Quarterly Insights 2019, Part Two: The Digital Detox

Quarterly Insights 2019, Part Two: The Digital Detox

In my first instalment of 2019’s Quarterly Insights, I spoke about a recent case of burnout that I was struck by after months of burning the candle at both ends. In this instalment, I talk about what those events triggered. Specifically, the digital detox I embarked on for an albeit short, but significant period of time at the end of May, in the middle of my month-long trip to South East Asia. We’re in an age of digital addiction, and I’m guilty of being part of it. This talks about my first step in getting better, and how I aim to continue doing so in the future. 

I was in Siem Reap airport in the very early hours of a normal Monday morning. Except this wasn’t any typical Monday morning. Monday is known for being the hardest working day of the week, the longest hours, and the most stressful. On this Monday morning at the end of May, I was waiting for a plane to Sihanoukville to later take a boat to the beautiful remote island of Koh Rong Sanloem. I was going to be there for 72 hours, and the plan was to take myself completely off the grid.

No phones, no laptops, no emails, no social media, no TV. Nothing. No digital stimulation or use whatsoever for 72 hours. 

Sounds easy, right? What’s the big deal?

The problem was, as I sat in the airport waiting, I was thinking back to the last point I went even a full 24 hours of no digital stimulation and zero electronic use. As I scanned over the last 15 years, I couldn’t think of a day that had gone by I hadn’t at least watched the TV, been on a computer and most of all, been on my phone.

Feelings of anxiousness started kicking in. In this specific moment, it was wondering whether the business would survive without me. It’d been two years and I’d not taken a single day off. I don’t mention that to brag about it, it’s just been my reality. In fact, I’m embarrassed by it. I’d always heard that if your business can’t go even a weekend without you, it’s broken. This had been in my mind for a while, and I knew I needed to put systems and processes in place to test and fix this.

In January, while I was mapping out my year, I made this one of my goals. As I was booking the three days in Koh Rong Sanloem, I was aware that the WiFi was very hit and miss, and fast connection was rare. I wanted to go but I was in two minds. Fear kicked in. I started questioning whether timing it over a quiet weekend would be the best option, or whether it was even worth going to the island. But then I realised this was the perfect opportunity.

So I booked the island to fall during my busiest working days of the week, Monday to Thursday. This was the accountability I needed to take action. From the moment of booking, this trip was in the back of my mind as a driver and also a strategic filter to ensure I was prioritising correctly, spending my time wisely and making the right decisions.

Back to the airport. My flight was being called. It was time to switch all devices off. As I write this, I realise how crazy it all sounds. A whole article talking about going off electronics for three days? Is it really that big a deal?

Prior to writing this, I Googled statistics on electronics, digital and phone addictions. I was bombarded by stats that blew me away.

The average person checks their phone on average every 12 minutes.

The average person spends more than a day a week on their phones.

The average person claims to be addicted to their phones and technology. 

After reading this, I (ironically) went to my phone to check my average screen time and my average ‘pick ups’. While it was (happily) on the lower end, it was still on the spectrum of these stats.

I’ve been addicted to my phone and technology for well over a decade. Addiction is interesting. We only ever associate it with alcohol, drugs, pills and similar. But what about tech? As I continued to read the stats, one line struck out:

The brain on ‘smartphone’ is the same as the brain on cocaine.

Think about it. We get an instant high every time our screen lights up with a new notification. Or, if you have them turned off (which I started 18 months ago), you get the high when you dive into an app and see the red blob with the number inside!

Dopamine hits all day long. These dopamine hits reinforce and motivates behaviour that makes us feel good, which then leads to addiction.

What was going to happen when I stopped all use for three days?

As it turns out, a lot of good things with some bad to go with it!

The biggest win? The business survived and everything was fine! My fears were all in my head, and the months of prepping to put the systems in place for this break had worked. The confidence it’s given me going forwards is immeasurable, and it’s already made an impact on my day to day since doing it.

The biggest realisation? It’s often only when you take something away do you realise what it means to you. Taking away electronics unlocked so much time in the day. I had so much more idle time that was normally spent on my phone, such as time in queues, waiting around, on the toilet (!), etc. My brain was wired in these moments to reach for my phone, but with nothing to reach for, it forced me to ‘be’.

I had to go from the focus of always ‘doing’ to just ‘being’, and it felt very liberating.

After a few instances, I didn’t miss it at all, and enjoyed not having a phone to worry about.

What started as feelings of anxiousness back in the airport at the idea of being without my phone transformed into feelings of anxiousness at the idea of bringing it back into my pocket. That was unexpected, and it’s something I’ve noticed more and more ever since taking this digital detox.

During these times of ‘being’, I was able to introspect and gain perspective like I hadn’t done in a very long time. I learnt more about what I liked, what I disliked, and what I want. I realised how much of the ‘surface grind’ I’d become addicted to (another addiction, I know), and how instead, it’s the strategic long game that I need to keep my focus on at all times. The ‘day to day hustle’ is great, and a load of fun, but I learned it’s what can drag me down, take me away from what matters, and trigger the burnout episodes I’ve been prone to. I needed to go completely off the grid to see this though.

As I think and write about this all, I’m reminded of three phrases I’m always told by various friends and mentors in my life:

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Slow down to speed up.

Think sustainability.

It’s starting to sink in, and the rewiring in my brain is definitely under works. As I gained these insights while completely disconnecting from everything, something completely unexpected happened.

My whole body shut down.

It started with sleeping at every opportunity. It evolved to diarrhoea. It ended with fever, temperature, and being in the worst state I’d been in for years. What’s interesting is the peak of it all, when I was completely bed bound, came a few days after I returned back on the grid.

It’s often called the ‘let-down effect’, and it refers to when you get ill after the period of stress dissipates. When you’re on the go and flying at a million miles an hour in all directions, your cortisol and adrenaline hormones prepare you to be in a state of ‘fight or flight’ from danger, while triggering the immune system to step up their protection levels. It’s only when you return to normality that all the stress activated systems calm down, and the doors open for illness and other symptoms.

I’ve experienced this ‘let-down effect’ before, but this was something else. The doors were left open for far too long!

Since being back on the grid, I’ve started to successfully incorporate strategies to control my speed of work, manage my digital addiction, and keep my stress levels under management. I’m thinking more long term now, and the importance behind staying in shape, both physically and mentally, in order to continue delivering the mission we’re on here.

I spoke candidly in my previous Insights of placing myself number one again, and I can explicitly state that since writing that, I’ve done so much better.

While I know I’m a digital addict, I know it could be ten times worse. In the last two years, the following habits have helped significantly:

– Airplane mode when sleeping

– No notifications from anything

– No phone use until 9-11am

– No emails before 9am

This helps me get a lot of productive work done in the morning, and takes me out of the reactive state that waking up and looking at your phone/email can do. I’ve been there before, and if I ever have the need to do it now (or even look at anything before 9am), it throws my entire day off. I’ve been around people who answer emails in the middle of the night during their sleep and wear it as a badge of honour. I couldn’t think of a worse way to live. That’s why the phone and email free period in my morning is so valuable to me, and a habit I try my best not to negotiate with.

However, what I’ve come to learn is that once I start checking, I’m on it regularly. All day in fact until I go to sleep, with a heavy emphasis falling just before bed. That’s where it comes back to the whole limited willpower theory, and the lack of it as the day goes on.

A new habit and rule to help this is to implement a hard stop of all work (including email) after dinner. This one has been tough, as it’s been habitual for years to continue going, but this is the long-term mindset creeping in now. Assuming a 5.30am start, a 7pm hard stop still makes for a lengthy day, but it beats 9.30pm!

After almost a month doing this (and yet to break!), so far so good. What I’ve found is the hard stop has forced better prioritising in the day, improved productivity and a ‘daily deadline’ to work towards. It’s all a work in progress, but I’m determined to crack it. The next goal once the ‘hard stops’ become habitual is to reduce my social media usage in the day, especially in the evenings.

As I continue to improve these habits, I know I’ll feel better, be able to produce higher quality work, and be more present with those closest to me. In fact, since researching more about digital addiction, I came across the brilliant work of Cal Newport, and his theories of ‘Solitude Deprivation’, where he defines solitude as, ‘time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.’

When I thought about this, it dawned to me how little time in my day is spent in solitude. Cal notes specific benefits of more time spent in solitude, specifically:

– Allows you to see the big picture

– Helps synthesise creative ideas and crack hard problems

– Enables you stay proactive, not reactive

That’s why I love journaling, because it gives you that time alone with your thoughts, even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes. The same could be said for writing in the morning, and doing what Cal likes to call ‘Deep Work’. While not all types of deep work satisfy the definition of solitude, there are some which do. I’d always wondered why if I didn’t do anything meaningful in the morning completely alone, whether it was to journal, to write, undertake deep strategic work, or even go for a walk with no stimulation, I never felt quite right. I still don’t. But what going off the grid taught me is the requirement to make this time non-negotiable at multiple points in the day.

A great example of this in practice is a few days ago where I was trying to crack a specific strategic problem in the business. Figuring it out on the screen just wasn’t working, so I went for a long walk with no stimulation. As I walked everything came together like jigsaw, and I was able to effectively synthesise all the ideas floating around my head.

I’ve had many questions as to why I’m doing a photoshoot in September when I openly admit the last 6 to 9 months haven’t been the best for muscle building progress. The real reason is there’s no better way to regain focus on myself, and put myself number one. The steps, meal prep, training, and everything required to get into condition forces you to rigorously focus on yourself while cutting the excess.

I’m writing this two weeks or so into the ‘prep’ for it, and I’m excited to see where it takes me. Not only physique wise, but in everything else in my life. Additionally, I’ve booked 3 more days completely off the grid in September, and plan to do so every quarter going forward.

Will the next one pan out the same? I’ll wait to see what happens. This one was a game changer, and an eye opener. For anyone who can relate to being addicted to their phones, a slave to technology, and struggling to see the wood for the trees, I couldn’t recommend doing the same enough. It’ll change your life.

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