When Rohan Gunatillake and I hosted our conversation at South by Southwest last weekend, the question we opened with was this:

When we refer to a digital sabbatical as a “digital detox,” it suggests that technology itself is a toxin. Is that true? And if not, what’s the “tox” we’re trying to remove from our systems?

As the phrase “digital detox” gains momentum, it’s clear there is a significant number of people who are craving a break from their cell phones and email, and from the always-on feeling of modern life. Whether we take that break by leaving our phone at home and going for a walk, or unplugging for a weekend or more, digital detox-ers report feeling more grounded, focused, and connected to the world around them.

So what’s that about, and is it possible to feel those things without doing a detox?

If we adopt the belief that technology* itself is a toxin–that the distraction, overwhelm, lack of focus, and disconnection from other people we experience is a direct result of using tech devices–then it follows that having a healthy mind depends on unplugging as much as possible.

I don’t buy this line of argument. It suggests that there’s no way to use technology to develop mindfulness (ahem, Buddhify and OmmWriter); that technology-mediated experiences are less real than face-to-face ones (or do we all think Skype is tearing families apart?); and a kind of ahistorical back-to-the-land ideal that seems to take it as a given that what we all really need is to put down those newfangled doohickeys and go back to how Things Used to Be.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m no techno-utopian, either. I don’t think technology can save us from ourselves. But as Rohan put it, the fact we call it “detox” in the first place biases the entire argument towards blaming technology, rather than looking within ourselves to discern where distraction comes from. Our inability to find mindfulness in the technology does not mean that mindfulness does not exist there; rather, our lack of awareness of when we are becoming distracted and anxious is at the root of the problem we’re trying to escape through unplugging.

There are two real issues at hand here: How we use technology, and how technology is designed. If we fail to address either side, we’ve failed to get at the whole problem.

How We Use Technology (to Make Ourselves Crazy)

When we say that technology is making us crazy, we often mean one or more of the following:

  • I’m distracted too frequently from my objectives, and the experience of constant distraction is a huge drain on my mental and emotional resources.
  • My boundaries between work and private life are getting increasing blurry and porous, so I never feel “off the clock.”
  • Using social media often fosters FOMO (fear of missing out), anxiety about over-sharing, and/or chronic comparison.
  • I spend so much time looking at a screen that I lose track of when I ought to be feeling tired; this leads to staying up too late and being constantly sleep deprived. (This is another form of distraction.)
  • I’m experiencing other physical symptoms, such as email apnea or lethargy and discomfort from spending too much time sitting.

What leads to these burnout-inducing experiences (and a craving for a detox) is exhaustion from distraction and overwork. Our adrenal glands are overloaded by these experiences, and our bodies are in a chronic state of artificial wakefulness and fatigue. We are training our minds for distraction and anxiety, and our bodies for poor posture and breathing.

Technology itself isn’t exactly the problem. The problem is that when we’re using our devices, it’s incredibly easy to allow ourselves to become distracted and work more than we intend to.

There are tons of resources on how to stay focused and productive while using a computer, so that’s one place to turn. We can filter our emailturn off unwanted app notifications, and use software that makes it easier to focus on a single task. But we can do more.

We can pay attention to our bodies. We can cultivate mindfulness by practicing meditation–or simply by checking in and noticing how our phone feels in our hands, and focusing on that for a few breaths. We can run our awareness down our spines, and notice how we’re sitting or standing. We can breathe, and notice how much space we’re giving to our lungs (and oxygen to our brains).

We can get curious about what we’re feeling when we experience the instinct to reach for our phones. What is that? Is it boredom? Anxiety? Are you waiting for an email? Trying to avoid eye contact with strangers?

I’ve long been a practitioner of productivity “hacks” to help me focus on what’s most important. Those practices are relatively easy for me. What requires more effort for me is remaining embodied while working on (or playing with, or looking at) a screen. So I’ve been paying more attention of late to my posture, breathing, energy levels, hunger and thirst… anything that my body’s trying to tell me, while performing a task where my default mode is a little more on the “brain in a jar” end of the spectrum.

Of course, as a tech-geek, I’m intrigued by some of the wearable devices being developed that help us pay closer attention to our bodies, such as heart rate variability earclips and pedometers–but I think of those devices as triggers for awareness; they can’t boost our awareness unless we also develop habits of paying attention to them and changing our behaviour to make healthier choices for ourselves. So I continue to focus on embodiment as core training for my mind.

The way I see it, the “unplugging” debate boils down to two key issues:

First, that the boundaries around our work lives are increasingly porous. This raises questions like: What is and isn’t work? And when are we off the clock? For many of us, various forms of unplugging are a way to maintain clearer boundaries – for example, it’s easier not to check email right before bed if you habitually leave your smartphone and laptop in another room of the house at night. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to develop the self-discipline required to leave your mail app untouched; it just requires more vigilance than totally unplugging.

The second is the tension between attention and distraction. We feel like technology gets in the way of us focusing, because it offers so many opportunities for distraction. The antidotes to this are calm, good rest and physical self-care, and training (and supporting) ourselves in achieving a flow state.

None of these antidotes requires unplugging. That said, I will acknowledge that there are definitely some built-in design flaws in many of our high-tech tools that make maintaining focus and boundaries awfully challenging.

How Technology is Designed (to Make us Crazy)

Here’s the main problem with many of the web applications and social media platforms we use: They’re advertising platforms.

It’s hard to stay focused when you’re using Facebook, because Facebook is designed to distract you. Gmail displays ads alongside the email you’re trying to respond to. Twitter? Ad-driven. iTunes is constantly trying to get you to buy stuff through its store. And many of the apps we install on our mobile devices make their money through advertising.

Even “freemium” software that’s not selling advertising per se frequently reminds you, while you’re using it, that you really ought to upgrade to a pricier, enhanced version.

Advertising requires distraction. It depends entirely on you being pulled away from your primary purpose to look at an ad, and click through to something you had no intention of purchasing when you started.

If we want different tools, we need to figure out different revenue models: either we pay the creators for the time they invest into building and maintaining the tools, or we build and maintain them ourselves. So as I see it, the big challenge for technology designers and developers who want to create more mindful, less “toxic” tech tools, is to develop alternative revenue models that don’t involve advertising. As Rohan put it: What if wellbeing were a design condition? 

Right now we, the creators of technology, optimize for certain things: number and frequency of interactions, virality, etc. What if we optimized for human connection, learning, attention, calm, or compassion?

What if QA testing involved questions like:

  • What does it feel like when you’re on your device?
  • What is the tension signature when you’re using an app, playing a game, checking email, etc.? Can you relax that?
  • What does your mind feel like?
  • Can you maintain deep, regular breathing while using your device?

In his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes that “zenware” – that is, software explicitly designed to make focusing easier – “reminds you of the sacredness of your own thinking [and] appreciates the value of your attention.”

What would it feel like to remember the sacredness of your own thinking every day? 

I would love to hear your thoughts on unplugging, the “toxins” we’re trying to purge, and how you use and/or design technology to support conscious living.


* Of course, the word “technology” is incredibly vague, isn’t it? Even if we limit ourselves to writing instruments, do we include texting, word processors, photocopiers, typewriters, printing presses, papyrus, stone tablets? Where do we draw a line in the sand and say, “This is harmful, distracting, mindless technology, and that is not?”

Many thanks to Rohan Gunatillake and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang for the conversations that inspired this post, and for refining my thinking on this topic. I highly recommend Rohan’s Buddhify app and Alex’s wonderful book, The Distraction Addiction if you’re interested in this subject. Thanks, too, to Alexandra Samuel for coming up with our SXSW presentation topic, helping me pitch it, and for her always thought-provoking work in this area.