A “digital detox” probably won’t fix what’s broken. Here’s what will.
Not so long ago, I came to believe that I was prioritizing technology over the most important people in my life — including, most painfully, my daughter.
It hit me hard one day when the two of us were playing games from an activity book. The first activity involved naming each other’s favorite things. The next project was to build a paper airplane with one of the pages. The third was a question we both had to answer: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
I wish I could tell you what my daughter said at that moment, but I can’t. I have no idea because I wasn’t really there. I was physically in the room, but my mind was elsewhere.
“Daddy?” she said. “What would your superpower be?”
“Huh?” I grunted. “Just a second. I just need to respond to this one thing.”
I dismissed her as I attended to something on my phone. My eyes were glued to my screen, fingers tapping away at something that seemed important at the time, but could definitely have waited. She went quiet. By the time I looked up, she was gone.
I had just blown a magical moment with my daughter because something on my phone had grabbed my attention. On its own, it was no big deal. But if I told you this was an isolated incident, I’d be lying. This same scene had played out countless times before.
And I wasn’t alone — one friend of mine told me that when he asked his eight-year-old daughter what her superpower would be, she said she wanted to talk to animals. When asked why, she said, “So that I have someone to talk to when you and mom are too busy working on your computers.”
Something had to change.
After finding my daughter and apologising, I decided it was time for a change. At first, I went extreme. Convinced it was all technology’s fault, I tried a “digital detox” and started using an old-school cell phone so I couldn’t be tempted to use email, Instagram, and Twitter.
That created new headaches. Without GPS, I found it too difficult to get around. Without meeting addresses saved inside my calendar app, I was disorganized. I missed listening to audiobooks while I walked, as well as all the other handy things my smartphone could do.
To avoid wasting time reading too many news articles online, I bought a subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. But a few weeks later, I had a stack of unread papers piled neatly next to me as I watched the news on TV.
In an attempt to stay focused while writing, I bought a 1990s word processor without an internet connection. However, whenever I’d sit down to write, I’d find myself glancing at the bookshelf and soon start flipping through books unrelated to my work. Somehow, I kept getting distracted — even without the tech that I thought was the source of the problem.
My digital detox didn’t work. I’d just replaced one distraction for another.
Technology was not the real problem.
My problem wasn’t technology; it was that I hadn’t been intentional with my schedule. More specifically, I hadn’t set time aside for my daughter.
In Econ 101 terms, I’d been treating her as a mere “residual beneficiary.” That’s the chump who gets whatever is left over when a company is liquidated — typically, not much. In life, our loved ones deserve better. They deserve more than the time that’s left over after we address the ten thousand other things that call for our attention, both on and offline. Yet, if we’re not careful with how we plan our time, that’s exactly what they become.
To combat this problem, I’ve intentionally scheduled time with my daughter every week. Much like I schedule time for a business meeting or time for myself, I block out time on my calendar to be with her. During this time, I put my phone on Do Not Disturb mode, and all of my focus goes to her. And because I intentionally chose that time in advance, I’m prepared beforehand, so I can avoid the feeling of missing out on emails or social media.
To make sure we always have something fun to do, we spent one afternoon writing down over a hundred things to do together in town, each one on a separate little strip of paper. Then, we rolled up all the little strips and placed them inside our “Fun Jar.” Now, every Friday afternoon, we simply pull an activity from the Fun Jar and do it. Sometimes we’ll visit a museum, while other times we’ll play in the park or visit a highly rated ice cream parlor across town. That time is reserved just for us.
Truth be told, the Fun Jar idea doesn’t always work as smoothly as I’d like. It’s hard for me to muster up the energy to head to the playground when temperatures fall below freezing. On those days, a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of chapters of Harry Potter sound way more inviting for us both. What’s important, though, is that I’ve made it a priority in my weekly schedule to live up to my values. Having this time in my schedule allows me to be the dad that I envision myself to be.
Similarly, my wife, Julie, and I make sure we have time scheduled for each other. Twice a month, we plan a special date. Sometimes we see a live show or indulge in an exotic meal. But mostly we just walk and talk for hours. Regardless of what we do, we know that this time is cemented in our schedules and will not be compromised. In the absence of this scheduled time together, it’s too easy to fill our time with other errands, like running to the grocery store or cleaning the house. My time with Julie allows me to live out my value of intimacy — there’s no one else I can open up to the way I can with her, but this can only happen if we make the time.
Today, technology isn’t a problem for me, and neither are other distractions. I’m not saying I never get distracted. But I do have a reliable way to prevent myself from doing things that don’t matter and keeping myself on track with the things that matter most. I’ll never be perfect, but every day I can think of several ways in which I was completely in control of how I spent my time, and every area of my life is richer and more satisfying as a result.
How I found my solution
I didn’t come up with this whole thing overnight. This is a solution that took me a lot of time and thought to develop, and in fact, it’s only part of a larger framework I have that keeps me from getting distracted.
I discovered and shaped these techniques over the course of several years, in the process of writing my book Indistractable. The book is the result of my own curiosity about how to solve this distraction problem for myself, my family, and my friends.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from the research, experimentation, and trial-and-error involved in writing Indistractable is that technology itself isn’t the problem. It’s the way we use technology, and the way we manage our intentions, that matters.
Whatever it is that you believe matters most in the world, it’s essential to prioritize it not only in your thoughts but with your actions, by keeping that commitment, to yourself and the people you love.
•Nir Eyal is a former lecturer at Stanford and is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.