Life Technology

I just finished ‘digital detox’; can you?

Switching off was the easy part and I’m seriously glad I did it. But the withdrawals were strong. Lisa Main reports.


By December just glancing at the Zoom icon on my iphone was like 😫. I took great pleasure in deleting it off all of my devices over the holidays. I also noticed some pretty ugly habits had crept in while I was working from home during COVID. I could spend up to an hour staring into my phone even after work had (*sort of) wrapped up. Without noticing, I would finish my workday by trawling Insty, LinkedIn, Twitter, personal email, and news apps. Not exactly high quality leisure time.

A change of job and a break over summer offered the perfect opportunity to tackle my first ever digital detox. I’d quit facebook years ago and didn’t miss it for a second but this time I figured I’d need some structure, COVID had rendered my life almost 100% digital.

Enter ► Cal Newport’s book ‘Digital Minimalism’, it was the perfect guide. First you must strip almost everything out, get acquainted with *high value leisure time and then, with careful intention, rebuild your digital life.


  • No Insty, Linked In or Twitter
  • No WhatsApp, unless connecting with friends overseas
  • No Netflix/OTT only to watch a film or documentary
  • Watch no more than two eps of any series each week
  • No checking news apps randomly but establish a contained daily news habit
  • Check personal emails only every second day
  • Use text messages to organise catch ups with friends and family
  • Turn off all notifications
  • No trawling for podcasts
  • No online shopping, unless you absolutely, seriously need something
  • Use Spotify to create playlists for parties and the gym
  • Monochrome my iphone


I failed fast – The pull of Twitter overwhelmed me when the US Capitol was stormed. I flicked between twitter and US cable outlets. I wasn’t prepared to miss the historical moment play out in real time and I’m glad I didn’t. Sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules.

The withdrawals were strong – I had to put actual physical barriers in place to break the urge to reach for my phone. I’d reach for it to check the time, the weather, even though it didn’t matter 🤷🏻‍♀️. I noticed I’d reach for Insty to fill any spare moment that for some reason I thought needed to be filled. So every time I reached for my phone, I diverted my hand to my book instead. I was on holidays at the time so this practice was easy to implement. And after two weeks something nice happened. I noticed I reached for the book as a first choice instead. In record time, I got through Barack Obama’s memoir and Humankind by Rutger Bregman.

I started a nightly book reading club with my niece. What’s key here is that *this only happened because I now had the time to think about ☞ how I’d prefer to spend my time. Like me at age 10, my niece isn’t the best reader. Her older brothers give her a hard time for it. So I figured we could read together – over Facetime – so yes it’s using a digital device but in a very intentional way. That’s ok. I get to look at her adorable face, help her figure out unfamiliar words, we laugh a lot and I feel 100 times better after every session. Waaay better then I would after scrolling Insty and other socials.

I saw Insty for what it really was – the “A reel” of my friends (myself included) living our best lives. And that’s excellent and nice but the outtakes are usually more fun, more interesting and honest. Sure I can spend time liking my friends best-self reality show but the further I got from the practice the stranger it felt. It’s like a perpetual high-five vortex that lacks any balance. Lost in this one sided ‘low value connection habit’ (a Cal Newport phrase) are the nurturing and complex qualities that make friends such a gift. Yes friendships are built on the dance floor but also in the trenches. And we need to create the space for both. So in 2021 I’m making a lot more effort to catch up in the flesh.


Staying informed remains the hardest. Finding quality news among the tsunami of material is a hugely time consuming activity. I hadn’t realised how much time I spent simply scrolling for quality information, often mindlessly so. Machine learning hasn’t yet figured out how to serve (me) the perfect mix of quality news. As part of the detox I deleted all news outlets from all social media, including Linked In. For now, I’m going stick with this rule. I’ve decided to 🖐🏽 and duck all the algorithms and get back in the driver’s seat. So, each day I check around six or seven news apps – ones that I trust, which is different to like. The subscription costs and time investment is probably still too much but I’m hard pressed for a better solution. I’ll continue to experiment with Kinzen and other newcomers but for now I’ll stay with this imperfect system because I’m more in control of my time. I’m also heading back to Twitter but in a very structured way.

Spending time alone with your own thoughts pays big dividends. My brain works much better when it has some space to do absolutely nothing 🥰. I’d kind of felt guilty about this for years but now I see how critical to wellbeing and productivity it is. I found that just going for a walk or a jog – without my phone, no music or podcasts – gave my brain time to go wherever it wanted. Over the four weeks I started to reflect on my most important personal relationships and consider big ambitious projects – dreams. But what surprised me was that without making any effort at all, these reflections and ideas would return in a more crisp, logical form. All of this without having to grind it out on a Trello board. ✅

There are network effects in high value leisure activities. During COVID, I developed many not great habits including; daily cake treats from the bakery up the road, mindless phone scrolling and marking the end of the day with a glass of wine. This acted as a type of physical signal that my dining table was no longer my work desk. But as I started to prioritise quality leisure activities – tennis, reading club, creating a music playlists or taking care of my new albeit small garden – I stopped craving that glass of wine. And this happened almost without noticing. I also started to stack the necessary but not-so-fun habits on top of my new high leisure activities, so now I get those boring things done, like rehab exercises and general life maintenance. – Lisa Main, Director, Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

TNR staff
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