In this post I’m talking directly to you: fellow artists, designers, hobbyists, creatives. If you rely on creativity for work or pleasure, I believe it’s really important to look at how your use of technology is affecting your creative output. I say this because, it wasn’t until I digitally detoxed that I realised how badly I was being affected.
This time 4 months ago I was close to jumping off a proverbial cliff edge.
This time 3 months ago, I jumped….
And I jumped wholeheartedly.
No, not into madness, but into a digital detox.
After months of house renovations, a busy family, work and digital life, I was about to burst under the strain of it all. Well I did. I went a little crazy. The final straw? A flopped post on Instagram.
When I posted that image, I allowed an algorithm to decide my self-esteem and my mood that day. I had unwittingly, in fact been allowing algorithms and apps to decide my mood for months.
Most significantly, I was allowing the technology to mess with my creativity.
Actually, I had lost my creativity. This wasn’t creative block. This was worse. I was uninterested.
I’d lost the curiosity. Instead, I was churning out work to a familiar formula for clients, or for the sake of gaining a few followers and likes on Instagram.
Like an addict, I was creating purely for the dopamine hit.
As luck would have it, in May this year, I had started an 8 week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. As a result I’d started to recognise these negative feelings and notice how addicted to my phone and tech I had become. I started to read books and articles on the affects of technology and social media (there’s a reading list at the end of this post) to try and understand what I was feeling. I knew it was time to join the growing community of digital detoxers.
I planned a 30 day detox, but ended up on a digital detox of just over 3 months. I have to say it’s been wonderful.
Reclaiming My Brain
On June 30th 2019 I switched off. I wasn’t interested in getting my screen time stats down. That felt too superficial. My whole way of thinking needed to change. I made a drastic start, as this was the only way I was going to reclaim my brain from technology.
My Steps to Switching Off
First and most importantly I told my close friends and family what I was doing. This digital detox wasn’t going to work without their support for the reason that it’s quite amazing how pissed off people get when they can’t contact you at the drop of a hat. Therefore, I had to manage their expectations.
Here are the steps I took to digitally detoxing:
Apps - I deleted all the apps from my phone. From social networking to photography, email to notes and all of the useless apps in-between. I only kept Whatsapp and text messages for communicating with my close friends and family.
Phone Notifications - all off. I decided I was going to be in control of how I used the tech tyrant in my pocket. I set boundaries and specific times that I would check my messages. Twice a day, morning and early evening. My phone lived on Do Not Disturb the rest of the time.
Again, the only exceptions being my family. On an iPhone, people on your favourites list can call you even in Do Not Disturb mode.
Social Networking -
Twitter - I deleted my twitter profile completely. I couldn’t bear the hateful trolling of Twitter anymore. Actually I haven’t even thought about it in the past 3 months until writing this post!
Facebook - the narcissistic nature of Facebook drove me to despair. So I unfriended everyone, then downloaded and deleted as much data as I possibly could. I kept my profile for work purposes and for the groups. Retrospectively, I haven’t logged in to look at the groups in 3 months. If I didn’t need it for work, I’d get rid of Facebook completely.
Instagram - I decided that of all the social networks, Instagram was the one that was going to have the most significant impact to the success of my digital detox. After the temptations of the 1st week, when I cheated and looked at Instagram on my computer, I banned myself from logging in or looking at it for the duration of the detox.
Latterly, Instagram is my only social network of choice. The others I can do without because I do still rather like using Instagram!
Email & Web Surfing - like messages I set times to check emails no more than twice a day. Web surfing was kept to 1 hour, once a day.
Computer/Laptop - all notifications and badges off. No more email pings or little red badges designed to distract my attention. Cal Newport’s theory of ‘Deep Work’ really resonated with me. All those pings and notifications are the antithesis of concentrating on deep work and creativity.
TV/Netflix/Amazon Prime - When I read that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that their biggest competition was sleep, I realised my love of binge-watching was yet another place I was being unintentionally drawn into addictive behaviour. I set a limit of 2 episodes per series or 1 movie on a Friday or Saturday night. Thus freeing up a large proportion of my evenings to devote to creative activities or reading.
Radio/Podcasts - I set a limit of maximum of 2 podcasts a day. With the radio, I set the limit of listening in the morning before the school run and in the evening whilst prepping dinner. (Anyway, too much news depressed me). Oddly this was the most difficult and the one I have allowed more flexibility with lately. Perhaps it was the MBCT course, but I started to crave silence, rather the incessant noise of the radio or a podcast. Time for silence has become incredibly important to me now.
Kindle/Online Articles - unless it was printed I wasn’t going to read it. Not great for my paper trail but anything I wanted to read online, I printed. My Kindle was put away and any books I wanted to read I would either, buy, borrow or loan. This has been one of the most impactful results of the detox as you’ll find out later…
Digital Detox: The Results
OK, with all of those restraints in place, was it hard? Was it easy? Was it life-changing? In some respects, yes.
In other ways, it felt totally underwhelming too. Life went on of course.
Importantly, there were absolutely no significant negative side effects. It was all positive.
The Biggest Changes in Detail
Reading: I can read books! Yes, crazy I know. Before the digital detox, I realised I hadn’t finished a book in months. I couldn’t concentrate on reading books or magazine articles. Actually for years. I’d lose concentration and mindlessly pick up my phone to scroll Instagram or surf the web. Or, if I was reading in bed, I would fall asleep after the 1st couple of pages.
I’ve become a passionate reader again. I’ve enjoyed more novels, where before I was only reading non-fiction. If I don’t read every day or have a book on the go, I don’t feel ‘right’. Instead of watching TV, I’d much rather escape reading a good book instead.
Writing: I write more. This post started life as a handwritten journal entry. Daily journal writing has become as integral to my day as brushing my teeth. When I first started the digital detox, my hand ached from writing after 5 minutes. Where I had once prided myself on my crafted handwriting, over the years it had become a messy, lazy scrawl. These past few weeks, I’ve noticed even that has improved.
I keep a daily ‘bollocks’ diary - some call them artists pages. It’s a place to express all of the bollocks and bullshit in my head, so it can’t do any damage! Thus I’ve found a very easy and natural way of keeping my mental health in check too. A journal is also a great problem solver. Most of this digital detox process, the ups, downs and realisations have been worked out on the pages of my bollocks journal.
I’ve also returned to writing poetry. Something I hadn’t done for years and enjoy immensely. Well, less poetry, more stupid rhymes that make me giggle. Groans and moans put into prose that make me smile. Something purely for enjoyment. Again, instead of mindless scrolling and surfing, I’ll pick up a pen and write. The sense of productivity writing brings is brilliant.
Exercise: with a more structured day and less time surfing and scrolling, I’ve made more time for exercise. I’m at my local gym 4 or 5 times a week, indulging my long-standing interest in yoga, pilates and Zumba. Or simply go for a walk. The effect on my mental as well as my physical well being is really starting to show. My mental health particularly is much better. I put this down massively, to staying active. Rather than staring at a screen.
Silence: very quickly I had to get used to the sound of silence. When I tuned out and limited the amount of media I was consuming, I was quite often left in silence. Thankfully I had become very comfortable with this anyway, due to the mindfulness (MBCT) course I was taking.
I relish silence. Working in silence or doing mundane tasks such as washing up, allowing my mind to wander, I find very therapeutic. If I don’t have a period of silence in my day, I feel overstimulated and irritable. Actually, there’s really no such thing as silence. There’s the soundtrack of the day to keep me company.
Creativity: it’s back! I’ve reclaimed my brain from the clutches of tech, I feel far more enthusiastic about creating. Now I’m not scrolling and surfing as much, looking at other peoples lives and work, the voice of imposter syndrome has quietened in my mind. I don’t feel stuck in the comparison trap as much.
Due to more time reading, writing, exercising and time spent quietly with my thoughts, the ideas and importantly creative curiosity have come back. I feel more inclined to experiment and try new things in my studio. Probably some will never see the light of day or some may well end up as new animations and creations. Importantly I feel a much better sense of myself as a creative and what it is I’m trying to do.
The Biggest Changes In a Nutshell - Concentration & Time.
I’m a 42 year old woman, with 3 children between 6 and 17. I have a house, a mortgage and myriad responsibilities. I don’t have a steady job. Instead I have a full-time job of making my living as a creative freelancer. I’m your typical busy person. And…
I HAVE TIME! Time for it all.
I hear many people say they are soooo busy. They don’t have time for: exercise/hobbies/sleep/_________(insert the blank).
Bollocks. Stop scrolling and telling everyone how busy and important it is that you be on your phone checking emails 50 times a day. Get on with living.
Seriously, I see it so clearly now. For example, I look over my husbands shoulder sometimes and see him watching some random video on Facebook. Then an hour later he’ll complain he never has time to indulge in his love of drawing. Well, those 10 mindless minutes, could have been spent sketching. Do that everyday for a week, that’s 70 minutes - over an hour for a hobby he loves.
The other biggest change:
I CAN CONCENTRATE. I’ve found flow again. Do you know how many times I was distracted by my phone or email or a quick surf whilst writing this post? Zero times. I’m not even tempted to check or surf. I can easily and wonderfully get into deep concentration, losing one, two, three hours writing or creating in my studio quite happily. Like my brain is supposed to. As a result I feel less stressed and more productive. I could never have done this 3 months ago. My concentration was in tatters.
Taking Back Control
My biggest digital detox compliment, delivered to me via my husband, by an increasing number of people now: “Georgie is rubbish with her phone isn’t she?".
Oh Yes I am. Thank you!
It’s not our fault we find ourselves scrolling mindlessly. The evidence is out there. Apps and tech are designed to turn us into addicts. There’s a reason many of the tech bosses out there won’t let their kids have iPads. Be mindful of that the next time you reach instinctively for your smart phone.
Don’t get me wrong. I‘m not anti-technology. I love a useful app. I adore getting lost in a Netflix episode. I enjoy walking whilst listening to a good Podcast. I love connecting with fellow creatives on Instagram.
Yet, there is a dark side to technology and I refuse, as much as possible, to be manipulated by algorithms and computer scientists who have studied behavioural psychology in casinos, in order to manipulate us into using their technology. Their goal being engagement and holding our attention as much as possible, because that's what's monetised in the business model of social media platforms. Our dopamine hit for the sake of their profit margins and investors.
As I said, I’m not anti-technology. Technology is a tool. A useful tool. Like a hammer. Or a paper and pencil. I wouldn’t want to live without them as they have a specific purpose in my life. Still, I don’t let them decide how I will spend my time or control my behaviour.
I’m not here to convince you either way. This has just been my experience. A very eye-opening experience.
It’s now October. I felt ready, after 3 months to go back to using Instagram because I genuinely enjoy the creative community over there. However I still have to set very firm boundaries around my tech and phone use. Otherwise it would be so easy to get sucked into the mindless tech scroll again.
Thankfully there is an undercurrent of technologists, scientists and psychologists who also think that technology is a useful tool. A tool that WE should be in control of, rather than the other way around.
If you want to learn more about digital detoxes or our complicated relationship with technology there’s a list of resources I found really useful over my 3 month digital detox, at the end of this post.
If you’re thinking about a detox, have a comment, agree or fervently disagree with some of what I’ve written, leave a comment or email me - I’m fascinated by this subject and would love to chat more :)
Resource & Reading List
(There’s a few amazon affiliate links here, but these books were read for my interest only, nothing sponsored!)