Four days of digital detox in the wilds of Connemara on Ireland’s stunning west coast. No phone, no TV, no radio, no laptop. No WhatsApp , no Facebook, no Twitter , no Instagram, no email , no voice calls, or FaceTime calls, no SMS. Zero weapons of mass communication.
What was it like? This was honestly the first time since I got a mobile phone that I surrendered completely to it for any length of time, so you might expect withdrawal, but I experienced none of that. Quite the opposite. There was instant peace; an inner calm. Almost from the moment I watched that little screen go black, I became aware of a greater sense of control. I felt empowered that I was controlling all communication rather than the opposite.
The phone is an astonishing tool, and it allows me to run my business from anywhere in the world ; but if you don’t take care, the power balance shifts. You become so reactive to every beep and buzz that the phone is no longer the tool. You are. This WhatsApp demands a reply, this notification must be read, this Instagram message features a key client , that news item demands a tweet in response. And on those rare occasions when there’s no beep to react to, you take out your phone anyway. You’re conditioned to start scrolling every time you pause for breath.
What did I do instead? I enjoyed the silence. I ran on the beach, kayaked in Killary Fjord, went for a long hike in the mountains. Good food, good company. Myself and my wife got to spend uninterrupted time together. Switching off the phone made it so much easier to switch off from work and from the outside world. And the time spent was so much richer in consequence. I know we preach this to our professional athlete clients, and to our corporate executive clients; however I believed it was time to … switch off myself.
But I wouldn’t want to overstate the impact of four wifi-free days. And I would not want to claim of course to be great for doing ‘nothing’. The irony is that by doing nothing; I was having a huge impact on my mental and emotional wellbeing. The truth is that we should all have sufficient agency in our lives to avoid becoming a slave to the phone.
I reflected during this time that getting 50 minutes of exercise a day and twenty minutes of meditation won’t be worth a ‘mental or physical dime’ if you spend the rest of your day, texting , scrolling, scrolling, clicking and pecking out messages on a little rectangular piece of glass. Reacting, always reacting.
And what kind of leader would I be if I couldn’t leave my team to manage things for four days? If you need to be continually poised to answer every email the second it arrives, you’re not doing a very good job of leading yourself…
You don’t need to be plugged in all the time. Plan your day. Control your timetable. Set out what you’re going to tweet or blog or Instagram, or whatever it is. Focus and parcel up that time. Use it as you’ve planned, then move on. Show a little self-leadership. Apple says that iPhone users unlock their phones eighty times a day. Research firm Dscout found that we tap, type and swipe 2,600 times every day on average. Don’t surrender your time so needlessly.
Browse for three or four minutes in the morning if you need to know what’s current in business or sport or politics, but be assertive with your time. Stay in control. The truth is that going off grid should not be a big deal. It should be part of every energy management strategy. It should be a key element of a healthy lifestyle. There’s no shortage of research out there which implicates smart phone use in a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
With a little planning, everyone should be able to mange two hours of communication-free time every day, and one full day each weekend off grid.
The other point is that when you go without it for a while, you discover just how empty the phone’s demands are. When I powered up after four days, there were no missed opportunities, no urgent requests for meetings from heads of state or captains of industry. No one had died. The news cycle seemed barely to have shifted. Brexit, Boris, Trump. All seemed to have got on perfectly well without me. Who knew?