Tried And Tested: What A Three-Week Digital Detox Course Taught Me About My Technology Addiction

An average person checks their phone 221 times a day and spends 36 days a year writing emails.

That's one nugget of information I learned during a three-week digital detox course in a bid to make my phone addiction healthier.

I signed up because I had digital guilt. I was online when I was on the phone to my mum, on my phone when I was watching TV and on my laptop while I was watching a programme on my iPad. It frustrated me, but I still did it.

Something had to be done.

I enlisted the help of digital detox coach Anastasia Dedyukhina; she's the founder Consciously Digital, an organisation to help individuals address their productivity when it comes to using too much technology.

Dedyukhina herself decided to take a major digital detox this year and now she's trying to teach others what she learned.

During our first phone chat, she asked me why I went online (usually when I was bored), how I felt about it (it annoyed me) and how I used it positively, to which I wasn't sure any of it was positive.

Anastasia Dedyukhina

The three-week digital course followed a similar format each week: a phone or Skype call, a webinar to watch online and a challenge to complete.

The course started with an initial conversation about my digital habits and why I felt I wanted to detox. They included:

  • My desire to spend an hour on my phone before bed aimlessly scrolling through Twitter
  • Constant emails coming through to my phone that I always felt I had to read
  • Being on my phone when in the company of other people
  • Ridiculous digital multitasking - I would be on my phone, while watching TV with my laptop on.

The first thing Dedyukhina said was millennials shouldn't feel bad about our use of technology because it's something we've grown up with.

"So what if you love Twitter? I personally think technology is amazing. I use it for my business. It's like, you can have a cake, but you can't always eat it all. You need a balance." she told me.

Aha. So it didn't mean turning off tech altogether but creating better habits around it.

During the initial chat, Dedyukhina and I got on to the topic of distractions.

In fact, while I was on the phone to her I was also trying to find a birthday present for my sister. My laptop was on my lap and midway through the conversation I realised I hadn't bought her a present yet.

Dedyukhina initially sent over a test to estimate how much time we spend online. My estimate was 465 minutes a day. A DAY. People usually estimate two hours less, I was told. I estimated three hours less, and it freaked me out.

She then sent over a webinar. It was a powerpoint presentation with her voiceover and lasted around one hour.

"Multitasking and having tabs open is our need to always think straight away. They overload our working memory and divide our attention.

"But multitasking makes us exhausted and tired when we switch between these tabs and it doesn't process the information well."

The webinar discussed a few practical tips that resonated well with me: turning your phone notifications off, having controlled distraction time and not going online when you are tired (which is what I did every night).

"When you’re tired the part of brain responsible for controlling behaviour becomes weaker and it won't perform well. It's easy to be online for hours."

I came to two conclusions: I went on my phone/iPad/laptop out of boredom and habit. Those were my triggers.

What did I do?

1. I turned off my notifications on my phone for all apps apart from Facebook Messenger - this included Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp groups, YouTube uploads and MapMy Run.

2. I also deleted apps that I used to aimlessly browse when I was bored: Groupon, eBay, Vouchercodes, Linkedin.

3. I vowed to not take my laptop into the living room if I was actually watching TV,

It seemed manageable.

What happened?

The inevitable happened, I looked at my phone less. This was because of the obvious reason that it wasn't flashing on and off, telling me someone liked an Instagram photo or wanted to connect on LinkedIn.

I found work easier without my phone distracting me, as well as at home with my housemates without it buzzing on the coffee table for something pointless. Before, I would always pick it up no matter what the notification was.

I didn't miss the apps I deleted at all. When I had time to check Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it was then I'd be able to read any necessary notifications.

It got rid of the nagging feeling of not concentrating when I made the decision to focus on one thing at a time (TV, phone, laptop).

However, I still succumbed to hours on my phone at night when I was tired and the need to always have my phone near me.

Email is the bane of my life. Not just work emails, but personal emails on different accounts that are all connected to my phone. I get at least three an hour on my personal accounts and a lot more at work.

The webinar taught me people apparently 1,700 pointless emails are sent a year and 28% of our working time is spent on emails.

"They're used too much instead of other communication," Dedyukhina said. "You should work to reduce the number of emails you receive, filter the remaining and learn to write them better."

The webinar gave examples of programmes that help you do this. for example will unsubscribe your email from unwanted email subscriptions, discover new ones and organise them all in one place. It's free and very quick.

Filters, which can be used by subject, sender, keywords and time, will keep your mailbox in check. Dedyukhina suggested spending a set amount of time per day to check emails - filter, reply or delete, and give a set time for this.

Writing a "good email" has a clear subject line, clear purpose and won't warrant loads of back and forth. It should be short and to the point.

What did I do?

Work emails was probably the biggest burden.

1. I began checking my emails before I got to work (while I was already on my laptop in the morning, or the nght before) to sort through them making it easier when I got to work in the morning. This was my dedicated time to declutter my inbox.

2. I set up an "emails to reply to" folder. I always have a constant nagging feeling that I am forgetting to reply to someone, so if that folder was empty, that feeling would (hopefully) go away.

3. I also set up filters to prioritise emails I knew I had to read, and gave myself time just after lunch to sort them all out. The feeling of having an inbox at 0 is incredibly liberating.

4. My personal email accounts were a secondary problem. I can leave my phone for four hours in the morning and get to it and have 25 emails: MyWaitrose, TFL, Linkedin, Photobucket. I used to unsubscribe from emails I always delete, as well as manually doing it as well. I asked to be taken off mailing lists and deleted all others that were irrelevant.

What happened?

Workwise, it gave me a completely fresh mind when coming in at 9am. I knew I wouldn't be faced with tonnes of emails because I had taken the time before I got in to sort them.

It also got rid of that nagging feeling that there was always someone to reply to, because I gave myself a system. Going through a load of emails once during the day took barely 15 minutes, but meant there wasn't a build-up of emails to reply to that would stress me out.

With my personal emails, it gave me less of a reason to check my phone and open unwanted emails because hey presto, they weren't there.

Dedyukhina was chuffed will my email updates on our catch-up call. The final webinar she sent me was about a general digital control strategy.

She asked me what I felt I wanted to do for my last week instead of directing me and I really wanted to tackle the habit of being on my phone for hours at night and stop going on Twitter. I wanted to find a way to stop using my phone as a tool for boredom or continuously go on it when it was in my hard.

Our digital control strategy consists of four points: 1. motivation 2. learn about triggers 3. put boundaries in place and 4. controlled distraction time.

I needed to put boundaries in place to get rid of that Twitter addiction, and give myself time to do it without feeling guilty.

"Choose when you are "on" and have one long session rather than five short ones," Dedyukhina said.

What did I do?

1. Telling myself to not go on my phone every night was not manageable. I gave myself two nights a week where I wouldn't go on my phone before bed. I wanted to read more, but complained to myself I had "no time" to do it.

2. I didn't open or go on my laptop after 9pm (and put it away in a drawer with advice from Dedyukhina).

3. I turned my phone on airplane mode when out on the weekend - I always wanted it to take photos, but that meant getting my phone out, which made me check it, which made me ignore the people I was with.

What happened?

Not going on my phone and reading any book I could find didn't really work, so I splashed out on a book I'd wanted for a while (The Happiness Project). When you have a book you can't put down, it's pretty easy to forget about your Twitter feed.

On the weekend with my boyfriend, who I only get to see on a Sunday, I turned my phone on airplane mode so I could still take pictures but not get distracted by the Whatsapp group conversations and iMessages coming through.

Surprisingly a great thing to do.

I found in social situations, the less I was on my phone, the less other people were too. If my phone was on the table and I picked it up, other people would do similar things. If it was in my bag and not really brought out, nor was theirs. Funny, that.

On our final call, Dedyukhina said I seemed much more positive about how I was using technology compared to the first call.

Being conscious of the fact I was on a "detox", made me do just that. Giving myself set goals and achieving them was satisfying, and not doing what I said I was going to do only made me feel worse.

We discussed how you turned these small habits into a routine, which I had been doing since the beginning of the detox and surprisingly, they felt easier to continue.

The detox gave me practical and easy tips and trick to try, but sometimes watching and listening to the one-hour webinar seemed ironic and hard to get through.

So what did the detox give me? It gave me one huge quality that multitasking and constant phone interaction didn't give me. It gave me focus.

Focus at work when I wasn't worrying about other people I should reply to, focus at home when I wasn't on my laptop while watching TV and focus with my friends and family when I spent more time listening to them rather than looking at my phone.

Throughout the three weeks, the more I added to my challenges, the emptier my brain felt not trying to do everything at once.

A detox will differ from one person to another. While I feel good going offline at 9pm, others might need to make other small changes to give them a clearer outlook on their relationship with tech.

But for me, my digital detox boundaries are very much staying there for the time being, and hopefully a while after that.

Sign up for Dedyukhina free, one-week email course, or take part in a six-week digital detox for £149.

This August we're running a Digital Detox campaign, where we're championing switching off, spending more time with our loved ones and being more mindful around technology. From inspirational interviews to how it can massively improve your life, we hope to inspire everyone to get out there and reconnect with the world. If you'd like to contribute or blog, email or tag us on social media using the hashtag #HPDigital Detox

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