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Digital detoxing: How to overcome device dependence

August 23, 2021 - 17 min read


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What is a digital detox?

The dangers of excessive digital use

What are the benefits of a digital detox?

Signs your workplace needs a digital detox

How to do a digital detox at work

Get started. Disconnect to reconnect

The virtual world is always close by, no matter where we are. 

Modern technology has changed the way companies and employees conduct business. 

There are obvious benefits to living in a virtual world. We are able to stay connected at all times with the use of smartphones, tablets, and wireless Internet. But there are unexpected downsides too. 

The amount of time spent on digital devices and the Internet can lead to serious screen addiction if not managed.

According to studies, over 61 percent of adults admit to being addicted to the Internet and digital screens. That translates to lost focus, split attention, and time lost. What suffers? Family, friends, our well-being, happiness, and personal or professional pursuits. 

The impact of workplace technology and corporate culture on employee health and well-being is complex. 

High dependence on technology at work often leads to digital overload. Between the sense of being always on, always connected and available, and the actual addictive nature of social media or video games, the digital world takes a toll. The idea of taking a break from digital devices is becoming increasingly popular.

This article explains the impact of digital overload at work. It outlines practical solutions to help you maximize the benefits of a digital detox in the workplace. It also paves the way to minimizing the risks to the health and well-being of your employees. 

Let's begin by unpacking what a digital detox is.

What is a digital detox?

A digital detox is a temporary period of reduced screen time in order to break addictive patterns and be more present in the physical world. During this period, you either completely disconnect from digital devices or reduce the amount of time spent online and on specific devices or apps.

Digital detoxing includes refraining from using digital devices such as smartphones and computers. 

The word "digital detox" first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, six years after the first iPhone was released. Since then, the amount of time spent on digital devices and the Internet has risen. 

Being connected and immersed in the digital world has become second nature. At the same time, an “always-on” culture was created.  

Over the past 10 years, as seemingly everyone got a smartphone, new phenomena, such as boundaryless work and social media obsession arose. 

Meanwhile, an array of research has shown the negative social and emotional effects of social media use. Add to that the physical damage — the swipe-sprained thumbs, hunched shoulders, and light-stunned eyes — that can occur from the musculoskeletal and neurological disruptions of being sucked into screens large and small. 

The current physical-distancing and remote-working climate in the aftermath of the pandemic exacerbate this culture. It is harder for us to switch off from our digital devices than ever before.

Time disappears into an endless scroll or rabbit hole of links.

As we become increasingly dependent on our digital devices, it’s crucial to consider doing a digital detox. To understand why, it’s important to understand the troubles associated with unregulated digital use

The dangers of excessive digital use

Technology makes our lives easier, but it doesn't necessarily make us happier. 

Ample research has linked technology with a decline in well-being and cognitive ability. Technology overuse in the workplace is linked to declines in our mental health and productivity. So is a lack of workday discipline or boundaries.

Research also shows that screen or technology addiction has the same negative effects on the brain as drugs and alcohol do. 

Excessive use of computers and smartphones has been linked to stress and depressive symptoms. The risk of these symptoms is elevated for individuals who used computers and mobile phones at the same time.

Excessive technology use has also been linked to other real concerns which include:

Sleep disorders

Sleep is vital to workplace performance. Organizations lose approximately $2,280 a year per sleep-deprived employee due to a depreciation of skills. These skills include communicating effectively, assessing risk, and producing innovative solutions. 

Self-image problems

Excessive technology use increases our exposure to other people's lives. Our friends and family tend to post comments and photos depicting our high points and positive memories. When we click through these posts, we often view our lives negatively in comparison. 

Social comparison makes it hard to be content. It reduces self-esteem and increases FOMO (fear of missing out). 

Impact on mental and physical health

Heavy device use may be linked to mental wellness and physical concerns including anxiety, weight gain, unhealthy eating, and lack of exercise.

Impact on work-life balance

Constant connectivity affects work-life balance. It contributes to work ethic problems and a lack of time management.

Research shows that 64% of employees are concerned they use their phones excessively (for work).

61% of employees agree that pressure to answer calls and emails outside of work increases their stress levels.

66% of employees admit that checking their phones for work-related messages can make them feel stressed. This can happen before they go to bed (64%) and first thing in the morning (70%). 

A digital detox has the optimized potential to address all of the dangers of digital overload at once. Let’s learn more about its benefits.  


What are the benefits of a digital detox? 

“Detoxing” has gained popularity due to its potential benefits of improving workplace well-being. Unplugging from devices, coming offline and/or turning off notifications, has many benefits.

Improve physical and mental health

Finding ways to distance and separate from the digital world can help to reduce the anxiety, nervousness, and worry associated with constant connectivity. It allows for a more positive life perspective. We learn how to stay connected without becoming consumed by digital devices.

Improve sleep

Detaching from electronic devices even two to three hours before sleeping can enhance sleep quality. It reduces our exposure to blue light, which signals our bodies to wake up. It causes us to fall asleep faster and enter a deeper, less interrupted sleep.

Increase productivity

A digital detox can enhance productivity. Our memory, creativity, energy levels, focus, and attention span are less altered.

Reduce stress

“Switching off” enables us to avoid the tech-induced stress that comes with constant connectivity. 

Tuning out from digital devices lessens opportunities to engage in social comparison. It decreases exposure to work crises communicated over email during off-hours. It reduces pressure to respond to them.

Maintain a better work-life balance 

Creating better boundaries between work and home creates more free time in everyday life. It empowers us to pick up new hobbies and develop mindful habits.

Increase sense of connection to others

Detoxing allows us to be fully present in the world “offline.” We can focus on real-life social interactions. Our attention shifts to building meaningful relationships and establishing stronger bonds.

Signs your workplace needs a digital detox

The following are signs of addiction to screens and devices. They can also signal that your workplace needs a digital detox.

“Always-on” culture. We are more focused on being “online” than forging human connections and relationships.

Employees feel compelled to check their email after official work hours. Some respond every few minutes whereas others are glued to the screen for a prolonged period of time. Both detract from maximizing time off from work for personal hobbies and interests.

Increased levels of employee burnout, low mood, and emerging mental health disorders.

Stressed or fractured relationships between colleagues.

Signs of sleeping disorders and inability to focus or complete tasks.

Reduced sense of work-life balance. This can surface poor time management or erratic and disorganized behavior.

How to do a digital detox at work

Turning off technology at work is not always a viable option, but all of us can take steps to turn down our digital use. 

Here are five tips for getting started with a digital detox for you or your workplace:

1. Hold no-tech meetings

While multitasking is harmful to productivity, tech-free meetings may enhance it. Studies show writing is better than typing for retention. And the physical act of writing engages different parts of the brain and can stimulate creativity and problem-solving.

Encouraging employees to use a notebook and pen to take notes will also help them detox. A notebook page doesn't have the distractions and sensory triggers to draw your attention in the same way that a digital device screen does. Using a notebook will improve their focus, memory, and communication skills.

We may also be perceived to be rude or less present when using devices in meetings. Device-free meetings enable everyone to fully tune in and play an active role in the group's success.

One method you can use to establish this practice and ensure buy-in and results is to: 

Establish ground rules before the start of a meeting.

At the start of the meeting, politely remind us that the meeting has a "no-devices in the room" policy. Inform attendees that they may leave the room if they need to field a call or email.

Communicate pre-set breaks for people to check their devices and be clear about when the meeting will end. Set a good example for others to follow.

2. Encourage one-screen limits, screen breaks, and tech-free windows

One-screen limits: Using one screen at a time is a small step towards digital detox. Consider making it a regular practice in the office.

What does this mean? It means consciously avoiding the habit of scrolling on a phone while working on a computer and maybe watching TV. It means not multi-tasking with devices.

To do this, keep your phone out of sight or off your desk. Get up to take a few steps when you need to check it. When you're finished, put it away and return to your seat.

Research has shown that focus improves simply by keeping the phone out of sight. It improves even more when the phone is physically tucked away, in a drawer or purse.

Screen Breaks. Screen breaks can help us relax, improve our posture, and increase our alertness.

According to research, short, frequent breaks are preferable to less frequent, longer breaks. The most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take up to 17-minute breaks. 

You can try your hand at this by taking a 5-10-minute break every 50-60 minutes. Even those with demanding jobs can achieve this feat.

Tech-free windows: Give team members a daily “tech-free” allowance and make it a norm to honor these times. During this time, they can set aside time to turn off devices and email. They are able to disconnect from everything that comes with it. 

An example would be choosing to unplug for an hour while eating lunch. No phone, no emails, no social media interaction. 

3. Promote turning off notifications

Encourage employees to set aside a single day, or even a few hours, each week to disable notifications. During this time, they can activate an out-of-office response. This will keep our coworkers and relevant clients informed of our tech tune-off.

An example message is: "Hello there, I'm not checking my emails between 1-2 pm each day. I will read your message after 2 p.m., but if it is urgent, please call me/my colleague [NAME] on [phone number]."

At BetterUp, many people have a practice of setting their Slack status to "flow zone" to block disruptive updates and IMs for a period of 3-4 hours at a time.

4. Encourage digital diets

Focus on being realistic, setting limits, and removing distractions.

Like a food diet, the digital detox process is about setting boundaries to ensure our device use benefits our emotional and physical health. 

This can be done in a variety of ways. Some ideas to consider include:

A digital fast: Try giving up all digital devices for a short period of time, such as a day or up to a week. Monitor your mood and well-being during this time. Take a few minutes to debrief in a journal and keep track of your experience.

Recurrent digital abstinence: Pick one day of the week to go device-free.

A specific detox: Consider this if a particular app, website, or digital tool is taking up too much of your time. Focus on restricting your use of that problematic item.

A social media detox: Focus on restricting or even completely eliminating your use of social media apps for a specific period of time.

You can also use a prescribed plan such as Forbes’ 30-day digital detox.

Another option is to create a weekly digital detox diet plan. An example looks like this: 

  • Monday: Unsubscribe from all unwanted emails.
  • Tuesday: Don’t look at your phone until you get to work.
  • Wednesday: Don’t look at your phone during lunch.
  • Thursday:  Set aside a two-hour period during which you don’t check emails. Set out-of-office notifications accordingly.
  • Friday: Stay off social media for the entire day.
  • Saturday: Do not check work emails or social media.
  • Sunday: Do not check work emails or social media.

Consider adding short periods of meditation and mindfulness into your digital diet. This will enhance your digital detox and help you de-stress at work. 

Read this step-by-step guide to meditation at work to get started.

5. Set up a detox buddy system

Leaders can support digital detoxing at the organizational level. They can help team members find a work buddy to digitally detox with. Buddies help us hold ourselves accountable for enduring the process.

Detoxing at work is a fun challenge, not a tedious chore, when you have a colleague with whom you can discuss plans and get support from.

Get started. Disconnect to reconnect

Digital detoxing enables us to bring our best selves to work. When we regulate our use of digital devices, rather than let them regulate us, we are more present, engaged, productive, and effective at work and at home. 

Explore BetterUp’s resources to optimize digital detoxing at your organization. Leverage this technology tune-off as an opportunity for team members to achieve greater mental fitness and personal and professional growth.New call-to-action

Published August 23, 2021

Maureen Obatomi

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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