A Guide to Unplugging: How to Start a Digital Detox

7 min read

Have you ever been out with someone, and they spent the majority of the time on their phone? Either checking social media, emailing about work, texting someone else or documenting everything that’s happening? And if you’re not right along with them on your phone, you’ve probably felt a little annoyed. Annoyed because you’ve dedicated a certain amount of time to be present and they’ve chosen to split their attention between you and whatever is happening in their phone. Or maybe you’re the one that’s always on your phone. Either way, I’m talking to you.

It’s Time To Unplug

Unplugging is about taking the time to understand WHAT you’re plugging into and WHY. Most likely you’re plugging into work (emails and calls) and social media. But why do you feel like you need to be tethered to your phone?

For social media, it might be because we think we need to be online in order to stay connected or up to date on what’s happening in our friend’s lives. But what we’re actually doing is viewing people’s curated lives, and occasionally “liking” or commenting. We’re not truly engaging in and fostering an authentic relationship.

So when we feel the need to “check-in” on people’s lives through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, we should ask ourselves, “why do I feel this need?” followed by, “how else can I meet this need?” Are you mentally checking out of your current emotional or physical state, are you doing it out of habit, or are you interested in what other people are doing? And can you address this feeling by further engaging in your current task or social situation or by taking time alone to be with your thoughts?

Because when you check out of the here and now to plug into something out there, you’re missing out on building or fostering the authentic relationships in your life. Additionally, you’re opting out of being present with your emotions.

For work, we stay plugged in because we want to manage our anxiety and be seen as dependable, or because we feel like it’s expected of us. But this leaves us in a constant state of anxiety and distress. We’re never able to actually fully commit our attention to our personal lives when the deadly chime of an email moments away. So even when our attention appears to be on the person upfront of us, our mind is on work.

When we feel the need to check our work email, we should ask ourselves, “what’s the emotion I’m responding to? And is there another way to address it?” Can you instead take a deep breath, count to three and know that the email will be waiting for you in an hour when you’re done being present for this other aspect of your life? Acknowledging the emotions that inspire our actions is one of the best ways to foster behavior change.  

It’s a Mindset Shift

How did we get like this? How did we get to the point that we feel like we need to be attached to our phones? My instinct is to blame capitalism (LOL). But honestly, these behaviors have just been rewarded and reinforced, like all behaviors. We’ve gotten positive feedback from the world around us that encourages us to remain “engaged” with our phones, under the assumption that we are, in fact, building connections or being good employees.

But like any behavior, it can change. And by changing your relationship with your phone, you’ll change your relationship with your family and friends for the better.

Therefore, I propose that instead of just unplugging, we become more mindful about what we are actually plugging into. And in turn, we make our decisions according to who and what is important.

  • If you’re out to dinner with your partner and you receive an alert on your phone, ask yourself, “Is this alert more important than giving my partner my undivided attention, or can it wait two hours until after dinner?”
  • If you’re out celebrating your birthday and feel the need to record and post each moment, ask yourself, “Is documenting this more important than giving the people here my undivided attention, or can I ask someone to take photos/video for me, so that I can remain present?”
  • If the first thing you do when you wake up is check your phone, ask yourself “Is checking my phone more important than practicing self-care and going through a seamless morning routine, or can my notifications wait an hour or two until I’m settled into my day?”

Many of the decisions we make about our time are based on the expectations others have placed on us and the expectations or obligations that we have placed on ourselves. But when possible, the decisions about our attention should be made based on who and what is important.

Knowing that is easier said than done—and I want to give you the heads up that behavior change can be anxiety-producing or distressing. But you’re not alone. You have a community of people who care about you and who want your in-person, undivided attention. As you begin to engage in your digital detox, those around you will reward and reinforce your efforts. Because the world that exists in your phone can almost always wait.

The Cheat Code: How to Really Unplug

We all want the simple steps to making our desires into actions, right? Well, here they are. They’ll be easier said than done, but with this guide, you can start to detox from your digital life and find more resonance with your in-person life.

Digital Detox When You’re Alone

  1. Utilize your phone’s Do Not Disturb option for a designated time period every day or night. One of my good friends has her phone set to DND from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day. It lets her decompress and reserve her nights for her family. (For those who worry about emergencies: you can also set your phone to bypass the DND if certain people call or text, or if anyone calls more than three times in a row.)
  2. Turn off your phone for one designated hour every day and spend time doing something that helps you feel present (i.e. meditating, working out, cooking, hiking).
  3. Fast from social media for a weekend, a week or even a month. Just delete the apps or sign out and explore new things.
  4. If you have a job that requires you to stay in-touch, learn to check your phone every 30 to 60 minutes, rather than reacting to your phone’s notifications and feeling the need to be constantly vigilant (which can repeatedly create a cortisol-inducing fight-or-flight response in your body, and produce undue stress). Take back your power (and your mental space) and check-in at regular intervals. This way you’re choosing when you engage.

Digital Detox In Groups

  1. Don’t have your phone on the table or even within reach when you’re socializing.
  2. Encourage your friends or family to also disconnect by keeping phones in a separate room from where the socializing is happening.
  3. Play group games that encourage bonding and a little competition.
  4. Stay present by talking about what is in front of you. My favorite is people watching. Create elaborate backstories for strangers and imagine them living really interesting lives. If you’re into it, even create a fake dialogue based on their body language.

Things You Can Do to Stay Connected, Even When You’re Not On Your Phone

  1. Write your friends a letter or card. A handwritten note is a great way to illustrate care and appreciation for a friend.
  2. Go for a walk, cook a meal or do a project with a friend.
  3. Make a care package for someone.
  4. Say a prayer for a loved one.

In the digital world we live in, it’s hard to create and maintain balance between on online and offline lives. The goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal is to be aware, so that you know what and why you’re choosing to stay online, and you know what or who you’re choosing to place importance on. It may seem tricky at first, but a digital detox is within reach.

Want more mindfulness in your life? Here’s how to do it without meditation.

About The Author

Christina Marie Douyon

Christina Marie Douyon

Chistina Marie Douyon is a Haitian-American fifth-year doctoral student and Diversity Fellow, pursuing a degree in counseling psychology at Boston College. She earned her BS in psychology at the University of Florida and an MA in clinical psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to obtaining her MA, Christina taught with Teach for America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Christina is also a member of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, and co-leads a student group, The Race Culture Challengers, that informs and encourages conversations on issues of race and culture. She is currently working her dissertation titled, “Black in America, but not Black American,” while building out her social media platform on Instagram (@christina.marie.douyon) that discusses issues of mental health, relationships and race.



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