The 5-Step Digital Diet Plan
How to cut back on screen time without feeling deprived
Outside of work, being constantly connected to a screen, including your phone, iPad, or laptop, can have some serious downsides, both physical and emotional. The solution, say experts, is not ditching your devices; it’s finding a better balance between your online and offline lives.
David Ryan Polgar, a tech commentator and communications director at CoPilot Family, a startup focused on improving children’s use of technology, says if you can answer yes to any of these questions, you might have a digital dependency and would probably benefit from cutting back on screen time:
- Does your significant other or your child feel ignored because of your technology use?
- Do you have thousands of online friends but very few people you connect with?
- Do you become irritable when your online time is interrupted?
Related: Quiz: Time for a Digital Detox?
“The problem is not technology, but how we incorporate it into our lives,” he explains. “Similar to any food diet, you adjust to find what works for you.”
Here, a five-step digital diet plan to help you cut back on screen time.
1. Adjust your routine
Wake up unplugged. Resist the urge to check your email the minute you wake up. Instead, use the time to connect with your significant other, pet and/or child, or to meditate or do yoga stretches.
Follow the detach rule. If constant connection is your baseline, start by carving out small blocks of time to unplug each day. Family Internet safety advocate Sue Scheff recommends what she calls the detach rule. “For every hour that you are engaged with technology, even during work hours, you need at least 5 minutes to detach. Make it a point to get up and walk for at least five minutes every hour, and leave your phone behind.” As you adapt, add another five minutes every 10 days until you find a better balance.
Schedule in screen time. Try scheduling three blocks of time each day to text, use social media and respond to personal emails. Knowing that screen time is on your schedule, you can better resist the urge to check your phone each time you have a free moment.
Rope off mealtime and drive time. Power down completely during meals. Focus on food and conversation. When you get in the car, put the phone in your purse or glove compartment (if it’s not too hot) to take away temptation. Using your phone while driving, even with a hands-free device, is simply not safe.
Keep technology out of the boudoir. If your habit has been to be on your laptop, phone or iPad until right before you turn out the bedroom light, fill the screen void with an enjoyable activity, such as journaling, reading, crossword puzzles or knitting. It might help you sleep better, too.
2. Rely on tactics, not willpower
Create a “be present” box to hold devices and remove temptation. When it’s time to unplug — such as before sitting down to dinner or heading to your bedroom — place your device in the box and walk away.
Set up roadblocks.RescueTime is a productivity app that measures the time you spend on websites/apps/programs. It also allows you to lock yourself out of social media apps for chunks of time. Plenty of other, similar apps exist for iOS and Android, such as BreakFree and Moment.
Establish a code word. To keep each in other in check — and keep the mood supportive — create a code word to call out a family member caught using a screen in a tech-free zone.
Go old school. Being dependent on your phone’s alarm or calendar gives you that many more reasons to “check” your phone. Scheff says to go old school and use an alarm clock and calendar diary.
3. Exercise your brain
Put tech anxiety in perspective. The impulse to constantly check for email, texts or other updates can be a function of anxiety. You might feel like you will miss something essential if you don’t keep one eye on your device at all times. This can trigger irrational thoughts such as, “If I don’t respond to this immediately, I might jeopardize my whole career.”
When you notice yourself having negative or anxious thoughts about limiting your screen time, replace them with more positive thoughts, suggests Polgar. For example, a positive replacement might be, “I can check my email in one hour and solve any problems at that time.” It takes time and practice, but reframing can help break the anxiety cycle that keeps you running to your device.
Forget “fear of missing out,” aka FOMO. No, most of your friends on Facebook probably aren’t leading better lives, at least not all the time. They just make it look that way. Be present enough in your own life to recognize and relish the things you have going for you.
4. Remind yourself there’s life AFK (away from keyboard)
Sometimes we surf out of pure boredom and habit. Solution: Get ten Popsicle or craft sticks and write down a screen-free activity on each one, such as: take a walk, brew a cup of tea, go for a bike ride, dance to music, flip through a cookbook, call a friend. Place the sticks in a jar. The next time you feel the urge to check a screen, close your eyes, grab a stick and do what it says!
5. Give it time
Forming new habits doesn’t happen overnight. But by gradually replacing mindless surfing, compulsive texting or email checking with other — very likely, more enjoyable — activities, you’ll begin to appreciate the value of being more present in your life, says Polgar. Heck, before you know it, you may find you don’t even care if you accidentally leave your device behind.