Digital Detox from A Recovering Addict
My experience moving from being an unconscious technical consumer to an intentional, focused, young adult who has successfully built a relationship with technology that has clarified my mission in life is worth sharing. I discovered that my mission in life is to help people build healthy relationships with their technical devices. I learned these tough lessons through my journey from high school to college to internship to becoming an entrepreneur.
My journey started in the fall of 2017 when I started matriculating at UC Berkeley. Although I arrived extremely confident, I was woefully unprepared for the transition that awaited me. High school had been a breeze, but what faced me was a very different story at UC Berkeley. For the first time in my life, I was truly challenged academically, my schedule was unstructured, and there were countless distractions that I had no idea how to effectively manage. It didn’t take long for me to fall behind in my courses resulting in failing my first midterm in calculus. This reality impacted my identity as an A-student and it was clear I was being tested in more ways than academically.
Being challenged in college, in hindsight, became a positive experience for me. Dealing with stress and overcoming adversity were keys to my development, however, it was difficult to confront difficulties with a 24/7 source of instant gratification in my pocket at all times. During that first year at Berkeley, I developed the habit of distracting myself from my uncomfortable emotions by accessing my smartphone and mindlessly scrolling for hours.
Throughout my freshman year, I averaged 4 hours per day on Instagram and Youtube. My smartphone, once a tool that enhanced my life, had become a digital pacifier that I used to escape discomfort. In addition to consuming vast amounts of my time, my smartphone addiction damaged my academic performance, sabotaged my sleep schedule, and seriously diminished my attention span. Worst of all, the unhealthy tech habits that I developed impacted my identity and my self-esteem. My actions are the evidence upon which my identity has been built. After months of spending more time scrolling than studying, I was objectively no longer the outdoorsy, outgoing, overachieving student I was known as and was proud to be in high school. Who had I become, what had caused this, and what could I do about it?
These struggles continued until January 2020, when I was given an opportunity to take a semester off from school to intern at a startup in New York. While in NYC, I leveraged the change in environment and accountability I felt to others to reset my addictive relationship with my devices. [WHAT HAPPENED TO CREATE THIS CHANGE?]
I took a break from social media and started reading, exercising, and meditating in my free time. Within a few months, I noticed drastic improvements in my mental and physical health. I regained control over my impulses and exercised the ability to overcome the challenges that took over my life when in college.
As I became settled into the internship, I began to notice a pattern among my co-workers. My observation was that he most effective employees were the ones who knew how to use technology to augment themselves. They had systems in place to ensure that no task fell through the cracks. They prioritized to execute their most important work first, and they utilized the internet as a tool for learning. What I discovered was that If used properly, a computer can function as a second brain.
We have gone through a massive paradigm shift in the last 10 years. The educational system has not been able to keep up with the need to educate the process of learning and staying focused. The realization that the same devices that caused my demise in college could be leveraged to accelerate my career was profound and I became determined to build a relationship with technology that would enhance my life. Over the next few months, I experimented with various tools, discussed tech habits with co-workers, and read extensively about digital wellness and productivity. I had embarked on the road to recovery.
Changing my digital habits led to a number of improvements in my life. I received a significant promotion, ran my first marathon, and my brain fog, that had plagued me in college, totally cleared up. When I returned to UC Berkeley after a 16-month hiatus, I was amazed by the changes I had initiated with my new device-relationship and it made college much easier. I became able to manage my time, stay on top of schoolwork, in a way I never had before, and had a significant GPA improvement as an outcome.
When I reflect on the journey my relationship with technology has taken, two things are readily apparent.
First, my opinion is that there is a massive gap in the educational system in regard to teaching new students how to interact with technical devices in a constructive, functional, and intentional manner. No one ever warned me about the effects of commonplace digital practices on memory, attention, and the capacity to focus. I was completely unaware of all of the things my tech devices could do to make me a happier, healthier, more productive person.
Second, conversations around smartphone addiction and digital wellness are not happening at the rate that they ideally would be. I distinctly remember feeling so ashamed of my excessive use of Instagram and Youtube that I feared bringing up the issue with even my closest friends. Now I realize that many of them were facing the similar issues to varying degrees.
In an effort to solve both of these problems, I created INFO 98: Becoming Tech Intentional, a 12-week course that I taught to 110 UC Berkeley students when I returned to school. INFO 98 was designed to give students a framework for resetting how they interact with their devices in an effort to cultivate intentional digital habits. In many ways, the course is a condensed version of the transformation that I went through during my time away from school.
Teaching INFO 98 opened my eyes to two main things.
First, smartphone addiction is ubiquitous. Even amongst highly ambitious Berkeley students, nearly everyone is wasting far more precious time on social media and entertainment apps than they need or want to.
Second, people can change how they interact with their devices dramatically with proper guidelines. My INFO 98 students decreased non-productive screen time by over 3 hours per day and reported significantly healthier relationships with their devices.
After graduating in May, I founded Project Reboot in an effort to spread the content of INFO 98 to a broader audience through consulting, boot camps, and speaking engagements. Although I am focusing on high school and college students at first, I believe that almost everyone can build a more intentional constructive relationship with technical devices.
In conclusion, if used improperly, tech devices will damage your cognition, undermine your autonomy, and prevent you from reaching your full potential.. If used properly, technology will bridge the gap between your brain’s natural capabilities and the demands of the modern economy. Technology is a force that can be used to augment habits If you find your relationship with tech is working against you, reboot!