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Sorry boss, I’m on a digital detox

From first thing in the morning until last thing at night, Mr Darren Fergus would check his email and social media accounts. Despite grumbles from his son, the entrepreneur thought he had a healthy relationship with his iPhone. Then he went on a digital detox break — phones and tablets were banned in favour of countryside walks, cooking and kite-flying — and realised how tech-dependent he really was. “Not having a phone was weird. Not knowing what was going on. Not being in communication.”

From first thing in the morning until last thing at night, Mr Darren Fergus would check his email and social media accounts. Despite grumbles from his son, the entrepreneur thought he had a healthy relationship with his iPhone. Then he went on a digital detox break — phones and tablets were banned in favour of countryside walks, cooking and kite-flying — and realised how tech-dependent he really was. “Not having a phone was weird. Not knowing what was going on. Not being in communication.”

However, he felt energised. Back at home, he locked his phone away for the weekend.

The corporate trip into a non-digital world was organised by Mr Martin Talks, a digital entrepreneur, who offers such programmes through his company Digital Detoxing to employees and families wanting help with tech overload. Parents, he said, are particularly after guidelines for teenagers. “I don’t want people to go back to the quill pen and plough. I just want them to have a healthy relationship with technology.”

Tech overload, he said, is distracting people from their work. “Employees are not focused. They are not engaged. It drains our energy. We are always on, we can’t really settle. Our minds are always busy.”

The irony of a digital marketer advising people on how to take breaks from tech is not lost on Mr Talks: “Digital marketing doesn’t have to be toxic, but too often it is,” he acknowledges.

One of the best-known exponents of digital detoxing is Ms Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark, and former chief marketing officer of the social media site. She has suggested that hardcore addicts should take regular days off from their gadgets. If they do, they may well suffer from “nomophobia”, a term that describes anxiety about separation from a smartphone. In Ms Sherry Turkle’s new book Reclaiming Conversation, the psychologist and director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self said smartphones are killing conversation. She recommends a “talking cure” in which face-to-face conversation replaces the “failing connections of our digital world”.

Mr Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, said that because of our continuous connection “to electronic media, we never stop multitasking. Constant multitasking is associated with shallower thinking, weakened concentration, reduced creativity and heightened stress”.

Holiday companies cottoned on to this a while ago and began marketing digital detoxes. Even the authority for the New Forest in the south of England promoted a tech creche, in which people could leave their digital valuables in a secure vault. Innocent, the soft drinks company, ran a festival this summer with the strapline “Unplug, recharge”. It banned phones or Wi-Fi for festival-goers, who were there to enjoy events such as a morning rave or a talk from Craftivist Collective.

Ms Caroline Jones, an events organiser, is planning an event called Restival in Morocco next month where there will be no Wi-Fi signal, to prevent people “tagging and bragging”. She said Restival has had 3,500 enquiries for 100 places. She plans to take some of the programme into firms.

In the US, Camp Grounded runs breaks for frazzled entrepreneurs and professionals, where tech is banned and visitors are asked not to introduce themselves by their job titles in the hope that people relate more profoundly than Twitter “favourites”.

 

DISENGAGING FROM TECHNOLOGY

 

Digital detoxes, Mr Talks said, work by getting people to focus on the problem. They are a jolt rather than a full cure. His courses teach people how to weave breaks from technology into the normal working day. Tips include turning off your phone for an hour to make sure you can concentrate on work, curbing email communication with people working nearby, and standing up when taking a call or having a conversation.

Ms Lucy Pearson is a former advertising executive who co-founded Unplugged Weekend after meeting a like-minded soul on a retreat in the Sahara. After organising weekend “unplugged” retreats, the two are now working with tech companies to help their employees use their devices with “intention”. Digital detoxing advisers have the same purpose as personal trainers, she said: We all know what is good for us, but need help putting it into practice.

Ms Linda Stone, a former tech executive who studies the effect of technology on bodies, minds and emotions, coined the expression “continuous partial attention” whereby people pay superficial attention to lots of bits of information. She is not a fan of language that exhorts people to “disconnect” because she thinks it is more important to plan “to what and how we want to connect”. However, for some, she said it can help to make this type of commitment to turn off, to join a group and share an experience structured by others.

Ms Orianna Fielding, founder of Digital Detox Company, visits workplaces to assess the tech overload. There is no point giving employees advice if it will not work in practice in the office. She said she finds stressed and overstimulated workers: “It’s quite easy to unplug in a Tuscan hilltop, but people need to do it in a work context.”

It is easier for older generations to learn to disengage from technology, she said: “Digital natives haven’t lived without technology. They are terrified of being without it.” Yet after the FOMO (fear of missing out) fades, she finds they are hugely relieved.

As with most cultural change in organisations, the message that digital breaks are important needs to come from the top, Ms Fielding said. It would help foster an understanding that employees should not feel compelled to play email ping pong with their managers in their free time. She recommends, for example, setting up automatic email messages warning that you are unavailable and unplugged for a period of time. She also demonstrates time management apps that switch computers off and email filters.

The key discovery for most people, she said, has been that when they switched their gadgets back on “everything was just the same”.

In other words, they “hadn’t missed anything”. FINANCIAL TIMES

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Emma Jacobs is a features writer for The Financial Times, with a particular focus on workplace trends, business culture and entrepreneurship.

 

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