I've developed this plan to help you become more intentional with your time online—it's a plan I've followed five or six times in the past year, at varying lengths of time, for a fast—and I can personally speak to its efficacy:
👋 Step 1: Log out
Log out Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat and delete those apps from your phone. They'll still be there when you come back. Take a break and then maybe add them back one at a time.
Don't let yourself feel an obligation to appear on these platforms—if it's not useful to you or if you don't enjoy it, delete your account permanently. And don't announce that you're leaving, no one cares.
🎁 Step 2: Prioritize friends and family
In your Contacts app, make a 'Friends & Family' group. Turn on Do Not Disturb for all calls and texts except the ones from this group. Don't put everyone in there. As a rule of thumb, if you're someone I have to buy a Christmas present for, you're in.
Callers who don't fit your Friends & Family category can leave a message. If they're neither friend nor family, nor perhaps your boss, then what on earth could they possibility want that's of any immediate importance at all?
But what about emergencies?! I can hear you saying. The fact is, most emergencies aren't.
But what if I take my clients' calls on my cell? What you really need is a separate phone to be used only during office hours. And you need a secretary. Seriously—give yourself some work/life balance or you'll burn out fast.
✉️ Step 3: Emails
Remove email apps and your email address from your phone. Instead of checking your email throughout the day, designate a time and place to check messages and make checking messages your priority in that moment.
If you're anything like me, you might receive one email worth reading in every 10,000 messages that compete for your time, attention, and money. Instead of seeing each one of those emails the moment it arrives, carve out a 30 minute block in your day to sift through those messages and give the important ones your undivided attention.
I practice inbox-zero in that designated time, working through my inbox like a to-do list, clearing the whole thing out each time I set aside time to check email. I go so far as to unsubscribe from every promotional I've received in that time, not just delete them.
Filter out spam and advertisements from your email inbox, and unsub from all junk. These advertisements in endless supply aren't just wasting space on the cloud, they're attacking you. You read that right! Advertisements are attacking you. They exist to make you feel inadequate, then take your money.
Advertisers get paid when you take action: A purchase, a trip to the store, a coupon code redeemed, heck, even just a single click inside that message—any action you take, no matter how small—validates the advertising industry and pays the advertiser. Filter all of that out.
After filtering all of the advertisements and spam, take a look at your remaining messages. Who's emailing you? What do they want? Are they sharing or just soliciting? Is it your boss, your clientele, your friends or family? Ask yourself, could they call instead?
Consider asking those people to call instead. Get a coffee with them. Consider writing them old-school letters; those are much more meaningful than an email. Consider making a separate email address for professional use, only during business hours. Only reply during your hours and make your hours known to your client base.
Now that spam and advertisements are filtered out, your boss and coworkers and clients are emailing a business-only address, and your friends and family are calling instead, you can check your email once a week. Or once a month. Or once a year. Or never. If there's an emergency, they'll call you. And again, most emergencies aren't.
💣 Step 4: The Purge
Delete all 'casual browsing' apps: Shopping apps, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr & other blogging platforms, any app with which you might mindlessly scroll to kill time.
Delete all games. You're an adult, don't play cell phone games. Your 'clan' will soldier on without you. When you're gone, you will not be remembered for how many Pokemon you caught.
Casual browsing apps only serve to tear us from the present. At best, they make us rude at the dinner table. At worst, they distract us from problems that we're meant to face in ways that stunt our growth and personal development. Sure, they keep us entertained, but they also threaten our ability to entertain ourselves or to think constructively.
If you can't decide how you feel about a movie you've just seen without consulting the Reddit hive-mind and reading every review out there, then that 'harmless' casual app has taken a bit of your human agency, a bit of your ability to think for yourself. You've surrendered a bit of your consciousness to it.
Delete all news apps. If something important happens, you'll hear about it. The fact is, most emergencies aren't. Delete all apps that you haven't used in the last 90 days, or that you don't expect to use in the next 90 days. Turn on the 'Offload Unused Apps' setting.
📺 Step 5: What about Netflix???
Place all video, TV, and movie apps (YouTube, HBO Now, Netflix, TV, Hulu, etc.) in a folder on your phone. You can access this folder once per day, to watch one video per day. You can watch one 5-minute viral video, a single episode of that TV show you'd otherwise binge, or an entire movie—it doesn't matter.
Some people might opt for the quick-fix of a YouTube video on the train. Others might open this folder at a scheduled time to sit down and watch a movie. In both cases, restricting access to the TV apps will help you prevent binging, gain back lost sleep, and seek out videos that add value to your life. You only get one video a day, so make it count.
🧠 Step 6: Trick the mind
This step is my favorite: Identify your most used app and find something else to put in its place on the home screen. If your fingers instinctively go to Instagram the moment you open your phone, put the Kindle app in its place.
You'll be surprised to note how many times you check Instagram each day and you'll be jarred just a bit each time you find a book in its place. Read a couple of pages as punishment and continue with your day.
👮♂️ Step 7: Enforce new rules
Never text and drive.
Try memorizing the directions instead of using turn-by-turn navigation. You'll learn the city you're in faster, you'll remember how to exercise intuition with regard to alternate routes or hazards, you'll be more aware of the cars around you, and you won't have to hear that awful, nagging digital voice: **Recalculating,** **Recalculating…**
Never use phone in bed. The bed is made for two things 😏, neither of which are enhanced with a smartphone in your face.
Never use your phone at the table. Be in the moment, be with your partner or your friends, invest in people, look them square in the eye.
Smartphones are virtually a necessity nowadays—I know I can't get around in town without mine. I need it to tell me when I should bring a jacket. I need it to hail an Uber. I need it to hold my airline and movie passes so I don't lose them.
But that doesn't mean I have to surrender myself to it. Nor does it mean that I've got to consent to all that comes with the device.
Armed with these principles and taking frequent, extended breaks from your smartphone will allow you to reclaim what you've lost—intuition, human agency, awareness of the present, attention span, sleep, short-term memory, and free time.