Technology is awesome – I think we can all agree on that one. Internet has enabled me to become the person I am — to learn so many things I was interested in, and meet many dear friends over forums and social networks.
That said, technology has a negative side as well, and I've often felt how being connected to the internet all the time is diminishing my quality of life. As a highly sensitive person, I've found that I'm regularly overloaded with input that throws me off my game.
I don't read the newspaper and I don't watch TV, so I consider myself fairly disconnected from the news, advertisements, celebrity gossip and other types of brainwashing propaganda. But I can't even visit Facebook or Twitter without being reminded of all those things I'm trying to avoid. Even if we put the obviously negative stuff aside and focus only on the good kind of information, online interactions can get a bit too much as well.
Since I have a natural tendency for over-thinking, being immersed in information every day gives my brain even more material to chew on, and it spirals out of control. I take every opinion and piece of information and dwell on it, examining it from all sides and see how it relates to me. It's exhausting and leaves me with less brain processing power for my own creative endeavors.
Of course it would be better if I could just stop over-thinking, but I've been doing that since I can remember, so it's not going to stop overnight. Until then, I need to manage my sensory input better.
On several occasions during the past few years, I've had a feeling like I've lost my "mojo". I was overworked and stressed, and even the things I used to love lost their appeal. There was nothing that could make me feel better (except a huge amount a chocolate, but after I ate it I'd get sick so even that didn't really work). Getting up in the morning was a horrible experience in itself.
A practice that has helped me to get out of this negative spiral was something I now call the mind detox retreat.
In this post I'll reveal what exactly is that I do during this mind detox, the benefits I get from a media sabbatical, and why it might be a good idea to try it, even if you're not a tree-hugging hippy.
Several years ago I've stumbled into a yoga thing called the 9 day spiritual test. I tried it maybe twice in its integral form, but then I created a different form that was better suited to what I needed. Here's my variation:
Mind detox guidelines
- No news input of any kind
No newspaper, internet news portals, radio or TV news. News is bad for you anyway, so you might as well give it up for good.
- No television of any kind
You might say "Ha, that's easy, I don't even have a TV!" But by this I don't mean just the old-fashion television. This includes any video media like YouTube, your favorite series, movies on DVD etc.
- No social media, forums or blogs
This is my addition. I simply don't log into any social media. I trust that everyone important enough can contact me through other means. I also don't read blogs and newsletter content (basically any form of opinion publications).
- No communication of dissatisfaction
No moaning, swearing or grumbling. If you can change something – change it. If you can't, accept that you can't. Make a conscious effort not to be negative about things, especially out loud.
- No criticism of any kind
Do not point your dissatisfaction at other people, either.
- Witness thoughts & actions
A more familiar term for this is being present. It means being fully engaged in what is currently going on, and not thinking about the past or the future. It also means bringing conscious awareness to the things you do, and not just doing them automatically.
- Daily meditation
Recommended time is 20 minutes, but if you're only getting started, even 5 minutes twice a day is good.
- Wake up earlier
I'm not a natural early riser, but considering less time spent browsing the internet, you can push your bedtime a little earlier than usual.
- Review & recall
Before sleep as you're lying in your bed, run over your day from the beginning to the end. Feel the gratitude for the highlights, and consider the not-so-great stuff that happened and where you may have played differently (try to do it without guilt and judging).
Benefits of mind detox
More free time
The key benefit of course is you'll free up a whole lot of time and energy for other things! When you're not allowed to "just check if someone has replied to your post", you're left with few other alternatives.
Either you go and do something productive (awesome!), or you sit down and chill on your couch, or go for a walk (also awesome!).
I've found that people are very unaware of how much time they actually spend on certain activities. I've been using RescueTime to monitor my online activities, and it has revealed that I spend way more time on Facebook and YouTube than I originally thought (and my friends confirmed they've noticed the same). If you think "That can't be true, I'm not spending too much time on social media", check for yourself.
Making the best of your leisure time
I've wrote in my post Productivity Tips from a Hopeless Procrastinator about savoring "laziness" and doing activities that are actually recharging you, instead of just squandering your time.
While fooling around social networks, watching TV or reading magazines may be relaxing activities, they're not exactly activities that will fuel you up for creative action.
You may not even know what kind of leisure you need. Maybe you've been defaulting to internet browsing for so long, you don't remember what you used to do before that. Give yourself some time to explore. Here are some ideas that I personally like:
- taking a walk in nature
- sitting on my balcony or in my garden, just soaking in the view and not doing anything (drinking tea while you do it is optional)
- doodling in my sketchbook
- daydreaming about a goal I want to achieve (creative visualization)
- writing down all the things that bother me at the moment (braindump on paper)
- taking a nap
- various creative hobbies I usually "don't have time for"
- writing in my journal
This type of sabbatical is a great way to learn more about yourself, and what truly fills your creative well.
Less noise in your mind
I've found that being isolated from the global chatter helps me get clearer on what my own thoughts are.
As an empath (not the Deanna Troi type, but not too far from it, either), I find it too easy to get pulled into other people's perspectives, and it leaves me drained and confused. I need a lot of "cave time" to function properly, but since I'm not paying enough attention to this on a daily basis, I focus outward more than is healthy for me.
We get more critical of ourselves after being exposed to other people's work and stories. We compare ourselves with people who are farther ahead of us, and feel miserable because we're not there yet. We accept other people's definitions of success. We get disconnected from ourselves. Our thoughts are no longer our own – they're a mix of other people's opinions.
I realize this may not be the problem for some people, but I didn't know I had it either, until I've tasted what it feels like not to be immersed in communication with other people for a change. Once you've tried it, it becomes a bit addicting.
Being unplugged helps me reclaim my brain resources and get more clarity.
I don't hear about things I don't need to know about. This may mean daily events covered by news and discussed by friends on social media, or they may be just irrelevant things you'd normally glance at, shake your head and move on.
Either way, less things that are not directly related to you will come your way. You might fear you'll miss out on something really important, but trust me – you'll still get to hear about things that matter to you.
This also has a tremendous impact on my creativity, allowing me to focus on developing my body of work without being influenced by trends and fear of missing out. I wrote a long and in-depth article about this: Creativity in digital isolation.
Stop learning and start implementing
Getting away from blogs, forums, newsletters and videos helps to shift your mode from acquiring new information, to implementing it into your life.
You'll be surprised how much you know already if you try to rely only on yourself for a short while.
Having more time to think in peace, and paying attention to everything you say and do creates the conditions for getting deep realizations about yourself and your life. Every sabbatical of mine has blessed me with so much clarity in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Usually my mind is so scattered and full of irrelevant junk, that the daily meditations I do only calm it down a bit so I can be functional. During the mind detox, after the first 2-3 days when I've gotten into a more peaceful state, things start opening up for me. I literally meditate on a problem, and get sudden realizations about solutions. I know it sounds strange to those unaccustomed to meditation and introspection, but the only way to confirm this can work is to try it out for yourself.
After the retreat
Personally, after the day 5 or 6, I don't even want to go back to my old ways. I'd rather just not come back online at all. However, I feel like I need social media and blogs in my work, so I do go back every time.
What I can do is to make a few promises.
I can promise myself that I'll do this again whenever I feel the need to.
I can promise that I'll continue with the good habits I've started implementing.
I can promise that I'll have a portion of my day that is only my own, and free of every outside distraction. I've started enforcing "no e-mail or social networks before noon" rule – it's a great way to start my day with the activities that are enjoyable and productive before I start responding to other people's requests. (To learn more about why and how I do it, read my posts My top 5 tips for preventing time suck & increasing productivity and A simple tip for better creative productivity.)
You may have a healthier relationship with the Internet than I am, but if you have any doubts about your ability to disconnect, give it some thought. Trust me, it's worth it.
(If you want to read more tips on burnout that don't involve becoming a media hermit, read my post about dealing with creative burnout.)
Update: Taking it to the next level
Since I've wrote this post, I've had many week-long online media fasts, and each time it was beneficial both for my state of mind and my productivity.
In December 2015 I decided to raise the bar and take one whole month without social media, blogs, videos and podcasts. You can read more about this in my posts before the retreat, and after the retreat.