14 Days With (Almost) No Internet: Did My Digital Detox Pay Off?

mexico feet
Image via  WillDaravong

This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog. Follow Ryan on LinkedIn:

Last month, my story on 5 apps to help you “digital detox” got quite a reaction. I appreciate all of your comments. And yes, I agree with many of you, sometimes it is kind of lame to fight technology with even more technology. So I felt a real digital detox was in order. Here’s my story.

Last year, tech writer Paul Miller made waves online when The Verge published his article detailing a unique personal experiment: going one full year with absolutely no internet.

Of course, at the time, what we all wanted to know was what amazing revelations did Miller have from his 365 days offline? Would he confirm how evil the internet is, how it leads us to waste endless hours of our precious time, how it keeps us from having real interactions, all the while making us increasingly number and dumber?

As it turns out, despite a promising first few months of the experiment (during which he lost weight, took time to smell the flowers and wrote a lot of stuff), what Miller discovered in the end was that the very technology he’d begun to vilify actually had very little, if anything, to do with his life’s problems. His tendencies toward laziness and unproductivity, his problems staying connected to friends and family, his general dissatisfaction with himself and his life remained largely the same—with or without the internet. In fact, Miller realized that without the net he had started becoming even more “out of sync with the flow of life.” And so at midnight on day 365 of his experiment, seconds before his year-long purge came to an end, Miller concluded: “When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted or click on all the wrong links … But at least I’ll be connected.”

Going offline, almost

Last month, I went on my own two-week long digital detox. It was a tiny fraction of the time Miller spent offline, but it was the longest I’ve gone without almost any internet in 13 years.

Why did I do it? For a while I’d felt the urge to try fully disconnecting to free myself from the neverending obligations and the constant stimuli. I wanted to take a break from it all for a couple of weeks at least to see what happened. After all, throughout the last decade, I’ve been plugged in 24-7, hyperreactive to my email inbox and social feed—living in a world where the line between digital and real gets a bit blurred at times.

I haven’t of course forgotten that I’m CEO of a social media company. My life’s work is built around the premise that being connected makes our lives richer, more rewarding and more efficient, both at home and in the office. Still, I’d forgotten one key lesson along the way: moderation. As more and more of my life was spent scanning social feeds and weeding out my inbox, I realized that I needed to step back and get some perspective.

So on my winter vacation to Mexico, I took a break from being active on the internet for the entire trip. For a whole 14 days, I ate a lot of delicious fish tacos, surfed and fixed up mypalapa (hut) on the beach. I didn’t write or send any emails. I didn’t check my Twitter feed. I didn’t obsessively scan any Top 10 lists. The one out I did give myself was checking my email inbox periodically—just to make sure an emergency wasn’t unfolding while I was away.

What I learned from my short experiment was actually not too unlike what Miller learned. I didn’t end up discovering that technology is evil. In fact, I found myself reflecting on how living and breathing tech over the last few years has let me experience some of the most rewarding and eventful moments of my life: I’ve seen world revolutions unfold before my eyes over social networks like Twitter; I’ve seen people using new technologies like Facebook to stay in touch with their loved ones in entirely new and meaningful ways. I’ve also seen businesses finding new and innovative methods to connect with their clients through channels like Facebook or LinkedIn.

The irony is that by stepping away from all things digital for a while, I actually felt even more appreciative of it. After all, technology is a part of me now and it’s how I interact with many of the most important people in my life; it’s also made me who I am both professionally and personally.

I learned a few other lessons from my short digital detox, which—as I dive back into my connected reality—I’ll make sure to remember:

Snacking is fun, but it shouldn’t replace full meals: Consume long, nourishing content from time to time. With the digital explosion has come a plethora of cheap, easy, and addictive pieces of online content for us to readily snack on. They come with great packaging too: all those great headlines you can’t resist clicking on, easy-to-read top 10 lists, teaser pictures of your childhood friend’s vacation albums on your Facebook feed. No wonder it’s so easy to fall into the online rabbithole, spending hours mindlessly munching on one tasty morsel after another. The funny thing is that I found I didn’t miss this kind of online snacking at all during my 14 days offline. In fact, what I started to crave in the absence of snacky content was longer, thoughtful articles and good books, reading that nourishes my mind.

Numerous studies have proven that reading can improve brain function; some have even suggested they can make you a better person. So instead of funny cat GIFs and Instagram, dive into some of the great “long reads” that show up on your Twitter feed—the kind of well researched stuff that actually changes how you look at the world. Better yet, pick up a novel or read a book about a topic that can benefit you in some way, whether it’s related to your job or your passions.

Be available to put out big fires, but trust the team you have in place for everything else. When I first started in business, it was a one-man show. I dove into every aspect of running a company, from talking to customers to balancing the books. But as my businesses began to grow, I had to hire people to take over the different areas. Looking back, I’m glad that I took Steve Jobs’ advice to heart: Only hire A players. B and C players are a danger to your business. And hire people smarter than you, i.e. candidates who fill in the gaps in your own expertise.

The mistake that many managers make is to hire less-experienced people who aren’t a threat to them. But great leaders I know hire up, finding people who are true experts at what they do.During my two-week detox, this approach really paid off. Yes, small crises arose in my absence. But because I had put the best people in place, it was possible for me to step away and trust that someone was still “minding the store.”

It’s not a break … it’s a tune-up. Invest in regular maintenance to maximize your overall performance. One final thing I realized during my internet cleanse was that you don’t have to wait until you break down to take some time out to re-energize and revitalize. Needing a break doesn’t make you defective or lazy. After all, all high-performing machines need to be regularly maintained to stay optimal. Your car needs a regular tune-up and oil change—if you wait until it breaks down it’s likely the damage is going to be a lot harder to fix. The same goes for our minds and bodies.

No matter how good your are at your job, or how hard you work, you’re not going to be perfect for the rest of your life if you just keep going full throttle without taking regular breaks. A recent study on time-off and health found that holidays may help us avoid heart attacks, sleep better and even live longer. This philosophy can be applied on a day-to-day basis, too, not just as a reminder to take your vacation days. Take lunches, have coffee breaks, try the pomodoro technique, as these habits can help you prevent burnout and keep motivated on the job.