bring more mindfulness to your life, you may have to step back from the digital devices that are separating you from the here and now. 

A good first step in this process is to take an honest look at your current relationship with your smartphone or other digital device. Do you check it constantly? Do you panic when it’s out of reach? Do you use it to soothe yourself during downtimes? If so, you could be on your way to an addictive process, says Alexander Bingham, PhD, clinical psychologist in New York City. 

“Any behavior can become addictive if you use it to avoid or manage situations or feelings that make you feel uncomfortable,” Dr. Bingham says. No matter what your vice (or device), if you are unable to resist the compulsion to behave in a certain way—to check a smartphone, for example–you are addicted to the behavior, he says.  As such, for some people, a “digital detox” is in order.

Consistent with the thinking in psychology that small and sustainable change leads to greater likelihood of long-term success, the 7-Day Digital Detox takes a gradual rather than a cold turkey approach. On it, you will unplug for increasingly more consecutive minutes or hours each day and fill that time with more enriching activities. The detox is cumulative, with each day’s challenge building on the challenges of the days before.

At the start of the detox, you may want to get a baseline reading of how much time you spend on your device, as well as how you spend it.  There are several apps available to help and many Apple products will track your time. Some of these tools have timers and blocks for certain apps, that you can use to help maintain a healthier schedule once your detox is done.

Also keep in mind that the digital detox is just one strategy for disconnecting. “If a ‘detox’ feels like a battle from the moment you put your phone down, reframe the experience as ‘an invitation to spend seven days getting in touch’ with yourself, your surroundings, your loved ones, whatever you wish to be in better contact with,” Dr. Gordon says. “Experiment with this knowing that if it doesn’t work, you can try another approach.”

And if you still find yourself struggling with attachment to digital devices at the end of your detox, consider consulting a therapist experienced working with compulsions and addictions, Dr. Bingham says.

Here is The 7-Day Digital Detox Challenge:

Before you start: Before you dive into your detox, let your friends and co-workers know you plan to take a digital break, so they don’t expect an instant reply to an email, text, or FaceTime calls.  Maybe enlist a few friends, co-workers, or family members to join you in your 7-day digital fast. With the support of likeminded people, you will be more motivated to succeed. Plus, you’ll add a little healthy competition to the mix, as well as some extra accountability.

Day 1: Embrace the opportunities. Reflect on all the time you will have for more fulfilling activities, such as exercise, quality time with friends, reading, a nature walk, or a yoga class. Make a list of the things you want to do with your device-free time. On this kick-off day, mentally prepare yourself to reduce screen time by a certain number of hours each day, adding more time as the week goes on. Device-free time today: One hour. 

Day 2: Ramp up resistance to temptation. Today, challenge yourself to separate from your phone for a more extended period of time. Do whatever is necessary to separate from it. Put it in your closet, leave it at home while you run errands, or simply turn it off. Device-free time today: Two hours.

Day 3: Set your phone to silent. Set your phone to silent mode, and you’ll be the one in control of when you check it, rather than being a slave to its jingles and dings. Turn off all notifications (even vibrate). Device-free time today: Three hours.

Day 4: Designate device-free zones. By designating certain areas of your home as technology-free, you will connect better with family members and set yourself up for a more restful night of sleep. On this day, eat all your meals without your device in hand, and keep all technology out of your bedroom and any other rooms you choose. Device-free time today: Four hours.

Day 5: Say goodbye to social media. A recent study found a link between social media use and anxiety, depression, loneliness, addiction, and ADHD. So, in the name of your mental health, make today and the rest of your detox social media-free. Time without devices today: Five hours.

Day 6: Delete time-sucking apps. Today, start to purge other apps that distract you from productive and fulfilling activities in your life. To start the day, sit down and think about the apps on which you spend the most time. Do you play games? Check the news periodically throughout the day? Watch silly videos?  Choose your favorites, then hold down and delete. Device-free time today: Six hours.

Day 7: Go on a full-day fast. This is the grand finale of your digital detox challenge—a full 7 to 24 consecutive hours device-free. Try to schedule the finale on a weekend, and if you can, go to a place with little to no cell phone reception, so you won’t be tempted to give in. Plan a day at a spa or retreat center, visit a national park, or take a day trip to visit a friend and leave your phone at home. At the end of this seventh day, give yourself a pat on the back—you made it!

At the end of your detox, reflect on the lessons you learned. It’s probably not realistic for you to abandon your smartphone or other device altogether, but you can reflect on some of the above tactics that worked for you and be more mindful about how you are using it—and how it may be interfering with your mindfulness overall. “Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and curious,” Dr. Gordon says. There are still ways to be mindfully engaged in life while still enjoying the modern conveniences our digital devices bring.

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