How to Unplug Without Going Cold Turkey: 4 Ways That Work

So, when's the last time you read the morning paper — on paper?. (Photo: S_L/Shutterstock)

Some days you can feel it: your brain is overwhelmed, hyperstimulated by social media, a million pinging devices (OK, four, but it feels like more) challenging your ability to stay focused on any task. And if it’s a big news day (elections, a scandal erupting, a natural disaster), forget it — you might even be using more than one device at a time. According to a report from the Center for Large-Scale Data Systems at the University of California San Diego, the average American will access 15.5 hours of media a day by 2015, which is only possible if you are watching TV while Facebooking on your phone, or some such combination.

It’s almost impossible to take a step back and even remember the days when you heard about events on the evening news after you got home from work. But once, not long ago, we did — we waited until later to hear news, or to communicate with friends.

And while the science is still out on exactly what the long-term effects of our devices are on our brains (early information seems to point to negative impacts), I know I'm not the only for whom it just doesn't feel good. And if you can’t — or don’t want to — go cold turkey and turn off your phone for a week and hang out in a yurt on a mountaintop (it seems like a better idea than the reality, in my experience), you can still reduce your dependence on being connected. Here’s what has worked for me.

1. Take stock of how much time you actually spend using devices: I had no idea how much time I spent (wasted?) frittering away online every day until I made a check on a Post-It every time I checked my Facebook and email. I did it for two days in a row and then counted. I know I can't be the only one who, between my phone and my laptop, from wake-up time to bed, racks up an almost insane-sounding number of check-ins. On what I consider to have been normal days, I checked Facebook 23 times and my email more than 30. That's just a waste of time, and just knowing how often I did it immediately made me less obsessive and more likely to stay on task.

2. Don't get online until you start work: If you begin your days by rolling over and checking your phone, stop. Morning time can be yours (and your family's) again, with just the simple new habit of waiting until you get to work — or start work — to check email and news sites. Want to get the news? Consider subscribing to your local or regional newspaper and reading the hard copy in the morning, in the quiet, over breakfast. Or, have a chat with your family, or spend that time meditating. There's no reason to start work before you get to work, and morning time should be private time. I've found that keeping the phone off in the morning is the easiest time to resist the siren call of your phone and email, and it sets the tone for the rest of the day.

3. Take a real break: Often, it seems that taking a break during the workday means checking your personal email, Facebook account, or Twitter stream. But that's not a real break. Take a walk, make a cup of tea, and most importantly, walk away from your desk or workspace. A real break will make you feel revived, helps your brain process information better, and ups your productivity and creativity — checking your social media accounts is not the same thing.

4. Time yourself: If you find it hard to get through an entire movie at home without checking your phone or logging in, that is the perfect length of time to force yourself not to do so. Read a book for 60 or 90 minutes, watch a movie, garden, or go for a 45-minute walk, and make that time you specifically don't check your phone or computer. Set a timer if you need to.