Is it time for an Internet detox?

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When the study came out a few months ago that said that body structures were changing and that people were in fact developing horn-like growths on the backs of their skulls from constantly looking down at their phones, did you:

  • Read this story on your phone?
  • Check the back of your head for horns?
  • Share the story on social media?
  • All of the above?

While the study has been somewhat debunked, the true story is that the majority of Canadians may well choose all of the above: we are a nation of very, very digitally connected people.

In fact, the recent study by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) about Canada's Internet use found that only 15% percent of us have spent more than a week offline in the last year and only one in five have spent more than eight consecutive hours offline.

Does this mean we are addicted? Would we be better off ditching our phones and Facebook accounts altogether? Is it time to do the equivalent of Dry January, where people “reset their relationship with alcohol”?

While decisions about engagement with technology affect people across sectors, this most definitely includes — and perhaps most particularly includes — those in the nonprofit sector. One person said, “If you work in nonprofit, you believe in what you’re doing and so you want to be there. You also know that there aren’t a lot of resources and everyone is doing multiple roles, so if you disengage, that means someone else is likely having to do your work in addition to their own.”

With all this in mind, we decided to talk with people in the sector who struggle with limiting technology, as well as those who have developed a good relationship with technology and connectivity.

Technology is a tool

Back at the start of the Industrial Revolution, afraid technology was taking over their craft, a group of English textile workers destroyed the machinery they believed threatened their futures. Their name— Luddites—has come to be used by anyone who resists new technology.

But while many of those we talked with agreed that they struggled to have a healthy relationship with technology, they first and foremost said technology had revolutionized their life in many positive ways.

Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching and author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”, recalls, “I was an early adopter of smartphone technology. It was fabulous to have a new sense of control: I didn’t have to wait to get back to my office to see messages. It reduced my stress and gave me a sense of ease.”

A recent study of Canadians’ digital habits conducted by Simplii Financial found that Canadians continue to find motivation and value from using technology, with 43% saying that technology simplifies their life, and 40% saying it saves time.

But, Chadnick adds, “For every good thing that occurs as a result of being connected, there’s a shadow side where technology becomes disruptive and challenging. Our attention has been pulled so strongly into a habit of constant checking and being on that it has unfortunately overridden some of the benefits and has become burdensome because we can never get off the treadmill.”

Kimberley MacKenzie knows well the cost of never getting off the treadmill: “I was so caught up with work and being online that my marriage fell apart before I even noticed.” Now a strategic consultant, but then an executive director and director of development, MacKenzie adds, “I thought social media was the real way to stay connected. When I was blogging and tweeting all day and making connections online, I thought I was building a career but I was actually wrecking my family and my health.”

Others report less dramatic but no less real downsides to constant connection: more than half the Millennials recently surveyed reported missing an important moment because they were trying to capture it on social media.

While 79% of Canadians in the Simplii survey agree that digital tools help simplify their lives, over half (54%) say they want less tech.

Paul Nazareth, vice president, education & development, of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, who is often considered one of the most connected people in the nonprofit sector in Canada, is actually passionate about not being connected all the time. While Nazareth sings the praises of technology for helping him be better organized, more productive and an efficient and cost-efficient traveler, he says, “It’s vital to remember that this is a tool and you need to make it work for you rather than the other way around.” He also cautions people to be vigilant in remembering, “If you aren’t paying, you are the product. Social media is designed to take.”

Going cold turkey?

Back in 2013, a group of neuroscientists looked at what happened to the brains and bodies of people who gave up all their devices for four days. They found after several days that participants developed more eye contact and better posture (no more horns!) and began engaging more with others, remembering details from conversations. They slept better and were able to reflect more deeply on changes they wanted to make in their lives. Some of the participants described the digital detox as life-changing, and said they wanted to reset their relationship with technology by incorporating short but regular breaks from being connected.

Increasingly there is a movement where people seek out opportunities to disconnect. There have even been Canadian digital detox camps where participants deliberately leave their phones behind.

Chadnick says, “There can be merit to taking time out, to experience what it’s like to go offline or off social media.” But this doesn’t have to mean weeks or days. “When we’re constantly checking our messages, we are in a distracted mode, cluttering our brain and not giving it a chance to make interesting new connections. When we choose to disconnect – whether that’s while driving, going for a walk or just sitting on the subway—it gives our brain a chance to pause and to make creative connections. Something magical can happen.”

So why don’t we?

For some people, going off social media or going offline is complicated because it’s a major part of their job. “As the communications manager for a small not-for-profit, I find it virtually impossible to disconnect fully,” says Heather Desserud, director of operations for the Fathom Fund. “Even on vacation, I will keep a general eye on social media and email. I feel like I’m on top of things rather than feeling the panic of coming back to a full inbox. For me, the stress of returning to sift through what I’ve missed is worse than never disconnecting.”

For others, it’s about the dreaded FOMO: fear of missing out. Fundraising strategist and host of An Hour to Give, Sam Laprade says, “I have a lot of FOMO. Because my career is so varied and my head is in so many different places, I follow a lot of threads. Also, sometimes I’m Skyping at 10 at night because it’s 2 in the afternoon where my clients are.” Somewhat tongue in cheek, Laprade says the ideal solution to overconnectivity would be for “Everyone else to stop using it too or for everyone to agree on certain online hours.”

Still others feel the need to be in what Chadnick calls, “the habit of being busy.” MacKenzie says, “A lot of people send email so you know they are working.” Finally, while psychiatrists have not classified phone or Internet overuse as an addiction, Laprade says, “I think it is an addiction. When we think about most addictions – alcohol, food, sex, gambling – they remove you from your reality. Our phones do that too, whether it’s for work or not.”

Tools to manage the tools

If Nazareth is right that technology is a tool, the question arises about what tools we need to manage the tools. Here are ideas from the people we talked with:

1. There are no shoulds. Chadnick says, “For some people being completely unplugged could be extremely stressful. What’s important is figuring out what truly works for you. Discern and decide.” For Nazareth this also has to do with age and stage of life.

2. Start small. Chadnick suggests experimenting with different ways of using and not using technology, and observe the results in terms of your well-being, creativity and productivity. Adjust as necessary to learn the art of doing nothing in the right doses.

3. Set boundaries and communicate them to manage expectations. Chadnick says, “You have to decide what it looks like for you to create some space from technology, whether that is in the early morning, evening, weekend or while on holidays.” She suggests developing boundaries for when you will and won’t be online and communicating those to those you work with. Laprade also does this while on holidays with her daughter, setting an hour in the afternoon and an hour before supper to check emails and work, while engaging in the real world for the rest of the day. Nazareth’s mantra is, “Be on when you’re on and off when you’re off.”

4. Reduce stimuli. Nazareth says he has experienced “phantom haptic syndrome” where he checks his phone because he thinks it has buzzed; his solution is to get his phone away from himself. In the evenings, he puts his devices in a box by the door and leaves it there. 69% of those in the Simplii study took at least some apps off their phones, while Laprade has taken most notifications off her phone.

5. Know when to step away. Desserud says, “I base it on my mental state. If my brain is racing at night and I’m not sleeping well or getting frustrated, or if I stop being interested in my hobbies, I know it’s time to take a break from technology and to relax.”

6. Go old school. MacKenzie says, “My cell phone is on my website and at the bottom of every email. People know I welcome them to phone me when they want to talk.” She also says, “Sometimes I shoot a note to people I really value in my professional network and tell them that I want to see them in real life to catch up. We need to make sure we’re still building those personal connections.”

7. Use tech to minimize tech. Both Laprade and MacKenzie use timers or ambient noise apps that prevent them from going online while they are doing “deep work”.

8. Use tech to schedule tech strategically. Nazareth says, “People think I’m connected but it’s all a smokescreen. I only spend scheduling time once a week and am only live at the events or meetings. What I do is build up a social media calendar where I schedule posts in advance, and across platforms.”

9. Start your day offline. MacKenzie says, “My practice is to wake up and write in my journal. Sometimes I pray and meditate. I read and have breakfast. Then I sit down and start work.”

10. Know your kryptonite. While Nazareth schedules his tweets, he says, “I could spend days watching life hacks on YouTube.” He has changed his annual Lenten fasting from food to digital, this year giving up YouTube for 40 days. He also has muted key words he finds toxic on social media.

11. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that can happen?

What can organizations do?

“In today’s world, we need the best of people’s thinking and creative capacity,” says Chadnick. “Smart organizations recognize the neuroscience that says people who are plugged in constantly aren’t able to perform at their best. They respect those who unplug.” Even better are those senior leaders who model and reward staff for being offline, says MacKenzie. Desserud says, “The leadership at my organization set an example in this: when they go on holidays, they aren’t reachable but instead provide an emergency contact.” Desserud’s immediate supervisor supports her by reminding her to get offline when she is away from work. Some organizations institute no-email days, while others recognize the value of a quiet place for staff to work so that they don’t need to be working from the quiet of their homes in the evenings.

Chadnick says, “When we blame our challenges on tech, it’s like blaming our overeating on the cake.” But we not only need to be willing to change our habits, but to be an outlier in a connected world. To this, Nazareth quotes one of his mentors, Robin Sharma, who says, “If you want to have the results only 5% of the population have, you've got to be willing to do what 95% of the population are just not willing to do.” In this case, Nazareth says, “In an always-on world, we have to be vigilant about being off.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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