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How to do a digital detox - and why you should

Posted by Joe Wicks in Wellbeing

Technology is a truly wonderful thing. It makes the world smaller, connects people and helps create communities - but are we getting too much of it? And if so, how do we cut back? In this guest blog, Tess Agnew, asks the experts for their tips to help us unplug and unwind.

By freelance contributor, Tess Agnew 

The draw of digital

According to the latest Ofcom report, we now spend a total of one day a week online. That's more than three hours per day, and twice as long as back in 2011. Our mobile devices make everything – including ourselves – available on demand 24/7. And that can make it hard to switch off. 

With stats like that, it's no surprise that digital wellbeing is a hot topic right now and the tech and social media giants are taking note. Tools like Apple's new Screen Time app and Google and Facebook's new dashboards now show us how we're spending our time onscreen and let us set limits on our app use, all in a bid to help us restore some tech-life balance. 

With so many digital distractions it can be really hard to be present in the moment, and focus on one thing at a time, whether at work, in life, or in fitness. Evidence shows the brain works best when it can focus on a single task for longer, but the multitasking we're all guilty of doing can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.

As well as impacting our concentration, we're finding it hard to shut down for fear of missing out (FOMO). Research shows our phones are the first and last thing we see each day, with 65% of UK adults under 35 looking at their phone within five minutes of waking up, and 60% of us checking our phones five minutes before lights out. 

But what if we swapped the FOMO for JOMO, to rediscover the Joy Of Missing Out and reconnect with ourselves and our priorities offline?

We asked some experts for their top tips to restore the tech-life balance without giving up our gadgets completely. Here's what they revealed about how to do a digital detox well.

Prioritise your sleep

Not making sleep a priority is something we can all probably admit to at some point in our busy lives, but according to Dr Neil Stanley, independent sleep expert and author of How To Sleep Well, it might just be the worst thing we can do for our health.

“Sleep is the very foundation of physical, mental and emotional health," says Stanley. "There are only 24 hours in a day and at least eight of those should be for sleep but with all these distractions at our fingertips it's the one thing that many of us compress and neglect."

And we do that at a cost to our health and fitness goals. Muscle recovery and regeneration happens during the deepest sleep so if you're not getting enough of it, you'll find exercise harder. Research shows increased tiredness also leads to cravings of fatty and sugary foods, seeing us consume more than 400 extra calories a day. Exercising when tired also puts us at 75% increased risk of sport-related injury.

“We need to reframe our relationship with our tech," advises Stanley. “To get a good night's sleep you need a quiet mind instead of being cognitively stimulated. Social media is designed to engage your brain, not relax it, and the blue light stops the release of melatonin which is the signal that tells your body to sleep.

“In the same way you need to eat a healthy, balanced diet each day, you need to sleep well each day to feel your best. That means going to bed at a reasonable time, logging off at least 40 minutes before and buying an alarm clock to wake you up instead of your phone, so you can keep your bedroom a completely tech-free zone."

Exercise 'naked'

One in five households now use wearable tech to record and share workouts. Leaving your phone or fitness tracker at home when you exercise might make you feel 'naked', but that's exactly what Anna Kotwinski, Co-Founder of Shine Offline, recommends you do.

“Fitness trackers and apps can be great to motivate and track progress but they can also be addictive and disassociate you from what is actually happening in your body," she says.

“When I was marathon training, I became so obsessed with my mileage and pace data from running apps that I failed to listen to what my body was telling me and ran into injury. I now ditch the tech to run 'naked' and really tune into my body. On days when I do want to take my phone I keep it on flight mode and zipped into my pocket so it can't distract me. My performance and my mental health have definitely improved as a result."

Practice mindfulness

Bringing our awareness back into the present moment helps train our brain to resist the barrage of notifications, says Dr Richard Graham, Clinical Director of London's Digital Wellbeing Service, Good Thinking.

The new NHS approved service, created in partnership with Public Health England, offers a host of online tools, apps and resources to help people tackle stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation via an interactive Self Assessment questionnaire.

"It's striking that the main area of interest on our platform is anxiety, and the most popular destinations are our Sleep and Mindfulness partner apps (Sleepio and Be Mindful)," says Graham. "Almost 10% of users look into using Sleepio, so we think that disruption of sleep may be linked to stress and anxiety along with overuse of technology."

Good Thinking recognises that excessive screentime can disrupt what's known as the 'Five Ways to Wellbeing', (Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn & Give). This recommends that to improve personal wellbeing and happiness we must connect and talk with others, exercise regularly, be present in the moment, continue learning and give our time and support to others.

"When you undertake a digital detox, even if it's initially uncomfortable, you can start to look after yourself better, and the people and priorities in your life, better," says Graham. 

"If you notice yourself passively scrolling, stop, and become aware of what you're doing. Think of someone you can reach out to, or something you can plan to do offline, such as play an instrument, read a magazine or write. Schedule things that aren't just a cognitive reward, but rewarding activities, and not just for you," he adds.

Set boundaries for intentional use

Tanya Goodin, author of OFF and Stop Staring at Screens, says to reclaim control, our internet use should be purpose led, not passive.

“Be intentional about when and how you go online. Create a 'digital fitness plan' for your screen use," says Goodin. "Passively scrolling social media is one of the worst things we can do for our mental and physical health. Screen activity is nearly always sedentary and hunched over – when we put our screens away we immediately create the space for us to get moving."

Make a plan to pick up a screen only at set times or for a defined purpose (e.g to arrange to meet friends after work), actively engage (agree the time and place) and then put it down and step away.

Take baby steps

It's important not to set unrealistic goals if you want new habits to stick. Lauren Gordon, Behaviour Change Advisor at Bupa UK, recommends starting small to stay on track:

“A lot of people sabotage their behaviour change goals by trying to make too many big changes all at once," warns Gordon.

"The best way to achieve lasting change is to break your behaviour down and focus on embedding these into your routine. For example, instead of not checking your phone for the entire day, set time aside where you leave your phone out of sight for 30 minutes or so. Try this on your commute to work, or if you find yourself holding your digital devices in your hand when you're out, put your phone in your bag or pocket to avoid you giving into temptation," she adds.

Gordon also suggests these small steps to get started:

  • Ensuring you have a lunch break away from screens (including your phone)
  • Taking time out from one social media channel at a time
  • Turning your phone off at dinner time
  • Banning tech from the bedroom and bathroom

A digital detox doesn't necessarily have to mean going cold turkey, and you don't have to lock your phone in a safe and disappear to a tech-free retreat. It's about reframing your relationship with our tech so that it's more balanced.

Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness puts it perfectly: “Rebalancing our use of technology doesn't require an appeal to our guilt or an assault on our productivity. It requires us to be more mindful and honest with ourselves about when these devices bring real benefits and when they start to ruin our quality of life.

"The many benefits are only worth it if they contribute to our overall happiness rather than undermining it."

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Joe Wicks

About Joe Wicks

Joe Wicks is the online nutrition coach inspiring people all over the world to cook with his #Leanin15 video meals on Instagram. He is also transforming the lives of thousands of people with his tailored online nutrition plan, The 90 Day Shift, Shape & Sustain plan.

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