10 Things I Learned from Mental Detox Week

If you’ve just arrived here from AdBusters you might also be interested in what I got up to this weekend – I did still use the Internet a little bit – but it’s primarily a bunch of offline stuff that I did started by an online thing… Might be useful if you’re thinking of turning off any time soon…

As some of you will know I took part in Adbusters’ Mental Detox Week last week. This meant I stopped doing screen and computer based stuff as much as possible. I was at work so there were obviously times when I had to check email and things. But I did manage to cut it right down to a bare minimum. Outside of work it was a total no computer, no TV, no iPod existence for me. Which is quite a big thing in my ordinary daily life.

A lot of people made comments about it being just like having a holiday. But I’m not sure it’s the same. On holiday your context is totally different and you’re not surrounded by other people who are doing interesting things with their bits of technology. Also I had to resist massive temptation in my pocket in the form of an iPhone.

I think I learned a few things. Most of them were obvious. A few of them were things that I could have guessed if I’d thought about it. But there were a few genuine surprises in there too. There’s even a few things that I might try and build into my behaviour going forward. Imagine that.

In no particular order with no prejudice towards the obvious or the interesting.

I’ve been scared of the telephone for a while. I feel more confident writing things down in emails. It gives me a chance to formulate my thoughts and arguments a little better. Phones always smack of having to think ‘in real time’ which gives me the fear.

But you know what. Phones are good. You can get things agreed in one conversation. Conversations on the phone can be finished in just minutes! The conversation goes back and forth really quickly and you can get to decisions much faster. Plus you don’t have to deal with any tyrannical cc’ing.

I’m going to keep using the phone for things and stop being scared of it.

Lots of people advocate only checking your email a few times a day. I’ve always thought it sounded like an OK principle. But I’ve become one of those people who hits ‘send and receive’ as often as is humanly possible. Just in case something amazing has arrived in the 38 seconds since I last had a peek. I’ve just realised if I did the same thing with real mail. I’d look like some kind of freakish obsessive-compulsive post lover.

Not much happens in your inbox in a few hours. A load of email might get dropped in there. But most of it’s nonsense and you don’t need to do anything with it anyway.

The other thing I realised is that by not sending lots of emails, you don’t get as many coming in. I realised that my email itch gets scratched by sending stuff as well as checking. I was trying to think of a handy analogy. The best I can come up with is that I’m trying to drink my way out of a sinking ship. But then having to wee on the deck.

Aaaaah. The iPod. My sweet sweet iPod. Insulating me against the noise and chaos of life.

On the train in the morning without an iPod all you can hear is the bloody overspill from other people’s iPods. if you don’t have headphones on you have to endure ‘Holding out for a hero’ blaring out of someone’s leaky headphones from 3 rows away. It’s like some kind of MP3 based arms race. Where defence and attack have become all muddled up.

I’ve always been considerate with my iPod volume. And now I’m doubly so. Also having some time not insulated from the sounds around you is good. Obviously.

I found that doing stuff with pens and paper was really different. It made me think about things in a different way. I’m sure lots of people have written lots of smart things about this. But there’s something really odd that I noticed.

Pen on paper felt like a step on a journey rather than the final ‘thing’. Which is really odd. The fact that something that’s made up of real stuff like ink and paper. Only really feels like a finished thought when it’s converted into bits and bytes and pixels on a screen. The electronic stuff is far less permanent, but somehow it feels more so.

What I learned: switch between computers and pens and papers to make your brain work differently on problems.

Without screens and their flickery content I went to bed and sleep when I was tired (which was about 10pm most nights). When you’re reading a book you notice when you get tired. You start re-reading lines and your eyes feel heavy.

With TV or computer screens I don’t get that so much. There’s something about the light and the flickering that keeps me awake. Or in the case of TV I can fall asleep in front of it in a different way. Sort of drifting in and out of sleep and being vaguely conscious that something is going on.

But perhaps the oddest thing was that I had very very vivid dreams for the first 3 nights. Really vivid and intense. I’m not certain there’s a scientific explanation. But I do remember reading something in a WhiteDot book about how TV can change your brain activity. And I wonder if the fact that my brain wasn’t processing hours of made-up junk but was instead still processing real-life things made me have bold dreams.

This was one of the most profound things for me. Hard to explain to other people though.

The web allows you to fractalise everything. I read a few different books. But instead of doing what I’d normally do and keep leaving the book to go and look something up. I made little notes and just kept on reading.

Normally I’d go and look something up and then find myself drawn into a world of related links and other stuff that looks interesting. Effectively leading me into some kind of infinite worm-hole of stuff. Most of which ends up being completely unrelated to where I started from.

Last week I finished books. Then I had a list of things to look-up. In a much more ordered fashion.

Computers do not help me focus. They help me find lots of other nice things. Or give me infinite distractions. Making sure I have the perfect soundtrack to the work I’m doing. Or changing the typeface in a document so it looks nicer while I’m typing it. Should I be viewing it at 125% or fit to page width. All stuff to fiddle with.

And there’s no end to any of it. Ever.

I thought that I might feel disconnected from people. But I didn’t.

I was still in contact with people. In fact oddly sometimes more connected by using the phone. And I think we’re all used to the fact that we can have gaps in speaking to people and when we go back to them they’ll still be OK with us.

But what happens when you leave ‘stuff’ for a while? Mostly it’ll still be there. But sometimes it won’t. I think mainly the fear was just that there would be too much stuff when I came back to it. I knew that I’d have to just ditch loads of unread RSS feeds. Which effectively meant that I’d missed out on all those things.

I just had to realise that it was OK to miss out on all that stuff. My life didn’t change in a bad way. Really. Or did it? Now I’m not sure. Maybe there was a blog post or a something that could have changed my life irreversibly.

The point is that there’s too much stuff and I have to learn to let it go. There’s stuff going on everywhere the whole time. Most of it I’ll never get to see. Even if it was all on the internet and all being fed into my brain I wouldn’t be able to cope.

I learned it’s OK to miss stuff.

I’m a victim of computers being at the centre of our lives.

Photos, music, writing, etc. It felt like almost all of the tools that I use to be creative had been taken away. I was going to go in the loft and play with vinyl records and stuff, then I realised that all of that stuff gets piped through my computer in order to record.

I learned that I should develop some analogue creative habits. Just in case the power goes out ;-)

I noticed that it’s easy to hide behind a computer. Shut down the laptop and you feel incredibly exposed in an open plan office. Aside from the people whose tools are entirely computer based (coders and designers) I noticed that a lot of the project managers, strategists, etc. seem to do the same as me. Computer on. Looks like you’re working. But if you actually look at peoples screens most of the time they’re doing things that look very much like other stuff.

Of course all the other stuff is important. But the computer is an amazing smoke-screen. As long as you’re typing away you look busy and like you’re doing something important.

Here’s my final thought:

Taking a week off seemed like a silly, reactionary thing to do. Like I was just proving a point. But I think the most important thing was to realise how easy it is to just reach for the laptop and get sucked into a different world. So setting some hard and fast rules was really useful. Rather than just saying, “oh I’ll use it a bit less” – which is almost impossible. The thing that’ll work for me is to set periods of time where it’s just not allowed.

So that’s it. I’m glad I did it. But I’m glad I’ve got all my toys back too.

57 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned from Mental Detox Week”

  1. Full respect for actually doing it so diligently.

    I guess the challenge now is to remember what you learned and use it to do more stuff better. I’m going to try and apply some of your learnings myself. Cheers!

  2. If you weren’t killed by dysentery or TB you would have been a rubbish Victorian.

    Great post, the idea that computers just add more noise to your life is so true.

  3. Good post. Sounds like it’s something one needs to do once a year to re-remember what you found out. Easy to see how things will go back to how they were pretty quickly without the regular reminder. Just like a the annual January alcohol detox …

  4. On the pen vs pixels and making you think differently. I’m actually writing my book in a notebook, then using the computer almost like a second, more final draft. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

    Killing your thought children is just too frickin’ easy on a laptop. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to be killed if you write them in a notebook, it’s just that the loss is a little more permanent when you do it on the screen. And you never see them again, not even at Christmas.

    I’ve found that focusing on a page in a notebook while using a good, inky pen funnels thoughts and helps to string sentences into nice word clotheslines. And focus is the key word here. I tried the first few weeks sitting in cafes and writing on my laptop, but was often sidetracked into other pointless time-wasting activities, like reading your blog *zing*. When you procrastinate in notebooks, all you do is doodle, and God loves a doodle.

    What is the equivalent of doodling online? Twitter?

  5. Lovely – enjoyed the handwritten scanned note things – although I struggled to get hold of you. But how cool to get away from all those distractions.

    Analogue pursuits are definitely the way forward.

  6. I really liked the handwritting on paper and then scanning it in. I thought it was a really refreshing way to read and write a blog. Really clarified the thoughts and presented them really simply, rather than having to wade through lots of really dense text.

  7. True – why is it you can stare unblinkingly at a screen until the wee hours when a book or tv effortlessly whisks you off to the land of nod (no matter how good the book/tv)?
    Is it because the interactive element (even if it’s just clicking links) keeps you switched on. Hmmmmm
    Thanks iain – I’m gonna try it myself.

  8. Brilliant! I hope I can do a detox like you. One of my new years resolutions was ‘a weekend without my mobile’ – its now May and that hasn’t happened… yet!

  9. What an amazing and great list. My favorite one was you missed out on STUFF and not PEOPLE. So very true.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. 15 years ago, i was talking with some friends about technology and realized that i could have done every single one of my favourite activities in the 1920s.

    now every one of my hobbies involves using my computer.

    thanks for the inspiring article, i’m starting tomorrow!

  11. What you say is so true and honestly i can relate. Must have been an life changing experience right.? Well it did for me and it actually thought me allot about me and my environment. Anyhow great article.

  12. right on! awesome blog. i never comment on this things but your stuff truly spoke to me and fucking tons of americans. i will definitely try to exercise some of your learnings. we just need to chill.

  13. Wow, Are you and all the commenters, like, 20-somethings? I don’t own an iPod, because I listen to the radio on my ten-minute commute in my car. I think the “look busy by typing” is just a business-world adaptation of survival of the fittest on the job. We used to do it by “cleaning” stuff on the job when we had nothing to do. Same difference; different setting. Anyway, I did admit to my husband (and he agreed) that I’m a “technoslut” bc I recently got a Palm Centro from Sprint bc my Treo 7xxp kept malfunctioning. (They replaced it for me) Anyway, when I was 12 and there were only “green screens” for home pc use, I wrote on paper then transferred to pc. During high school, I learned to compose on the computer. Soooo much faster! Brain children?? Most of mine are psycho and disorganized; I figure if they’re stellar, they’ll reappear.
    You folks sound weird to me, like something out of a 1970s sci-fi horror flick. You went on and on about the sweetness of using analog pens…omg…how silly are you! (but, yes, I KNOW I’m weird in more ways that you can even guess!! Ex: I do counted cross-stitch, teach 6th grade in L.A., surf the net on my phone, rarely use a landline phone, dislike most TV, and at 37 am learning to sew.)
    Bottom line: good for you and the rest of you, too, commenters: I feel old now, lol. My grandmother, b. 1913, told me about the first time she listened to a radio. It was called a “crystal set”. It was headphones, and the “rich” next-door- neighbor (a few miles away) had one. She said it was classical music and sounded like it was a mile away.
    When I was in Kindergarten, UCLA supercomputers used punchcards to print out our names with dot-matrix (I think) printers…do you folks even know what a dot-matrix printer is? lol
    Yay for us as a human race. You’re all discovering heady stuff about your generation’s technology. I think my generation sees the phone as more efficient, and waiting for email as a pain in the neck…
    Who knows?

    Anyway, recently schools did a Turn off the TV week. The only shows I watch usually are Sopranos and the rest are usually history/nature, etc. types. Why would I want to watch somebody else’s idiotic drama when I have too much of my own! lol

    BUT I do fully agree with fractalisation observation. I think this in me has, in the past, and can still be at times, an addiction. Thank God for my husband who sensibly tells me to get some sleep.

    btw he’s a techno-dinosaur. Having beeen “away” for 17 years, he does not even want to learn to do text messaging, despite the fact it would make our own communication easier. He doesn’t know how to turn on a pc, so maybe that’s why our home is less freaky than it could be.

    Anyway, I know I didn’t edit this post and too bad for you…at least there’s not a bunch of messy pages to turn through and bad handwritten scrawl to try to read and you can just delete me! ;-p

  14. Im wondering just how old everyone on this site is? Yes believe it or not there is another world out there and it’s not just a choice between analog and digital. There should be major time in everyones day for NO IMPUT, no outer stimulus. and you might just find that reflecting is very important. the world is NOT just about information, It has so many dimentions that have nothing to do with work, time to slow down and smell the roses. there is more to life.

  15. Great post. I detoxed last week, too, but mainly because I went abroad on a sailing vacation and it wasn’t practical to lug the laptop. It was refreshing to distance myself from the email, RSS feeds, videos, etc…and allow flesh & blood people and meatspace to create width/fractalize my days, rather than the Web. But now I’m back, and here I am back at it. And truth be told, I did have the crackberry with me, which allowed me to photoblog much of my trip…I couldn’t go completely cold turkey!

  16. Oh, the irony. I’m actually on a self-imposed no-Internet-for-a-week hiatus right now (… then why am I reading this?), and it’s… it’s all right. I thought I’d break down by mid-Monday (I started Monday morning), but I’ve managed to get by with my iPod and lots of Guitar Hero. I suppose it’s really more of a no-MSN-messenger-for-a-week hiatus, really, because I neeeeeeed to read things (like this post) on the Internet because… because … I can’t help it! I love reading things.

    So, I suppose I’m saying I feel your pain? Ish? To a lesser degree. You’re so much stronger than I! Perhaps I’ll stop the Internet usage all together (sans email-checking, because I need to stay updated with school things). But it sort of feels good — I don’t NEED the Internet as much as I thought.

    What I NEED is music. Or I’ll go MAD.

    Wish me luck! No Internet until Sunday! Whoosh.

    Also — I guess most of the comments ARE from 20-somethings! (This one certainly is).


  17. i have been thinking about things like this a lot lately. see, i come from the pen and paper generation but have adapted quite readily to the new way. i really have trouble writing anymore and looked at my checkbook recently (i write very few checks anymore) and i had a ton of voids because i couldn’t write and would mess up. so strange.
    i have a group of friends who do a tech free weekend in palm springs once a year and it’s really great. i think it’s important to think about things like that so that when we have our cell phone implants our ear we’ll remember (i can’t wait for that btw, because these stupid ass bluetooth things i have to wear suck).

  18. What a great idea, man. Congratulations for doing it and thanks for reporting about it. Considering doing one of these soon, but my girlfriend lives abroad, so that might be a problem. At least I should set strict rules about computer usage for a week. I already don’t watch any television.

    Thanks for the inspiration. Considering subscribing to your RSS. Going to browse around the blog right now.

    ~ Bas

  19. I like the post. great little drawings are a clever touch. I think that internet addiction is recognized by the APA now, so it is clear that it is a serious problem for some people. thanks for sharing your experience and motivating others to try to shut down sometimes.

  20. Hi..its so true…its like all that computers mean to you and at the same time, do to you.
    Been myself trying to use my laptop less… hmm letsee..

  21. Truly wise. What woud you think of a no-reading time for prayer? Good job.

  22. Interesting reading. Being only new to the internet experience and e-mails it was difficult to identify with your obviously painful withdrawal from technology.
    I have learned much of computers and modern communication in the last few years but have never forgotten the importance and connection of the human spirit when writing letters and even documents out by hand.
    I have worked in rehabs and detox centers for many years and have seen many people who have struggled with various addictions and disorders.
    Your description and explanation of your condition is a classic case of withdrawal .
    It makes me wonder how prevalent this condition is and what it may reveal in the future.
    To maintain a manageable life after a period of rehab, a maintenance plan is suggested. that is an area you did not care to address. It is like an addict saying i just wont use. they must find something else that they love to do. without these safeguards in place, relapse is likely. good luck

  23. What a great article. I never thought about the flickering effects of screens and the effects on sleep, but you are absolutely right. When reading a book, I do notice when I get sleepy, and go to sleep. When watching a movie or using the computer I do not realize this same sensation and end up staying up much later. “Computers add width, not focus” was also very good. Thanks for sharing and provoking thought.

  24. Does Mental Detox include music on an iPod? No games, videos, photos, web surfing on ipod touch, just music. That’s a no go?

  25. a very interesting article which has now helped me to focus on going off-line this last week of spring break on the kids and not my morning and evening ritual of facebook, cnn, etc.

  26. Your point about width/focus is happening to me right now. I’m reading you in this post, when I should be writing something unrelated for a different blog altogether. I think that’s my daily dose of irony taken care of.

  27. very useful experience… looks like my blackberry will have long dayoff:)

  28. Wow I can’t believe how many of you talk like going without these digital things is some sort of major test of your abilities, a right of passage, if you will. Give me a break! This new generation of young adults wants credit for absolutely nothing these days. You want to know what a good way to garner a pat on the back? Do something for someone else you narcissistic fools.

    The “Me” Generation, that it appears most of you belong to, has changed the face of digital technology forever. All you have done is allow yourselves to spout off all kinds of verbal diarrhea 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Anyone who owns a cell phone/text device carried on your person is so self-absorbed it’s amazing you haven’t imploded yet.

    You really think that your important enough to be accessible at every moment?

    What makes you think people want to hear your “spew” at your every whim; they don’t! Most of them just don’t have the guts to say so.

    Fear the EMP-Clan – a group with absolutely no net presence aimed at making it a reality for all

  29. There is one simple reason why I prefer to do my writing in my head + on the computer rather than in a notebook: handwriting is sloooow and I will have lost my train of thought by the time my hand has written a few words, and then I get distracted and my writing is a mess. XD

    I’m 24 and I don’t own an ipod or ANY kind of cell phone. I’m a visual/comics artist, and I tend to divide my artistic endeavors between a sketchbook (or whatever) and the computer. I use the internet mostly as a learning tool and to connect with other artists or my fans. I admit that I spend too much time using StumbleUpon, though.

    There are certain times I like to have music on, but other times where it’s just annoying noise and I don’t want it on.

    Technology is just here to help us, not control us. Sometimes it’s good to spend some time away from it, but I don’t feel like I’m utterly tethered to it. If the power goes out or the internet is down there are plenty of other things I can do. XD

  30. I’d definitely love to try this! I have to say, I am a technology addict. And yes, I do need some things for school, but I think I’ll try and cut the ties for a week. I’m afraid I’ll go mad… but discovering the REAL world will be much better.

  31. I detoxed myself and my three children over 20 years ago from everything that causes altered states of consciousness/altered rates of energy. In short, I realized that we were all experiencing the same effects – to our internal ELECTRICAL System – whether from tv programming – or school programming.

    It was all passive ingestion of information that moves one from the “Awakened State” (7-12 hertz, most commonly called Alpha) to the “Twilight Zone” (4-7 hertz, most commonly called Theta), which, in turn:

    1) threw off our Circadian Rhythms, which
    2) threw off our Metabolism, which
    3) threw off our Cellular Mitosis, which
    4) threw off the replication and regeneration of our Mitochondrial Genome(s)/Generator(s) –

    without which nothing in our brains/bodies can grow to their MAXIMUM potential.

    What was the result of fully returning to the 100% natural LIFE CYCLES of the Planet?!?!? I was cured of a severe Auto-Immune System failure, my daughter was cured of Learning Disabilities and my twin sons were cured of Autism. Yes, my children received vaccines (my sons having the worst reaction after their Thimerosal laden DPT shots), but the return of their rhythms, a.k.a. Metabolism, allowed them to completely detox themselves of the heavy metals. After all, that is what the Metabolism is FOR.

    If you want it to NOT detox your cells of all of their toxins, then continue on changing your states of consciousness/rates of energy to unnatural amounts for daylight and darkness – and also change the formation and function of your Mitochondrial Genome(s)/Generator(s) with both internal and external “ElectroSmog”. (That's what your own brain waves produce in out of sync states.) If, however, you want to detox your cells of all of their toxins, then get back the 100% natural rhythms.

    You can't do that while oscillating to unnatural frequencies from cell phones/towers, ipods, high tension wires, digital clocks, tv's, computers, radar, sonar, etc., etc., etc… or the droning of a teacher/trainer. Even just sitting in a chair all day has the same effect.

    It's not just our technolgy that's causing this. It's our entire Lifestyles. And make no mistake. It IS damaging your Genome and predisposing your children to all manner of disease, disorder and disability. Anything that takes you out of the natural schedule for energy/consciousness will do the same. The natural schedule looks like this:

    1) Delta State, (1-4hz) for sleep in deep darkness
    2) Theta State (4-7hz) for transitioning at dawn and dusk between Delta and
    3) Alpha State (7-12 hz) for full daylight hours of awakenedness

    The two other states of Beta (13-30 hz) and Gamma (30-69hz) are for differing levels of emergencies only. If you'd like to learn more of this subject google “The Schumann Resonances”. Here is a study from Lund University in Sweden warning of the consequences of becoming misaligned with these frequencies.


    Rote school programming that alters the energy to the very Mitochondrial Genome(s)/Generator(s) that create the cells necessary for full growth and function in life, the same that equates to reaching one's own highest potential, is not “developmental” in any way, shape or form. Unplugging from electronic devices will do absolutely nothing for you, if you are still plugged in to these other rote means of altering your rhythms at school, on the job or at home.

    There is another, better way to “live-and-learn”, but you won't experience it if you don't fully unplug – from everything that's physically blocking you from doing it – and reaching the real potential still intact in that Mitochondrial Genome… It will produce itself – naturally – when left to oscillate with the Earth's Electromagnetic Field – without any “interference waves” at all.

    In short, we don't just need to detox ourselves, we need to detox it of all of the unnatural frequencies with which we're flooding it. When that Field is gone/filled with mixed signals of our own device, we'll be gone too. Think about it the next time you pick up your cell phone or turn on your TV. That Field belongs to all of us – and the planet…

  32. Mental Detox could be a a whole heck of a lot more than just that. That could be considered Modern Day Detox, or Tech Detox or something like that. An iPod is certainly a part of most people living in big cities. It's hard to let go of TV, iPod your PS3 (or Xbox 360 or what have you) but doing that from time to time is just liberating.

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