Earlier this year I found myself waking up in sweat-laced anxiety for a week straight. I’d wrapped a month of high-stakes projects that put me at the top of my freelance career. I was financially secure, felt professionally accomplished, and had never been so flush with great projects. So why was I bolting upright in the middle of the witching hour?
During a 3:00 a.m. emergency journaling session (I’ve learned to think of it as paper therapy), I realized that in my efforts to please clients, I’d neglected the routines that had made me successful to begin with: making time to reflect, exercise, plan, and knock out real, focused work without any digital distractions.
My work required me to check email first thing in the morning. No big deal–adults can adapt. But after a project ended, I continued to check it first thing. Other little rules and routines eroded while bad ones stuck around and worsened. Soon I found myself compulsively checking email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my text messages up to 30 times a day. I felt like a junkie.
So I made a decision:
- No Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn for a month.
- Check email only twice a day (or only after four hours of solid work).
- One round of text messages in the evening.
I wrote down each of these rules on a single sheet of paper. By the end of the month, this set of restrictions had led me to the highest productivity and earnings of my freelance career. Here’s how it worked out.
Breaking My Most Distracting Habits
The first morning was cold turkey. I had to parry a thousand little thought-daggers, like, “Come on, Facebook isn’t so bad” or, “You probably have something really important in your inbox–why don’t you just check it real quick?”
But I bit the bullet and managed to plow through my work that morning without giving in. And four hours later, I reclaimed every bit of confidence that had steadily vanished over the last month–to my surprise, the mind-set change happened that fast. And I slept like a log that night.
To prevent a digital relapse on Day 2, I came up with a month’s worth of daily and weekly steps I could take to stick with it. Whenever I felt the urge to fiddle around on Facebook, I decided to use that as my cue to bust out my planner and find something more valuable to do.
If Facebook felt appealing at a given moment, it was probably a sign that my focus was fading or I was wrapping up one task but hadn’t moved on to another yet–so it was a natural time to hit “reset.” Within the first few days, this had become self-reinforcing. The more proactive decisions I made, and the more work I got done, the more confidence I gained, and the less dependent I felt on the digital comforts that had held me back.
By the end of the first week, I’d overcome every one of the digital addictions I’d set out to break. I’d also pulled in around $5,000 in new business–double my previous record.
How My Digital Detox Became A Lifestyle
I started my digital detox over three months ago and, technically, I’m still on it–though now it’s more of a lifestyle. My four-rule regimen has helped me keep my priorities straight and stick with the routines that make my happy and sustain my income. I’ve also discovered a few truths:
- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social platforms gave me zero value as daily habits. Worse than that, they ate up my focus, which kept me from accomplishing as much as I could. I honestly don’t miss them.
- Emails can always wait. This might not be the case if you work in an office, but for freelancers email is rarely all that urgent. If you work for yourself, the main reason you’re successful isn’t because you respond quickly to others but because you’re good at directing yourself. So I delay email until I’ve already behaved like the successful person I want to be–at least for a four-hour stretch. And if something really is urgent, my clients have my phone number. I limit email so it doesn’t limit me.
- There’s no reason for text-alerts. Just like with emails, if there’s a true emergency, a person can always give me a call. So I turned my phone’s text-message push notifications off. This way I don’t need to worry about texts at all during my workday. If I check them once in the evening, my focus stays intact all day long, and so far I’ve found that I don’t miss out on a damn thing.
My first month of digital detoxing was so successful that I decided to continue it into a second month. And after the second month ended with higher confidence and more accomplishments under my belt than any month previously, I decided to go for a third. Now it’s just the way I live my life.
I’m more in tune with what I need to do to feel good about myself professionally. I’m less concerned about other people’s opinions. And I have more time and focus to do the things I actually love–like play beach volleyball and spend time with my family and friends. Now that I’m not constantly in a reactive mode, consuming social content and checking notifications all the time, I’m more fully present with the people and activities that actually deserve my attention.
Striking A Sustainable Balance
These days, now that I’ve broken my lowest-value habits, I’ve eased up on my restrictions a little (but not a lot!) and have struck a balance for the long term.
Sometimes I’ll check my texts a handful of times when the need arises. I still shoot for two email checks a day–and sometimes none–but there have been days when I’ve dipped into my inbox five times in a day and didn’t wind up regretting it; the next day I went right back to the four-hour rule with no trouble. As long as I commit to a productive, reflective, and confidence-boosting morning routine, and as long as I stay goal-oriented, I don’t have to worry about these tools interfering with my life. Everything in moderation.
But one thing I’ve thoroughly cut back on is social media; I’ve learned it’s just not a part of my balance. In letting that habit go for good, I’ve forced myself to be more social in real life, like going out for coffee or lunch with friends, and scheduling more in-person networking time–things that actually enrich my life. I’ve passed on this digital detox recipe to my coaching clients, and one thing I’ve heard some of them saying already is, “I actually look forward to Monday more than Friday now.”
Because kicking ass is fun. And when you’re not distracted into digital oblivion, kicking ass is exactly what you’ll do. So start tomorrow. You might be surprised how far it takes you–I know I was.
Daniel Dowling is the founder of MillennialSuccess.io, where he shares action steps and inspiration for millennials and their employers. You can find more of his work on Entrepreneur, mindbodygreen, and Fitbit.com.