Ever wanted to shake your smartphone or social media habit? Dial down Netflix binges, or unplug from work emails at home? This is my attempt at doing all of those things, but some digital fixations – I soon discovered – are harder to purge than others.
I felt overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed by the 24-hour news cycle, screens, work emails, social media, unwarranted opinion and perpetual outrage.
The endless noise.
The information served up to me at work and at home, at any time of the day and night, across multiple websites, apps and devices.
I wanted to get away from these endless distractions, but more often than not, I was seeking them out.
My smartphone and my lack of willpower were to blame. A month-long digital detox was needed to mute the din. And D-Day would be April 1.
I had made half-hearted attempts in the past – to stop scrolling, to stop thinking about work; to bake bread or read books instead.
A few years ago my New Year's resolution was to read 50 books in a year. I probably read 10. I had the same goal the following year, with the same result.
More than once I deleted social media apps, only to capitulate.
Late last year I had had enough. I deleted my Instagram account – five years of travel photos and cheesy captions and hash-tags. Gone.
I also deleted my Twitter account but reinstated it within weeks.
Twitter quickly sucked up the time I used to spend on Instagram. Hours disappeared every day with nothing to show for it.
I would roll over after waking up, pick up my work-issued smartphone from next to my bed, and scroll.
I'd then head to the toilet for my morning, erm ... download. Phone still in hand. And scroll.
I scrolled while I was waiting for my toast to pop, as I brushed my teeth, waited for coffee, sat in a meeting, procrastinated from an approaching deadline.
In the evening, I would watch Anthony Bourdain cooking and eating on Netflix, while I was cooking and eating.
I would watch something else while doing the dishes.
Head down, eyes flicking across the lit screen, I would disconnect from whatever was around me, including, I'm ashamed to say, my long-suffering girlfriend.
Evenings slipped past as I sat or stood in front of the TV or iPad.
Before long I would be back in bed scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until I realised I had been doing that for an hour. I was tired but wired, and there was no way I would get a decent sleep before I had to leave for work in the morning.
The alarm on, the phone would be placed next to the bed within reach, and the day would finish precisely how it started – with my phone.
It was a connection I wanted to break.
There wasn't an epiphany or particular moment of great insight during my digital detox.
But there was a noticeable change, and it didn't take long.
I had three main rules:
•Leave your smartphone at work every evening and over the weekends.
•Don't use the internet at home or apps that require the internet (Netflix, Spotify, YouTube).
•Do not read any news online and do not use any social media, unless for specific work purposes.
On day one, I aimlessly wandered around the lounge after dinner, not knowing what to do with myself. It was quiet.
My girlfriend looked up from the couch, and her phone, with a bemused look on her face.
So, I got busy: ironed some shirts, read the paper, then a few pages of a book. I was in bed by 9pm.
I felt good the next morning. That feeling stuck.
Work was on my mind for the first few days – wondering what emails I was missing and if anyone was trying to contact me, but that soon faded. The separation between work and home solidified.
I found any messages or emails could be dealt with when I returned to the office in the morning. I started switching off from work each evening.
Instead, I thought about what I was going to do with my leisure time. I started baking bread, and then banana bread and chocolate brownies (which I raved about to anyone who would listen).
I had five books sitting on my bedside table. I finished four and had made a start on the fifth by the end of the month.
I pored over the weekend papers and pull-out magazines on Saturdays and Sundays, listened to long-form radio interviews on the national service, and went to the movies and the beach.
As my editor pointed out, I had skipped the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s and gone straight back to the 50s.
I didn't watch TV for the first two weeks either. I was enjoying the complete break from screens.
I joined the local library and a social sports team and started going to a weekly pub quiz with friends.
I cooked – a lot.
I would come home after a long or frustrating day (the kind of day I would usually make worse by then scrolling online for hours, or plonking myself down in front of another screen) and I would prepare a feast, sometimes just for myself. And get lost in the process.
I was going to bed earlier, sleeping better, and had time to drink coffee in bed with my girlfriend before work. I was even the one getting up to make it.
She noticed these changes immediately.
I was pulling my weight around the house more and was more present and engaged.
I took to pointing out who was on their phone and who was not.
She loved that.
In the 20 days before my digital detox started, I spent a shocking 51 hours and 42 minutes on my smartphone.
I had downloaded an app called QualityTime, which started recording all of my smartphone use, to see how big the problem actually was.
Most days, I was on my phone for at least one or two hours. The worst single day was seven hours and 10 minutes (a Monday).
Twitter alone soaked up more than 15 hours in those 20 days and Facebook more than eight hours.
And that was just on my phone. I spend at least eight hours in front of a computer at work most weekdays, and then there's my Netflix binge-watching on the TV and iPad.
To go from that to a book-reading, bread-baking, 1950s zen-like hermit there was always going to be challenges and missteps.
Just a few hours into the detox, on the first day of April, I was handed a phone and asked to reply to a WhatsApp message, which I naturally did, without even thinking about it.
That was the first strike. There would be many more.
Several days after the WhatsApp incident, late in the first week, I found myself landing on the Facebook homepage at work. I'm still not sure why.
I realised my mistake straight away but before I could click out, my notification-hungry eyes quickly informed me that I had unread messages.
I stewed on that for a day or two. Then, unable to help myself, checked who the messages were from. Some could be ignored, I decided, but one was from a good friend in Wellington.
I stewed on that for a few more days, then caved. I was replying seven days late and apologised.
"No probs mate! It was just a random query that doesn't really matter ..."
That should have put an end to any other moments of weakness, but instead, for some reason, it opened the flood gates.
My three main detox rules protected me at home, where I continued to thrive in digital silence.
I even bought a $100 Nokia 3310 brick phone so family and friends could still contact me after work hours via text or call, if absolutely necessary. Although I couldn't read their emojis.
But at work, where I still had to use email and the internet to do my job, I found myself looking for reasons to search for things on Google and Facebook. I found holes I could exploit to get my fix, without feeling too guilty.
A quick look on Twitter, without scrolling down the page or acting on any of the notifications, was alright, wasn't it? And the same goes for Facebook, I guess, if I am trying to contact a source for a story?
I came to realise that this habit of mine wasn't so easy to kick.
One week in, I decided to seek some expert advice.
I told Professor Samuel Charlton from the School of Psychology at the University of Waikato that I felt my attention span had diminished with all the scanning and scrolling I had been doing online over the years.
"That particular debate's been going on basically since Socrates," he replied with a laugh.
"Those old Greek philosophers said, 'we don't want anything written down because your attention span becomes too short if you don't have to listen to everything I'm saying'."
People raised the same concerns with the arrival of every new media or medium, Professor Charlton said.
"You heard it about television, you heard it about radio."
He was not convinced, despite all of the recent writing and talking about it, that smartphone and social media use could become an addiction.
"It is certainly a strong habit, but whether it's truly an addiction in the way that we treat nicotine or alcohol or drugs of other sorts, I think that's a pretty long bow."
That particular debate's been going on basically since Socrates.
Charlton said there are compelling reasons why people don't like to be left out, or miss something.
Humans are social animals – if someone wants to talk to us, we feel an obligation to respond. We are also curious by nature.
"So when the text comes in, no matter what they're doing, there is a strong incentive to answer the phone and engage."
He said cultural conventions around new technology, such as smartphones, are also relatively new, which means we're still finding our way around when it is appropriate to use them.
Dr Erik Landhuis, a senior lecturer and psychologist in the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), said it would be interesting to see if the digital detox affected my impulse control.
"As soon as you get a buzz in your pocket, you want to pick up your phone. It's an impulse thing. You impulsively pick up your phone."
Then there are the misguided impulses, the "phantom buzzes" – when you think you hear or feel a notification, so you check your phone, but find nothing new.
By taking away my smartphone and those buzzes, maybe my impulse control would improve, Dr Landhuis suggested.
He also talked about social media bubbles (only following and interacting with people and accounts that you agree with or like), and how they were becoming a worldwide issue, driving polarisation by encouraging "us and them" thinking.
One aspect of social media shown to negatively affect people was the comparing of lives to those presented on social networks, Landhuis said.
"You're getting a sort of misrepresentation of what other people's lives are like, and then compared to those misrepresentations of their great lives, your life looks kind of dull and therefore that's been shown to lead to – not clinical depression – but certainly lowered mood."
In terms of diminishing attention spans, Landhuis said there was an argument that our new reading habits and scanning techniques might be more efficient, freeing up time and working memory for other things.
But there may be some consequences as well.
"I think we lose a deep understanding. I think we don't think deeply when we get stuck in short-form."
He posed a question about my detox and all the things I was giving up, which stuck with me.
"Do you think you are more likely to do something productive with that time, or are you just going to do something else that's going to waste your time?"
I later found he had a point.
When I first started the detox, I planned to replace all the news I usually got online with newspapers and a current affairs magazine.
During the first week, I made a concerted effort to sit down with The New Zealand Herald, Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post each day.
I got my world news from The Economist, which arrived in the post weekly.
But all those good intentions fell away as work piled up and deadlines neared. Some days I completely forgot to set aside a decent amount of time to read the paper or the magazine.
Unlike my favourite news websites and apps, which I click through out of habit and professional necessity throughout the day, it has never been part of my daily routine to stop everything and read print for extended periods as a priority.
While I would love to think I am part of that generation, I am not. Print is something I tend to do more on the weekends.
More than once in April I was late to major breaking or trending news, sometimes not hearing about certain stories or events until the next day, or even days later.
Like a crash that killed five members of the same family, which I only found out about when I picked up our two regional papers 24 hours later.
Or, at the other end of the scale of importance, the Israel Folau social media scandal and Tiger Woods winning the Masters. Those were way off my radar.
I arrived at work one morning to find everyone talking about the Notre Dame fire in Paris, but had to wait for the next day's paper to read about it and see all the photos.
I didn't read nearly as many articles about the Sri Lankan terrorist bombings as I normally would have, especially as I have a holiday planned there in a few months.
While I didn't fall down rabbit holes online and spend hours trying to glean the latest snippets of information about any of those stories, or waste my evenings scrolling through some of the inevitable bad takes and rushed analysis on Twitter and Facebook, in the end, I felt less informed.
As Dr Landhuis had warned, the time I was saving by not being online wasn't being filled by productive and thought-provoking print reading as I had envisaged.
It was being wasted by other things, like TV, which I started watching again two weeks into the detox.
Freeview didn't soak up as much time as binge-inducing Netflix did, but it did start to cut into my reading, cooking and baking.
I had 598 unread messages on WhatsApp when I re-added it to my phone at the start of May.
Mainly thanks to family group chats and baby photos.
I also had some posts on Facebook wishing me a happy birthday, and a bunch of "In case you missed" notifications on Twitter, with one new follow.
I have had Facebook since September 2007 and Twitter since June 2013. As of today, both accounts have been permanently deactivated.
There will be some valuable insights and discussions on both platforms that I will now miss out on, and I will lose all the contacts and connections I have made on them over the years, but one thing I learned from my digital detox was the importance of removing all temptations. No going back.
And it's not like I can't still keep in touch with family and friends by other means.
The biggest and best change I had over the month was in my home life, and that was because I physically put my smartphone in my desk drawer at work before leaving every evening. I felt the day's woes lift as I did so.
I am still doing that and plan to continue to. An added bonus: I barely have to charge my Nokia brick phone, and it has Snake.
Going forward, I'm also going to try to limit Netflix to weekends.
I have gone back to reading news online, but only at work, and will keep WhatsApp so I can stay up to date with how my nieces and nephews are growing. But, again, only at work.
My 5-year-old nephew and I have started writing letters to each other (in the ongoing spirit of 1950s living).
So, what am I going to do with all this time? That's the other thing I learned last month – you have to actively look to fill every free minute with things of substance, to avoid other distractions creeping in.
Not just books and baking. More interactions with people face to face, instead of via screens.
Whether it be at indoor cricket on Wednesday nights, at the pub quiz on Monday nights, or in bed every night – discussing the day's events with my girlfriend, no phone in sight.