One Week Digital Detox Reflection

I started to draft this on Tuesday even though my digital detox will not end until Thursday. This is partially because I have already taken so many notes that I think it will take me a lot of time to sort through them, but also because Tuesday was the first day that I have nothing going on outside of work. I’m currently sitting in Starbucks in Daxi, drinking a grapefruit black tea, typing my handwritten notes into my iPad’s notes app, and trying to at least begin to organize the 15 pages of disorganized, stream-of-consciousness style notes I have taken this week. The following will have been written at different times.

I will start this reflection by first addressing the question of whether I completed the challenge. I successfully avoided the things I mentioned in my last post outlining the details of this detox, with a few minor exceptions. I ended up having to use Line to coordinate with coworkers due to switching to online classes this week, and one day at work I got bored and checked my primary email without thinking. Besides this, I went to my friend’s house on Sunday and we ended up watching a documentary on Netflix – this seems to be a grey area since it was at someone else’s house. Oh well. In terms of the successes, I didn’t use my smartphone, play video games, listen to any music aside from on the radio, turn on the TV or watch any videos at home, edit photos, or spend any of my free time at home using my computer or iPad for anything besides work, reading, or writing.

I’ll start by describing some of what I did during these days and then move on to talk about other thoughts I had regarding this week’s experience.

The first day of this detox was not that difficult because I was busy at work and there was not much time to be bored. After work I immediately went home and then met with my friend (which we organized through email). My friend lives in Zhongli (中壢) and she rode a Ubike to get here to Daxi (大溪). When she arrived, she called me on my ‘dumb-phone’ (a basic old Nokia phone) and told me where she was, but I misunderstood the name of the park and rode to the wrong one. After figuring out we were in different locations I managed to meet her at the right place, even though neither of us knew that park’s exact location. It was a fun experience to have this difficulty and need to overcome it without the benefit of maps or GPS.

We decided to go to Fuxing District (復興區) the next day to go to Jiaobanshan (角板山). To get there is about a 30 minute motorcycle ride into the mountains, which we did without using GPS, though it wasn’t an exceptionally complicated route. We visited a museum there, and then hiked down to a suspension bridge going across a river. After crossing the bridge we found that there was an ice cream vendor and got some ice cream. I must say the ice cream was especially delicious after that hike. I also remember seeing a huge butterfly up in the mountains and feeling excited about it. I don’t know if I would have noticed the butterfly or had such a strong impression of it if I hadn’t been forced into the present moment by my lack of a smartphone.

Over the first weekend of my digital detox, including Friday, I took approximately 600 photos and have not imported them to my computer yet (as of writing, but I intend to do so prior to posting this on Friday). I am curious to see if I will feel differently than usual looking at my photos almost a week after taking them, but will write about that in a different post. I enjoyed the feeling of being more focused on the process of taking photos for the sake of taking photos, without concern for much else, since I knew I wouldn’t be editing or looking at them until a week later. Come to think of it, I have a roll of film that has been sitting undeveloped in my room for months; I’m curious to see what’s on that roll too.

Every Monday and Wednesday I have classes that I take in the evenings, making it pretty easy to not use technology on those days. On Tuesday I spent the evening sitting in Starbucks reading and writing, and met with a friend during the last hour there. On Thursday I didn’t have much to do at work, so I spent that time preparing for my classes next week and making a video to use in class. After work I went to a cafe to drink some tea and read. Unfortunately it has been cloudy and rainy all week, leaving little opportunity for outdoor activities (it would be more accurate to say it has been cloudy and rainy the last 5 months). If the weather was nice I would have spent time this week riding my bicycle or hanging out at the park. I started getting sleepy every day at around 9pm and usually fell asleep sometime between 10 and 10:30pm (much earlier and more consistently than usual).

Normally I don’t concern myself very much with productivity because I think it’s often a way that people shame themselves for relaxing, but I think this week has been both ‘productive’ and relaxing. Having nothing else to do has made cleaning/organizing my room feel much more enjoyable than usual and made it easier to focus at work. Also it has become easier to find enjoyment and entertainment in simple things like going to a breakfast shop to eat breakfast or taking a walk. The feeling of being able to take my time and having nothing else I need/want to do has been great. There is no thought of going home to watch Netflix or play video games, and no concern with what’s going on in the digital world.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent this whole week using a basic Nokia phone. Well, ‘using’ is a bit of a stretch; it was more like I just had the phone in my bag and forgot it was there the whole time. As a result, the majority of my time was spent totally disconnected. I also only had to charge my phone once for the whole week!

I think ignorance really is bliss, but I’m not advocating “being ignorant” in the standard sense. Rather, I think that selective ignorance can be a great tool in our wellbeing arsenal. We, in the modern world, have become so obsessed with ‘knowing things’ that we haven’t stopped to think about what is worth knowing, and at what point it becomes too much. If it’s not necessary or useful to know, then I feel it’s probably better to not know. I think this is simple to achieve – don’t make yourself too available and don’t expose yourself to too much uncurated/unfocused information (tv, news, web browsing, social media), but by all means continue to educate yourself using books or other high-quality resources. By not being immediately available, people will be less likely to contact you regarding random small things or expect you to have constant back-and-forth chit chat conversations through text. I’m not saying to be ‘unavailable,’ but it may be beneficial to set limits for ourselves such as leaving our phones at home or in the car, turning off all notifications, or checking our phones one or two times per day (rather than 100 times like I’m sure many do).

Intentional communication has a clear purpose (having a conversation, asking a question, setting plans), allows us to focus on what we are talking about, and takes place in a specific time and place; less-intentional communication may not have a clear purpose, is likely unfocused, and may be spread out across an entire day or multiple days of texting. I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with less-intentional communication, but I suspect that most people would find intentional communication more emotionally fulfilling, and would enjoy using their free time to focus more deeply without distractions.

In case of an emergency, someone can pick up the phone and call me (or call 911) – if someone is sending me text messages, then it is not an emergency.

My grandpa used to refer to phones as “electronic dog collars,” suggesting that as soon as they buzz, we are controlled by our reaction much like a dog would be when it gets shocked by an electric training collar. He was saying this back when flip phones were popular; I can’t imagine what he would say now that everyone’s attention is constantly glued to their smartphones. I used to think he was just old and being dramatic, but it seems more and more that he knew what he was talking about.

My experience this week has made me feel that email is superior to text or instant messaging, although using any form of ‘writing’ for communication is vastly inferior compared to speaking (particularly face-to-face and not wearing a mask). Of course, this depends on your priorities; no one will say that email is more convenient for negotiating something that requires a lot of quick back and forth, or discussion between multiple people at once, but I rarely need to do these things. The reason I have started to think of it as superior to text messaging is because it’s possible to dig deeper into the content and put more thought behind what we write when compared to text messaging, and there is no unspoken expectation to read or reply quickly. Additionally, there are no other distracting aspects to email – you send and receive emails – there is no social media aspect, no publicly visible timeline or profile, no games, no shopping, or anything else. Plus, everyone has an email.

One major difficulty I have when communicating with people using chat apps is that everyone uses different apps, and I end up having to download and check several different apps to keep track of everyone (Line, Messenger, IG, Telegram, WhatsApp, iMessage, WeChat, HelloTalk, Snapchat, etc.). If people communicate with me on email, everyone can reach me in the same place without downloading any new apps. It has been a great joy for me to communicate with friends solely through email this past week (even though I only emailed with 6 people, including my two teachers). It’s worth noting that I am using a dedicated email account for this; I’d imagine it wouldn’t feel as good if these personal emails were mixed in with the advertisements or random newsletters I am constantly receiving on my primary email account. I would suggest everyone give this a try sometime (if you can convince anyone to deal with the ‘inconvenience’ of contacting you through email). Let me know how it goes!

As much as I enjoy many of my text conversations, I feel that the frequency of messages keeps my mind in a distracted state throughout the day and makes it difficult to get into a focused mindset when doing other things. If I want to have a more in-depth conversation over text/instant messaging, I will probably need to exchange many messages and be checking my phone often, limiting my focus in the real world. Leaving my smartphone at home, communicating through email, and checking Line once per day at most for work makes it much easier to stay focused throughout the day.

When I started this ‘challenge,’ I expected it to be extremely difficult, but actually it has not been difficult at all. There have been a few instances where things felt unnatural, but overall I have felt more free this week than usual – more free in terms of fewer distractions, having more actual free time, and being able to figure out what I really want to do.

When I think hard about what I want to do, Netflix, texting, using social media, and browsing the internet never come to mind, so why is it that I spend so much time doing these things in my normal life? These activities may be more worthwhile for others, but for me are largely meaningless and take up a lot of time. Furthermore, they are easy and convenient to start doing, and it’s easy to lose track of time while doing them – this is a dangerous combination.

When I think of the first year I lived in Hawaii, I recall that I read 100+ books in that time, didn’t use social media, rarely used my smartphone, and spent my entire day (most days) out of the house. I also only had a handful of friends that I saw occasionally. In the 1.5 years that I have lived in Taiwan, I think I have only read around 20 books, spent a lot of time using Instagram, Netflix, and my phone, and stayed home a lot (although this one I can partially blame on the terrible weather). Despite having fewer friends in Hawaii during that first year, I felt less lonely than I have in Taiwan. I expected this week of less contact with people to make my feelings of loneliness much worse, but in reality it had the opposite effect – I feel less lonely despite spending much less time in contact with people.

It’s ironic that I spent so much time in constant contact with people trying to escape from feelings of loneliness, only to find that less, but more intentional, contact is more effective. Low quality digital interaction seems to trick us into thinking we are having real ‘conversations’ with people, but in reality it may distract us from taking the initiative to actually see or speak with friends or family (in person or on the phone), reducing the overall amount of quality conversation/interaction in our lives. I think my individual experience this week is not proof enough to make any kind of strong, generalizable claim regarding this, but it warrants further investigation. I plan to continue limiting my communication (and focusing on intentionality over frequency) over the next few weeks to see if it continues being good like it has been this week.

I suppose one reason for the difference I have felt is that I have spent more time face-to-face with people, and communicated more in-depth through email. Both of these factors are related to intentionality; both may be perceived as less convenient than texting or using social media to socialize, but I think that’s part of what makes them feel more meaningful. This is a similar reason to why I enjoy exchanging physical mail with people – someone went through the trouble to physically write a message and paid money to send it; just the knowledge of this additional trouble makes me feel much more grateful for that communication. It reminds me of the quote from the Little Prince, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” This applies in many contexts: communication, relationships, photography, learning, hobbies, and others. In some cases, modern conveniences are great, but in others we run the risk of diminishing the deeper meaning gained by putting in more time and effort.

When I think about my compulsive phone usage, I realize that the primary problem is not with the apps or my phone, but with my inability stay focused on other things knowing I have ongoing text/instant message conversations on my phone – the nature of that medium of communication makes me feel like I should reply more quickly than I would through an email, and results in me checking and replying to messages more times per day than I do using email. This could be mitigated by setting rules for when I can check my text messages (once per day), but this would be essentially trying to turn texting into email. I know many people handle their relationship with smartphones better than I do, so please don’t think I am trying to comment on anyone else’s habits or trying to prescribe my opinions to others – this entire thing is only about me and my life.

This brings me to another interesting point – several people brought up the idea that this type of challenge or experiment may come off as selfish. To this I will reply: yes, it is selfish, but I think many people should be a bit more selfish. After all, you are the only person who will unquestionably always be there for your whole life. If people understood the disruption that my unhealthy relationship with technology brought/brings into my life, I don’t think there would be any question about whether it is right or not to make drastic changes, even if they create mild inconveniences for others.

Moving forward, I intend to continue maintaining a distance from my smartphone and opt to continue carrying my Nokia basic phone and iPad. I also would like to continue communicating through my dedicated socializing email address rather than shifting back to using chat apps (except for voice calls).

This week has made me realize the importance of separating work and personal life; because people often send work-related messages on Line, I think it is best for me to use a different application if I plan to make a phone call or need to send a text; this is to prevent me from seeing work-related communications during my relaxation time. The top contenders at the moment are iMessage/FaceTime and Telegram. I don’t want to continue supporting Facebook or any of its partner companies (Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger). I think Telegram is the best choice for a messaging/calling app due it its high security and relative popularity. I also like that messages can be unsent or cleared for both parties at any time, and can be set to delete automatically after a certain amount of time, reducing digital clutter. To top it off, it’s only used for texting and calling – no other distractions or complications.

I plan to continue not watching Netflix or TV/Movies (unless I’m with others) – I didn’t have any real difficulty with this, and I’m enjoying the silence and additional free time. Maybe sometime soon I will do another challenge that I have been thinking of doing for some time: watching/listening/reading exclusively Chinese language material for a whole month.

I would like to conclude this by raising an idea I encountered this week while re-reading the beginning part of Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism. The idea I want to talk about is the importance of cost-benefit analysis. Many people continue using all kinds of different apps because they bring some benefit to their lives, but do not consider whether these (likely) small benefits are worth the amount of time spent to obtain that benefit. For example, when I used Instagram, I kept thinking that it was worth my time because I met a few interesting people, could see nice photos, and could share my photographs. I did not, however, consider that I ended up spending at least one hour per day using the app, and often much more than that, to achieve these minor benefits. Because Instagram and many other apps are free, we feel like we are purely benefitting and not losing anything by using them, but what we fail to recognize is the value of our limited time.

Suppose a person makes $10 per hour at work. That person trades an hour of their life for $10. If I use this basic number to specify how much an hour of that person’s time is worth, then that person would be paying the equivalent of $70 per week in time-money to use Instagram (if they use it one hour per day). Considering that many people use Instagram for many more hours per day, and many people make a lot more than $10 per hour, that is a lot of time-money being spent. I am not suggesting that we should spend our free time actually trying to make more money; I think that adding this quantifier just makes it easier to understand what we are giving up when we use our time in this way.

Moving back to my own life example. If I want to achieve my goals of seeing photographs, meeting a few photography friends, and sharing my photographs, I think it could be achieved in a much more efficient way by bookmarking photography websites, attending photography events, talking to more people, and hosting my own website. Using my own calculation, I can pay for an entire year’s worth of website hosting using less than a single week’s worth of Instagram usage time-money. Similarly, if my goal is real-life socializing, this week’s experience has shown me that this can be achieved more efficiently by using email/calling and not texting/chatting at all.

It may be worthwhile for you to think about what activities you spend a lot of time on and figure out if you would pay the equivalent amount of time-money for the benefits you gain from that activity. If not, then it may be time to make some adjustments.

I will continue to do a modified version of this experiment for the next 3 weeks and, after finding a sustainable balance, will implement more permanent life changes.

I hope to hear from you all about your own experiences – feel free to comment or email me using the contact page

One reply to “One Week Digital Detox Reflection

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