How to take breaks from media, messaging, and the digital world
Person standing with outstretched arms looking at a colorful sky over the ocean

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi

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What I have been trying to do more and more over the last several years is catch my digitally negative behavior and stop it.

If I do what I described at the beginning of this story, from waking up to morning coffee to screens, my brain will often go from calm and serene to a jumbled, anxiety-ridden mess. A melange of thoughts begins swirling, then emotions attach to those thoughts. Many of those thoughts and emotions are not positive.

That can include inner statements colliding together in a few seconds, such as:

“Oh wow, I haven’t seen them in a long time. I wonder why I haven’t heard from them?”

“Gotta add that to my to-do list. I have to do that by noon today…”

“That story is terrible. What a clown. Why did people vote for him?”

“Oh no, I have to do that today, too. That’s gotta be first on the list…”

“Oooh, look at them. They look happy. That reminds me of that awful thing I did ten years ago. That was so bad. Do they still think I’m a terrible person?”

“Damn! I lost that contract. Now, I have to move money around from…”

“Aaaaw, look at that cute monkey. I should share that with…”

“I need to meditate. Wait…there was that article I wanted to read in that meditation app…”

“There they are. I’ve been trying to reach them for weeks! Did I do something wrong? What if that person doesn’t contact me again?

“Mmm, gorgeous. I wonder who…”

“Oh yeah. That bill. It’s due after that estimated tax payment…”

“Why am I on LinkedIn? I just wanted to read that story from the New Yorker I saw on Instagram with the photo of that celebrity that I saw earlier on Twitter. What was the celebrity’s name? I should look up that movie they were in on Wikipedia…”

And on and on and on and on.

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Then I stop. I recognize the pure, unadulterated insanity of my actions.

I’m certainly not perfect. I catch myself over and over throughout the week doing this thought process related to the digital world, to the messages I see, and to the different media I use and peruse. Many times on the same day. But I do my best to stop this strange relationship with my screens.

Series of people holding their mobile phones and staring at them

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL

I’m a creative and media professional. As a writer, editor, producer, musician, and someone who does creative development and mentoring with entrepreneurs, visual artists, web designers, businesses, organizations, and other writers and musicians, I need to use digital devices and look at screens. Media is part of my daily existence. Nearly all of us need screens, no matter what we do. It is our primary communication tool.

Instead of diving headlong into a world of social media, texts, emails, and the blogosphere, I try to step back and prioritize what and who is most important. Then, I do my best to keep that focus throughout the day.

Mornings usually involve work, but they also involve meditation, reading, writing, exercise, and time with people I love. Work and using screens will come, I just try to not let it happen in the same crazy, unbalanced ways.

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Why do I choose to stop and turn away from my screens? Because I believe it’s healthy and productive to do so. I create time away from screens as a need for more mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. I work, play, and live better when I do this. Plus, to me, the world is really fantastic without screens.

If you feel the same way, you might be asking: how do I change my screen habits?

It happens in small moments. A few hours at a time and then sometimes for a full day. On vacation, you can choose to do this for a week or more. It’s a slow evolution toward this behavior change; it’s not immediate. I use very simple ways to help me put down my phone and turn off my screens.

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At the end of your life, you won’t remember all of the time you spent working. What you will remember is all the time you spent with the people you love and the experiences you had. 

Many people have written or said variations of this. Experiences and love are almost always considered more important than work. They each offer purpose and meaning to our lives. At the end of our lives, in addition to work, I believe we won’t remember or value all of the time we spent looking at our screens.

Yet, we’ve become slaves to our devices. Self-flagellating and prostrating ourselves to a strange digital god who does not love us back as much as we love them. Staring into the abyss of our screens is an invisible nightmare we’ve created for ourselves. The constant need to look at media that we unconsciously believe will fulfill some longing, some need. We are screen junkies. Digi-addicts.

What I’m writing about is so prevalent that I’ve published this story on a website because nearly all of us read and get information from our screens.

So, simply put, stop reading this. Put down your phone. Close your laptop. Shut off your tablet. Turn off your screens.

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If you did that, bravo! You are no longer reading this. That’s excellent. I love that about you and your choices today.

If you’re still reading, I imagine you’re curious and may be wondering: what’s next? What happens when there is no screen to look at?

Woman sitting meditatively looking at a sunrise

Photo by Dingzeyu Li

First…breathe. Take a deep breath in and then let it out. Isn’t that nice? If it felt good, take another breath. You can breathe seven times — a good way to start meditating — and you can continue sitting and focusing on breathing. You’ll need to keep breathing whether you’re screens are on or off!

Now that we’re all aware of the first wonderful necessity to live, keep breathing and read about several very simple yet magnificent things you can do with your screens off:

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Move. Walking is good. Wherever you are, stand up, and walk across the room or across the space you’re in. If it’s painful, walk five steps and back. If it feels good, keep walking. If you can’t walk, do whatever it is that feels like walking for you. If you’re in a wheelchair, roll. If you’re in the water, swim. Movement is important.

Read. Read something solid. Not a screen; something made of paper. I know you have a book around. Maybe a magazine. A letter or a card from someone who loves you. Even the inside of an album sleeve. It feels really good to read something tangible you can hold. I love holding a book in my hands and turning the pages.

Look. Open your eyes and look around you. Take in the colors, the art. Notice everything where you are. Every single thing you see was either created by another human being or came from nature. Are the things you’re seeing pretty, ugly, fascinating, silly, or something else? Just look and be grateful for that ability. If you aren’t able to see, then you have other magnificent senses to use to explore the world around you.

Feel. How do you feel? Are you warm or are you cold? What is the space like that you’re in? If you’re inside, go outside and experience the feeling. Is it windy? Sunny? Rainy? Let the sun shine or rain fall on your face. Close your eyes and feel the air. What emotions are you having? Whatever you feel is completely ok.

Smell. Breathe in through your nose. What does it smell like? Are you inside or outside? Are you in the city or the country? The suburbs or a village? By a body of water? Under skyscrapers? Sitting on the sidewalk? On a beach or the docks? In the mountains, the desert, or on the bayou? In a field or forest? Is it fresh or dirty smelling? Does it stink? If you’re home and it stinks, clean it.

Clean. Make your space clean. Make your bed. Wash the dishes. Sweep. Do the laundry. Scrub the sink and the toilet. Organize your world so that it feels best for you. How about your own body? Are you clean? If you’re dirty, wash yourself.

Wash. Showering and baths are a luxury for many people in the world. Clean, running water is a gift many of us take for granted. If you are among those who are grateful to have clean water and plumbing, go enjoy it. If you already feel clean, have a glass of water.

Drink water. I know this might sound silly, but drink a glass of water and really enjoy it. It’s not only good for you to drink several glasses per day, but it’s how you survive. We all need water and you have access to it. Be grateful for that! Take your time and savor a tall glass of water.

Create. You’ve quenched your thirst, so now pick up a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, and write. If you don’t have or can’t find paper, use a napkin or paper towel. You can borrow a pen or write with a crayon. Write anything. You’re the storyteller, the poet, and the lyricist. Don’t censor yourself, just let the words go wherever they go. If you’re visual, then draw.

Be courageous and be vulnerable. No one needs to read what you write or see what you draw. Take risks. Go anywhere in your mind and create anything you want. Real life, fantasy, or a combination of both. You get to create any character in any setting with any story, song, poem, or picture you want.

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Remember that when you do any of the tasks I’ve mentioned, do not look at a screen. Do not play music on streaming music from your phone. Don’t start streaming a video so it’s playing in the background. Do not put on a podcast.

Naked woman standing in a lake looking out at forests and mountains

Photo by Clay Banks

One of my favorite things to do that’s even better than music or sound and doesn’t involve a screen is to…

Listen. Listen to the space you’re in and pay attention to the sounds of the world. Birds singing and insects buzzing. Dogs barking and the wind blowing through the trees. Cups clattering and people talking. A furnace humming and a dishwasher running. Maybe music is playing but it’s something you’ve never heard before or haven’t heard for a very long time.

Rain hitting rooftops and horses clomping by. Airplanes flying overhead and children laughing. Cars passing and buses picking up passengers. Snow being shoveled and trucks picking up trash. Tractors in fields and construction in cities. Lawnmowers and seagulls and horns and roosters. It’s all there to hear wherever you are.

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If you’ve read this entire piece, then now is the time. Once you’ve turned off your screens, you won’t see any of my sentences anymore.

See how long you can go without looking at your screens. This is an experiment to see how it feels. You’ll most likely need your devices and the screens on them eventually for work, family, and relationships, but see how long you can comfortably be screen-free. Just be aware of how you feel and, hopefully, you’ll enjoy the feeling.

I believe the actual world is far more fascinating and beautiful than what’s on a screen. I hope you think so or that you’ll discover that soon, too.