Why taking a 2-week digital detox break was one of the best things I ever did for myself

Jolly climbed to the top of a 3,000-plus-foot ridge to file this column and post to social media, her only online activity for two weeks.
Jolly climbed to the top of a 3,000-plus-foot ridge to file this column and post to social media, her only online activity for two weeks.

Panic. FOMO. Relief. That pretty much sums up the wave of emotions I experienced in the first five minutes after realizing I couldn’t get a reliable cell or WiFi signal for nearly two weeks straight during my recent adventures in Alaska.

I hadn’t planned to take a two-week break from all my gadgets and screens, or really even take any time off from work at all when I traveled home to the Kenai Peninsula – where I grew up and most of my family still lives. Every summer, I make this journey home every summer and every summer, I usually experience some glitch in the whole modern tech experience.

Until recently, my parents' internet service was dial-up caliber. Now they have a satellite tower on top of their roof to get speeds that make it “almost always” possible to do a video call without stuttering and freezing and having to dial back in every few minutes.

5G cell service and high-speed internet are still pipe dreams in remote areas like this. Unless you're willing to hike 3,000 feet up to a mountain ridge to register some bars on your phone, you aren't going to be checking email or posting to your social media accounts. (Confession: I did that once on this trip – to file this column.)

That’s all to say I should have been more prepared to be so out of touch in during my latest visit to the Last Frontier. Alas, I was not, mainly due to a few last-minute backcountry escapades to off-the-beaten-path spots. Nor was I prepared for how glorious and life-affirming my unplanned unplugging would be. It was one of the best things I’ve done for my mind, body and spirit for as long as I can remember.

Here are a few of the big takeaways, along with key reasons to take a few digital detox days yourself – planned or unplanned – as soon as humanly possible.

Rebooting creativity

Enjoying quiet and stillness amidst the wildflowers and wilderness – and no cell or wifi connection – on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.
Enjoying quiet and stillness amidst the wildflowers and wilderness – and no cell or wifi connection – on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

I thought my recent battles with “writer’s block” were stress-related. I used to crank out as many as three to five full news stories every single day. Now, I’m lucky to finish one a week. And all those creative story ideas I used to come up with as easily as other people blink? Gone. It’s painful and frustrating, and I’ve been totally flummoxed about how to “fix” it.

It took only about 30 minutes staring out across the greenish glacial waters near the Gulf of Alaska with a halibut fishing pole in my hand to realize all I really need is ... quiet. And I don't mean the kind of quiet that comes from shoving AirPods in your ears and trying to hide from your family. I'm referring to the real stillness and peace you get inside and out being 100% present in the moment.

My smartphone is often the first thing I engage with when I wake up and the last thing I touch before bed. I often fall asleep listening to an audiobook and wake up to news podcasts. Something is playing on my earbuds during most of my “free” time, filling up any quiet space in my life.

While it’s been great to learn a ton of new things and “read” dozens of books at the same time, I’m doing just about everything else – running, cleaning, driving, walking my dog, gardening – the constant noise has left little room for the kind of creative thinking it takes to do my job.

Sitting on my parents' boat surrounded by water, mountains and the occasional otter or orca brought me back to myself in all the best ways. It reminded me of what it was like when I was in college and returned home for a few months every summer to work as a deckhand on my dad's commercial fishing boat. The backbreaking physical labor was the perfect balance for the rest of the year that I spent using my brain more than my biceps.

Takeaway: Taking time away from digital distractions might be just what you need to reboot your brain.

Freedom to focus

It only took Jolly about 30 minutes staring out across the greenish glacial waters near the Gulf of Alaska with a halibut fishing pole in her hand to realize that the answer to her writer's block was quiet.
It only took Jolly about 30 minutes staring out across the greenish glacial waters near the Gulf of Alaska with a halibut fishing pole in her hand to realize that the answer to her writer's block was quiet.

My 21-year old nephew Connor came with me on that halibut fishing trip. He’s been a fanatical fisherman for most of his young life. So of all people, I thought he would have been thrilled to be on a boat, catching barn-door-sized fish, surrounded by some of the most dramatically stunning scenery in the world. But he barely touched a pole and didn’t catch a fish all day. Why? Because his nose was stuck in his smartphone the whole dang time.

The few times he could get a cell connection, he was totally sucked into TikTok and Snapchat. It was the same when we drove through Denali National Park. When we didn’t have any signal, he watched downloaded movies or played video games that work offline.

How many times have I done the same thing? Sadly, too many to count these past few years. In a book called “The Power of Off,” Nancy Colier wrote that “we are spending far too much of our doing things that don’t really matter to us.” Colier goes on to say too many of us are now “disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

Is another round of "Candy Crush" really worth more of my – or my nephews’ – focus than a conversation with my 82-year old father? The answer is – and always should be – no. Will my nephew someday look back on this incredible trip to Alaska – something some people save for a lifetime to do – and wish he would have put his phone down? I sure hope so.

As author Casey Schwartz writes in "Attention: A Love Story," “We have entered into a situation where the gadgets we carry around with us – and the cognitive rhythm they dictate – are pitted against the possibility of deep engagement …They ask us to be anywhere but here, to live in any moment but now.”

I’m grateful for this forced moment of gadget disconnection, if for no other reason than it made me focus more on my family, my surroundings and my personal well-being.

Takeaway: Putting down the devices helps you pay attention to what matters most.

More social satisfaction

More often than not these days, social media stresses me out. I need a constant presence on it for my job. But its side effects – comparing myself to others, worrying about how I look, battling constant misinformation and getting into petty political arguments – make me feel awful.

Not to mention the fact that I’m no spring chicken here. I’m nearly 30 years into a career that, by most standards, is nothing short of remarkable. It’s frustrating at best – and a real blow to motivation, self-esteem and productivity at times – to feel like my worth and value are tied to the daily hamster wheel of likes and followers.

Still, going without it is tough. Most of us can relate to at least some of the signs of social media addiction, which may include mindless scrolling, compulsive checking, a feeling like using it is out of our control, negative emotional responses from using it – and not using it – and feeling really anxious without it.

Taking a social media sabbatical has given me a healthier perspective already. It’s made me a lot more aware of the time I spent online – sometimes with total strangers – rather than having deeper, more meaningful conversations with my husband and daughter. They’ve both told me more than once in recent years that it seems I care more about Instagram or Facebook than paying attention to them. That’s a pretty tragic statement.

In a recent article that looks at social media as a pending public health crisis, founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, Helen Lee Bouygues, writes, “Social media is currently designed for ... addiction. People may willingly share their data in exchange for a free service that they value. But they have not agreed to submit to experimental manipulation that encourages slot machine-like behavior and can drive feelings of anxiety and depression. It's time we started treating social media for what it is: an addictive activity with serious health implications.”

Takeaway: Taking time off from social media feeds our need for real human connection and can help strengthen our most coveted relationships.

Battling burnout

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey shows three out of every 10 adults (31%) in the U.S. go online “almost constantly,” every day of the year. The report also reveals adults under 50 are the “vanguard of the constantly connected: 44% of 18-to-49-year-olds say they go online almost constantly.”

For many of us, the result of this constant connection is total burnout.

“By now, burnout is a given,” Dr. Lucy McBride, a Washington D.C.-based internist, wrote in The Atlantic. “Congratulations if you aren’t burned out. Perhaps you learned to play the guitar, wrote a screenplay, or took up French during the pandemic. But if you’re like me and most of my patients, you’re running on fumes.”

What I’ve realized here in Alaska is that I don’t have to try harder, do more and ratchet up my productivity. Instead, I have to refill the empty tank. I have to think of my brain as a battery that’s more important to recharge than my iPhone.

But how can any of us truly rebuild our post-pandemic world when our gadgets are more in control of our lives than we are? “To muster the energy for reentry into non-pandemic life, people need more than a vaccine and a vacation,” Dr. McBride writes.

We need to spend time with ourselves – away from gadgets, digital distraction and constant – yet not truly satisfying – connection. We need to remember what it’s like to be a human again.

Takeaway: There’s never been a better – or more urgent – time to rethink our relationship with technology.

Hopefully, you won’t have to hang out with bears, moose and millions of mosquitos to figure this out. But if you do, I know just the place to get a good, old-fashioned paper map and might even have the time now to help you figure out how to use it.

► Phone addiction? Problematic smartphone use may be bad for your brain. How to unplug

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Digital detox: Reboot your brain and relationships with a tech break