On Lessons Learned From My Digital Detox in San Francisco

My tech-free weekend in San Francisco technically failed  — because I have the navigational awareness of a pet store goldfish. But overall, the quest helped me see the light (with fewer blue wavelengths).

Like so many of us, I spend an inordinate amount of my time in front of a screen, the glare of my fully lit laptop or iPhone an ever-looming presence in my life. I can’t think of any one day, since maybe I was thirteen years old, that’s been spent without this type of technology in front of my face.

Frankly, that’s a shackling thought that stops me squarely in my tracks: the realization of just how many hours of my life technology has gobbled up in place of actual human contact.

It’s easy to justify our behavior. Our addiction. Take a look around — people standing in line at Whole Foods or waiting for BART, hunched over in near unison like a terrestrial flock of Arctic birds, glaring down at their ever-pinging smartphones. We’re all in this together. So it can’t all be that bad, right?

Well, science proves otherwise. I know it; you know it; we all know it. There’s a strong connection between screen time and the decay of one’s own mental health.

So being the guinea-pig-minded, perpetually anxious individual I am, I decided to embark on one of these so-called digital detoxes the media loves to swoon over. Rather than pay some sort of institution to take away my devices, I decided to do it myself, using my own self-control. I gave myself 60 hours, from Friday night to Monday morning.

Here’s how that self-prescribed experiment played out.

Friday Night: The Eve My World Went Dark

In anticipation of heading into this foreign tech-free world, I ebbed and flowed between excitement and, honestly, fear. A hair past 9:00 p.m., after I had sent my last email for the day, I clamped my laptop closed. “I’m in the salt mines living my best OWN Network self, right now,” my email auto-response told the world. A reminder on my iPhone flashed a reminder that read, “Hashtag-Bye-Felicia.”

When the hour hand struck 10:00 p.m., a sedative surge of excitement and childish curiosity came over me as I went to bed. No alarm was set. My head was pleasantly clear of the detritus of the day, a welcome relief from my usual incessant need to scroll through my unread. Or check how my ex’s honeymoon went in Thailand with his now bearish husband. Or ponder whether to trade my Google stock. Or watch B-quality porn.

Instead, I just shut my eyes. In truth, I can’t remember another time in my adult life when I had fallen to sleep so easily.

Saturday: I’ve Got 99 Problems, and a Low Battery Ain’t One

I woke up on Saturday morning to the sun peeking through my open curtains, gently rocked awake into the world by my limbic system 90 minutes sooner than I would’ve normally risen. Perhaps that evening free of dizzying sensory inputs let my mind unwind quicker.

Instead of grabbing my phone immediately, anxious to see what the world had going for it while I slumbered, I just got up. I started the day without seeing Trump’s dystopian Twitter account, any yet-seen Tinder notification or Trello cards I hadn’t yet gotten to.

“Can I get a medium dirty chi, please?” I said to whom I assumed was a still hungover Peet’s barista, the whites of his eyes a murky pink hue, his hair tangled and untidy. “Unsweetened, too.” Instead of my Peet’s app, I paid with a five-dollar bill, the remaining change hitting the bottom of the tip jar with a satisfying, galvanized strike. It felt good, welcomingly tactile, actually—a communion with the present moment at hand.

Nothing was particularly interesting about the interaction; I place this order up to three times a day. But I had the unshakable feeling of absence. I became uncomfortable not being able to look at my phone while waiting for my drink order. I just had to stand there like a nitwit. How sad was it that I felt “strange” for not using technology while waiting for five minutes? I scoffed at the thought, congratulating myself for being more enlightened than the other addicts in the room.

The afternoon, now void of all electronic gadgets, was spent in a similar omnipresent fashion. I walked the Presidio; I took in all the smells at the Pier 39 farmers’ market; I read a book.

As I sat down for dinner, I felt lightened by the day’s alien simplicity. Surprisingly, rather than feeling anxious to check in on the world, I felt oddly calm as I sat in near silence — no TV, Spotify or insistent cylinder of AI droning on in the background to otherwise distract me.

Typically, I’d likely have gone down a YouTube rabbit hole as I scarfed down my food, viewing the likes of Oprah, Beyoncé, exacerbated drag queens clawing at one another on a reality show, and 92nd Street Y lectures. Or I’d have gone on another fit of mindless spending on Amazon. My checking account breathed a sigh of relief.

Again, I slept like a proverbial newborn.

Sunday: “Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. I’m So Fucking Lost.”

Anyone who knows me is aware of my lackluster sense of both direction and time. Google Maps is, therefore, my best friend. But as I headed out for a hike on this particular day, I was stripped of such glorious tech. I had planned for this — or, rather, the breakdown that would come from it.

Attempting to decipher a foldable map of the greater Bay Area — yes, an actual, g—d map — was a task that was not in the slightest aided by my documented dyslexia. Ninety minutes into the trip, on my estimated fifth or sixth U-turn, I crumpled up the once aesthetically creased map and screamed toward the sky, “Fuck, fuck, fuck. I’m so fucking lost.”

I reached for my phone.

Guilt-filled, I opened Google Maps tenderly in a similar fashion as to how one would welcome an old friend.

Gazing at the screen, I got a glimpse of the world again. My mother had left a voicemail. Four or so fuck boys had reached out the night before with messages like “You up?’ and coinciding peach or eggplant emojis. Against my better judgment, I scanned my unread emails, now burdening myself with a mental to-do list.

I felt relieved and slightly ashamed — elated by the fact that I now could find my way to said outdoor destination, sickened by my lack of commitment and need to burden myself with text-based stress for literally no good reason.

The hike helped me clear my head. Later, arriving back at my apartment, I didn’t berate myself for caving nor pat on myself on the back for getting this far. If anything, I just accepted what was, noticing that I hadn’t let the “Sunday Scaries” take over me.

Sunday, for so many of us in the editorial realm, is a push-off point. It’s a day to get our shit together — to prep and work to take away from the sting that awaits us Monday morning.

But I did none of that. I couldn’t. Instead, I did something novel—I relaxed. I rid myself of any pent-up anxiety about what was to come the next day, any what-ifs that hadn’t quite yet happened. And I went to bed at 10:00 p.m. — which, for a self-knighted insomniac, is telling in and of itself.

Monday Morning: Back to Tech

The dawn broke over my Mission bedroom Monday morning — again without any set alarm echoing out from atop my IKEA nightstand. The past weekend had proved that by some manner of either Hogwarts witchcraft or Darwinian selection, I naturally woke up around 7:00 a.m. That’s reason enough to label the past 58 hours a success.

I instinctively reached for my iPhone but was thwarted off the impulse. I had two more hours before I’d resume my tech-filled life. Instead, I read a bit from Zadie Smith’s current published collection of essays. Between my turning the pages and perfuming the room with the wafting smell of charred cannabis, I knew this was a far better way to start my day. In danger of sounding too anthropomorphic, I had visions of my Chromebook and iPhone dancing among the other lost, long-forgotten toys on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Eventually, the highly anticipated 9:00 a.m. rolled around, marking the start of the industrial workday and an end to my admittedly derailed 60-hour digital detox. I removed my sass-filled email auto-response and began engaging with the world through a thirteen-by-something LCD screen.

Boundaries, People

My weekend away from the digital world didn’t cure my tech addiction, but it made me more aware of it. I noticed my urges and how I used technology as a distraction from the tasks at hand. How I listlessly and mindlessly would scroll through social media feeds because I was bored, but boredom allows for a space in which the calm and clear can reside.

I realized I need to set at least some boundaries around technology on a personal or professional level, making a concentrated effort to put the phone down more. Maybe not a full weekend, but a couple of hours each night, or waiting until 9:00 a.m. to reach for it.

Technology is amazing and wonderful and helps you not get fucking lost on a hike. But we need to recognize when we’re being used by it rather than vice versa. This insatiable need to check our phones every four minutes has eradicated the pleasures afforded by simply being with our one wild, wondrous mind. The anxiety resulting from leaving the house with a battery at any less than 30 percent is now another phobia we all share. Listless social media scrolling in the glow of the very real world has veiled us behind a thick haze of insularity.

You too can discover your technological ballast. Paint yourself a healthy, balanced portrait of your life. See when your body naturally rises and falls. Walk the streets with an unbothered gaze.

But feel free to embrace modern-day navigation to the fullest.

Feature Image: Screenshot via Created Tech

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