How to Do a Digital Detox So You Can Be More Present in Your Life

Is there anyone who couldn't spend a little less time on their phone? A digital detox may be just what you need to boost your happiness and connect more to the things that matter.

There’s little doubt that smartphones and laptops have expanded our ability to connect with other people. Sure, it’s great to catch up with old friends and make new ones on social media, but there’s such a thing as too much tech, and it can interfere with our actual lives. “When your head is focused on that rectangle, your real world is less real,” says digital detox expert Tanya Goodin, author of My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open.

In the last few years, most of us have really gone all-in with our digital lives and personas. According to recent data from Broadband Search, the average American spends 147 minutes a day on social media. That’s nearly 2.5 hours a day that we could be spending with family and friends, keeping a gratitude journal, learning a new skill, exercising—or doing literally anything else. And that number doesn’t even begin to cover the amount of time we spend texting, googling or goofing around with games and other apps.

Starting to think that you could benefit from taking a digital break? Spending less time on glowing screens and social media won’t just give you hours of your life back. It may also help you learn how to be happy, how to say no and how to set boundaries, as well as give you a better work-life balance. Here’s what a digital detox is and how you can successfully pull one off.

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What is a digital detox?

A digital detox is a planned and mindful break from digital technology. “At its most basic, it’s putting your phone away and disconnecting from email and social media,” says Goodin. “Put the digital world aside so you can focus on the real world.” When people hear the word detox, they may think it’s a strict all-or-nothing thing, but it doesn’t have to be that extreme. Even slightly reducing the number of hours you spend with tech can be beneficial for your mental health.

The digital world can be extremely compelling, making you think you are part of a global community at any given moment. But a digital detox can ground us and connect us to our here and now. Even spending time snapping photos rather than enjoying the moment robs us of the opportunity to be present. “Our memories are more vivid if we don’t capture them on a phone,” says Goodin. “We have built the world at our fingertips, but we don’t have a moment to gaze at it through a window.”

Don’t miss out on these cleansing foods for a natural, physical detox, too.

Benefits of a digital detox

Taking breaks from social media and other time-sucking apps to appreciate what’s going on in the world around you is great for your mental well-being, not to mention your eyesight. Here are the areas of your life that will likely improve when you put down your phone more often.

Improved communication in your relationships

Texting or emailing rather than talking can create barriers with how we communicate, says Goodin. Communicating digitally can lack the finesse of an actual conversation, leading to hurt feelings and misunderstandings. “We are not robots—we are humans,” she reminds us. There is genuine power in hearing the human voice.

On-screen friends are what Goodin calls loose connections. “They are not the 3 a.m. friends,” she says. “If you have a crisis at 3 a.m., you aren’t going to contact with the people on Twitter. It’s going to be your close friends. We are prioritizing loose connections, but we need the deeper ones more.”

Better work-life balance

Social media gets criticized a lot for sucking up our time, but constant access to work email and spending long hours keeping up with everything after the work day is over is cutting into the rest of our IRL life, says Goodin. And with many of us working remotely these days rather than in a separate office space, the risk for overwork and burnout is bigger. Limiting your work tech to regular office hours can help you feel fresher in the time you do dedicate yourself to it.

Deeper sleep

There has been an avalanche of research showing that social media can be harmful for our bodies and our brains. One British study published in The Lancet in 2019 tied social media use to decreased, disrupted and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss and even poor academic performance.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover how it can impact how we feel about ourselves and our own lives. Research shows that social media has the power to torpedo our self-esteem, and that’s even more true for teens and tweens.

Signs you might need a digital detox

Let’s start with the easy stuff: If your friends and family regularly comment on how you’re perpetually glued to your phone, you’re probably a good candidate for a digital detox. “But the bigger picture is when your digital world is more interesting and compelling than your real world,” says Goodin. If your IRL activities have tapered off—because you’ve stopped playing sports, going to the theater, doing anything in actual reality that you used to thoroughly enjoy or trying new things—there’s a good chance you have a problem.

Goodin says another telltale sign is the level of panic you feel when you don’t have your phone with you. If you can’t keep it in another room without separation anxiety or even walk to the mailbox or corner store without touching it, that’s not healthy.

Sleep problems are also a sign that you’re scrolling late at night and early in the morning, disrupting the time you should spend restoring your body so it functions properly, says Goodin. And if you can’t leave your phone in the glove box or in your purse in the backseat when you’re driving, you’re not only too reliant on your phone—you’re also making the roads less safe for everyone else. Texting and other cellphone-related distracted driving accounts for thousands of motor vehicle accidents every year. If you rely on your phone for directions, be sure to turn on its do not disturb mode before hitting the road.

A Phone With Purple Flowers Growing From The Screen. Orange BackgroundSvetlana Bulatovic/Getty Images

How to do a digital detox

Goodin says the key here is to take tiny steps to wean yourself off tech. While it may seem like a good idea to spend a week offline somewhere remote, that’s an extreme solution—and probably won’t work out. “Small pauses in the day where we don’t use technology are more effective,” she says. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Start small

Not sure where to begin? Goodin recommends starting a digital detox in the bathroom. “Try not taking your device in there,” she advises. “We’re talking less than five minutes. How does that feel?” If you can manage that, then you can start coming up with other ways you can separate yourself from your phone or laptop without sending yourself into a panic.

Set realistic goals

It’s one thing to say you’re going to ditch your phone and go off the grid on your next vacation, but it’s quite another thing to actually do it, says Goodin. Try setting aside your phone and laptop for an afternoon instead. Once you get used to small blocks of time without it, it will be easier and easier to forget how much you relied on it. Create a vision board to figure out new goals to strive for in your newfound free time.

Chunk your tech time

If you’re in a situation where you can’t drop your phone like a hot rock (anyone else need to use their phone to log in to work apps and almost every other thing in their life?), block out time to use tech during the moments you absolutely have to use it. Scroll through Instagram, shop for groceries or watch YouTube videos on your phone when your laptop is updating, for example. Or spend a morning in bed on a Saturday to catch up on social media and then rely less on your phone the rest of the day. You just might find that you now have time for a new hobby.

Put away your phone at meals

Not to sound too much like a lecturing mom, but mealtimes should be quality time with your dining companions in real life, not zoning out on TikTok and ignoring everyone else at the table. QR codes for menus at restaurants can be a little aggravating too, since you’re dining out with friends to spend time with them, not get sucked into your phone. Ask for a paper menu whenever possible, and if you have to use your phone to order dinner, stash it back in your purse as soon as you can.

Create no-tech zones

If you’re looking to spend less time staring at your glowing screens, there are easy ways to make that happen. Here’s how to designate some areas of your home as tech-free.

Your bedroom

Where you sleep should be a restful oasis, not a place to get worked up over the latest bad news or irritating social media posts. Start your digital detox by taking the television out of the room, and definitely keep your phone elsewhere while you sleep, says Goodin. There is a device called an alarm clock that can wake you up in the morning. And reading is a better way to spend time in your bedroom when you aren’t sleeping. These inspirational books could be the perfect choice!

Your living room

Many of us are working from home these days, turning our living rooms into 24/7 home offices. When you’re done with your day, stash your computer elsewhere or hide it out of sight. And as far as the phone goes, establish a rule that you won’t focus all your attention on it when there are other people in the room.

Your kitchen

Tech-enabled kitchens can overload us with digital stimulation. Do you really need a refrigerator that talks to you? It’s one thing to use a phone or tablet to consult a recipe, but be mindful of digital multitasking while you’re cooking. Instead, stay in the moment and enjoy the process of making a delicious meal.

Next, find out how to work small moments of joy into your day. One fun idea? Doing karaoke at home with family and friends. It just might be the daily dose of happiness you need!

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Cathy Garrard
Cathy is a lifestyle writer and editor who covers a broad range of topics including nutrition, health news, beauty, and celebrities. She is also a gardening enthusiast, a bicycle lover, and an adjunct instructor at NYU who teaches classes on fact-checking and media literacy.