The digital detox always starts the same way, with a grand ambition to unplug, stay out of the relentless churn of the internet, and regain the kind of mental clarity that will allow you to read an actual novel without stopping to check Instagram.
And yet, while a digital detox may be more mainstream than ever, there is just one problem: While you can willfully take a break from your devices, you can’t take a vacation from yourself. As philosopher and School of Life founder Alain de Botton once wrote of his much-anticipated vacation to Barbados in The Art of Travel: “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”
Even if you do manage to stay off Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—as well as your email, Slack, and the unbearable tyranny of WhatsApp groups—that doesn’t mean your mind will follow. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, it will continue composing acerbic Tweets, aspirational Instagram captions, things you need to buy from Amazon Prime, obscure appointments to book, friends to make plans with, and vague life goals that you would love to meet but haven’t quite figured out a first step for. A longer detox may result in a quieter mind, yet most of us don’t have enough vacation time to wait for that to happen.
It’s worth asking if our inner monologues—from prosaic to-do lists to existential dread—have been forever altered by a world where we have so many places to broadcast a running order of our thoughts. In other words: Was I this internally verbose before I had a place to tweet it all?
A hard question to answer. As my colleague Ephrat Livni noted, our brains are certainly affected by the unprecedented amount of information we ingest from the internet and elsewhere on a daily basis—34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 written words per day for Americans, to be exact.
Because many of us take digital detoxes when we’re also on vacation—perhaps the only time when it’s feasible to restrict our information diet to not much more than the lunch menu—it seems like we could, in theory, take steps to quiet down our mental hamster wheels at the same time. Here are some things to try:
If you’re worried about missing out on all the excellent ideas (or content) your mind just won’t stop generating, trade pixels for paper. Instead of sharing them online, scribble down your errant jokes, observations, would-be tweets, and excellent ideas for personal projects you will most certainly start when you get home. Then, when you’ve re-entered society, check back to see if any of those ideas are worth revisiting.
If you’re able to spend time alone, give your brain a break by taking a vow of silence. As Livni wrote, “Cognitive-load theory posits that brains have only so much bandwidth, so to best take in information, you must also limit it. Choosiness improves information intake. Since most of the information we encounter is in the form of words, limiting language helps.”
One of the surest ways to get your mind to shut up is to get your body involved. Flow state is defined as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” This can look different for different people, but full body activities that require your mind to be fully engaged in what you are doing, such as surfing or boxing, are known to result in a heightened state of flow. Then again, so can reading an engrossing novel in the sunshine or jogging on the beach. Take your time away from devices to try something new.
Nothing will make you crazier than thinking about what you’re thinking about. If a quiet mind seems unattainable, just accept that without judgement or a feeling that you’ve failed. You’re still doing yourself a service by withdrawing from the dopamine roller coaster of social media and sometimes—that’s enough.