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Emergentology

The Great Tech Detox (or How I Got My Brain Back)

Walker, Graham, MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000559977.29232.6d
Emergentology

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It's been two months since I decluttered my technological life. I turned off notifications and deleted Facebook. What do I have to show for it?

My first word of advice will give you a clue: Turn off your notifications. Now. Stop reading this article and turn off 95 percent of the nonsense notifications that beg for your constant attention. For iPhone, go to Settings, then Notifications, or for Android, go to Settings, then Notifications, and start tapping each app.

Do you really need to know immediately when that game you downloaded three months ago has a new version and wants you to start playing again? Or that someone liked a photo you took? Is it worth distracting you from whatever you were doing—talking to your family, reading a book, cooking dinner, or even absolutely nothing? No. You don't need to know immediately. You don't need the distraction.

A general rule: Turn off notifications for everything except apps that will always change your behavior. I only give six types of apps access to my attention: maps (driving directions), calendar or reminders (to remind me of events and time or location-based to-dos), weather (to warn me if I need an umbrella), home security (to let me know the dog walker came), phone (to take calls), and travel (to update me if there's a gate change). Note that text messages and email didn't make the cut. Texts messages will temporarily show up at the top of the screen if I have my phone unlocked, and the world has not ended because I responded to a text message later.

I'd also challenge you to consider turning off most of these apps' sounds even if you leave notifications on. And absolutely turn off badges. Badges are the red numbered circles on apps showing that you have 8,212 unread emails or three new alerts from Facebook. Badges only give you anxiety about needing to clear them and serve little purpose for the vast majority of apps. For iPhone, go to Settings, Notifications, then open an app, and tap the toggle switch next to Badge App icon, or for Android, go to Settings, then Notifications, then App Icon Badges, and tap the toggle switch.

I'll say this, the lack of notifications has been wonderful. I definitely feel like I have more control over my phone, and I feel a degree of liberation when I notice people obsessed with theirs. Am I still checking my screen? Tapping my phone out of habit and boredom? Absolutely. But each time I do this with fewer notifications on my screen, that habit slowly starts to fade. Having to hunt for something to do on my phone (as opposed to notifications constantly showing me what they have to offer) slowly breaks my phone's hold on my attention span.

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Bury Your Apps

An additional tip: Apps that are often great time-wasters (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) should be buried in your phone. Don't make them easy to access. Your main home screen should have a few useful apps on it. Move everything else to at least the second screen, and preferably even further. Even better if you can bury apps within submenus (like home screen folders on the iPhone), and then bury them even further in a folder. You should have to actively use energy to decide you want to find and open Twitter instead of just doing it automatically.

I also can't say that I miss Facebook. It would be nice, I think, to occasionally log in and see some highlights of people I don't easily have the opportunity to catch up with (and if you recall, this was the original point of Facebook). Unfortunately, Facebook's mission, design, and business strategy are to keep you on the site as long as possible. (They're very good at this.) Facebook still has its claws in me through Instagram, but I've tried to significantly pare down the accounts I follow.

This is not to say that I don't waste too much time on a screen. There are still tons of distractions online: Reddit, YouTube, Netflix, and Twitter are all still a healthy part of my life. And wasting time itself isn't the enemy. Who doesn't need to decompress after a tough shift or a long day? But I'm happier that I'm in a bit more control of how I waste my time.

I do feel like I'm slowly gaining back some of my attention span, which is wonderful. I'm reading more books—and faster—than I have in years. I honestly think that's because there is less to distract me from getting deeply engaged in a book. My concentration is better as well. These are just mental muscles that we have to exercise to regain. Since the iPhone was released in 2007, our cognitive abilities like concentration and memory have atrophied, but they're lost, not forgotten. The good news? After a few weeks of change, your brain muscles will start to return!

Dr. Walkeris an emergency physician at Kaiser San Francisco. He is the developer and co-creator of MDCalc (www.mdcalc.com), a medical calculator for clinical scores, equations, and risk stratifications, which also has an app (http://apps.mdcalc.com/), and The NNT (www.thennt.com), a number-needed-to-treat tool to communicate benefit and harm. Follow him on Twitter @grahamwalker, and read his past columns athttp://bit.ly/EMN-Emergentology.

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