Why I took a digital detox, and why you should, too

“If you feel stuck in your life of in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.
No reading? That’s right: no reading.”

This is a direct quote from The Artist’s Way, a creative person’s bible by Julia Cameron, and a book I’ve been going through a chapter a month with a group of ladies. So far, I’ve been inspired by much of what Cameron has written in this book. But this? No. I mean, seriously no. What she was suggesting was absolutely ludicrous. I mean a writer not reading? Besides that, I’m on a mission to read 100 books this year, a goal that has my nose constantly in a book. A week without reading would have me playing catch-up when I already felt crunched for time.

Let’s just say that Cameron’s cute little no reading challenge was not taken well. I pretty much dismissed it when I first read it.

But then I kept going back. Each time I re-read that section, it sounded a little less absurd. In this “no reading” passage, Cameron went on to say:

For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried.
It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world. With no newspaper to shield us, a train becomes a viewing gallery. With no novel to sink into (and no television to numb us out) an evening becomes a vast savannah in which furniture – and other assumptions – get rearranged.
Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words – long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to case a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well.

I eventually reached a point where I figured I might as well give this whole no reading thing a shot. After all, it was one week, and if it really sucked that bad, I could just quit. I mean, what could Miss Julia No Reading do to me? Take away my Kindle?

The no reading rule, of course, went beyond just books, though that was the part that hurt the most. No reading meant letting go of following the news, reading social media, checking my email, and letting go of all forms of entertainment, including TV and movies. To be honest, all of those reasons were what sold me on the whole week of no reading. I’m not much of a TV or movie watcher, but I am an avid consumer of the news and social media, and all of it has been forming this huge weight of pressure on my shoulders. I needed a break from it, and I couldn’t figure out how. This whole no reading thing became my excuse to let it go for a moment, to breathe without the constant marketing, screaming headlines, attention seeking posts and articles. I was tired of comparing my real life to everyone’s highlights reels, feeling this tug-of-war between wanting to quiet the noise and wanting to contribute to it.

And so, on Friday night, I scrolled through my Facebook and Instagram once again, I took one last glance at the headlines, checked my email, and then read the book I was in the middle of until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then I locked all my apps and went to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up and went straight to journaling. I journaled for hours, never once interrupting my writing time with a “quick” check on social media or refreshing my email. I just let my stream of consciousness go wild, all while listening to music. Then I cleaned the house, because if I couldn’t read, I could at least make sense of the piles. When that was done, I pulled weeds until my plants spread their leaves and grinned.

I also spent time just noticing – watching bugs crawl through the grass, watching clouds take on different shapes, watching people interact with each other, how it felt to breathe in and then breathe out, over and over again.

The daytime was relatively easy not to read anything. I didn’t miss social media or the news AT ALL. I could feel that weight lifting off my shoulders as I just enjoyed being a part of the world again. But nighttime? That was a different story. My before bed routine is to REEEEEAD. It’s when I get the most reading in. Knowing I couldn’t crack open my Kindle, I stalled going to bed, because seriously, what was I going to do? Sleep? Pshaw.

Since I couldn’t read, I decided to listen to music instead. While my husband sat next to me watching his nightly movie on his iPhone, I put on my headphones and listened to music. And let me tell you, this was a whole different experience. I felt myself relax as I let the music carry me into sleepiness. When I finally rolled over and went to sleep, it was one of the most restful sleeps I’ve ever had.

(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, but music was one of the things I allowed in my digital detox. So there.)

Sunday was more of the same. We took a hike in the morning. I edited my manuscript. I enjoyed time with the family. I colored in a coloring book.

I wished I had my book.

But I made it.

And then Monday came, along with my regular work week.

Now, the whole digital detox was easy while I was at home, not needed on the computer. But at work, I’m paid to be on the computer all day. I managed to stay off my social media, but I took a peek at my email and saw a few freelance jobs that came in that needed my attention. That led to checking the news and seeing all the stuff that had happened over the past two days (it was a lot).

Let’s just say it was a downward spiral. And by Monday night, I figured my Kindle was the least evil of all my reading habits, and so I opened it and finished the book I’d been reading before my digital detox. And I loved every minute of it, even as I broke the rules I’d set only three days earlier.

However, I’m still calling this experiment a win. For one weekend, I stayed away from digital media altogether, and actually felt rested by Monday morning. I also kept my social media at bay (for the most past) for the whole week, and my news and email consumption to a minimum. It’s something I’d like to make a more regular habit. I’m not willing to give up any part of digital media completely, but I can change my habits around it, like being more intentional in how I use it (instead of mindless scrolling), and scheduling days when I nix digital media altogether.

Here are the things about the digital handcuffs that have harmed me the most:

  • Using digital media to “take a break,” even though I never feel restful when using it.
  • Turning to digital media when I’m stumped for ideas, and then discovering I’ve spent much more time scrolling than I’d intended to.
  • Comparing my true self with other people’s best selves.
  • Feeling discontent in my life when I see all the fun everyone else is having.
  • Feeling the pressure to produce when I’m the only one expecting that of me.
  • Feeling inadequate as I see everyone else’s brilliant posts while mine feel mediocre and boring.
  • Being bombarded by the same information from multiple channels (i.e. overshared memes, articles, the constant re-posts of information or events from certain guilty friends, etc).
  • Missing out on life because my attention is on a screen in front of me.

Here’s what I gained in my time away from digital media:

  • True rest.
  • Being present in the moment.
  • Noticing the things around me, like how sweet the birds sing, how fresh the air feels, how great the sun feels on my back.
  • An increased ability to pay attention.
  • The act of breathing actually felt easier, and purposeful.
  • Not feeling the need to hurry, in anything.
  • A lot of time!
  • Lack of pressure to compete with anything or anyone.
  • Recognizing all the great things in my life right now.
  • Peace.

And so much more.

If you’re feeling too hurried, maybe you need a digital detox, too. Maybe you’d like to attempt a week of no reading (or a weekend, like me), or just some time away from social media, the news, or any other digital media that’s causing you stress. If you do take a digital break, be sure to come back here when you’re done and let me know how it went. If you’ve ever taken one before, let me know how that went, too, and some of the things you’ve done while going screen free.

P.S. If you take a digital detox and are stumped for things to do, I wrote a few suggestions at the Press Democrat’s family blog here.

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