Skip to main content

“We tried to break our worst digital habit in one week. Here’s what happened.”

"A" icon to represent Aetna By Aetna

As anyone with a data plan can tell you, breaking up is hard to do, especially when the relationship you’re ending involves a digital device. Not surprisingly, science has come to the same conclusion. One study even found that email and social feeds are harder to resist than junk food, tobacco and cigarettes. And much like those vices, excessive screen time isn’t exactly considered healthy behavior. It’s been linked to everything from poor sleep to issues with memory and concentration to increased anxiety and depression.

This makes identifying an unhealthy digital habit especially important, says Mary Ann Perez, director of clinical operations for Aetna’s Resources For Living. Of course, what constitutes “unhealthy” depends on the person. After all, digital devices can and do serve a real need. “But if certain screen time activities or a higher amount of screen time are having a negative impact on your mood and thoughts, then making the choice to avoid certain feeds, for example, may be necessary to create some balance,” she says.

Setting time limits, stashing the phone during meal times, and spending quality time with a loved one when you aren’t on your device can also help you maintain a healthy relationship with your device. “Determine what will work for you, set that goal, and hold yourself accountable,” Perez adds.

With that advice in mind, we gave five digitally savvy Aetna employees the ultimate challenge: For one week, they’d try to break an unhealthy online habit that drained their time and productivity. Strategies ran the gamut from self-control to deleting apps, and the results were mixed. But all five people came to the same realization: Breaking a digital habit may take work – and an ample supply of self-forgiveness – but less screen time has a positive effect on your life. Read on for their stories, tips and lessons learned.

Maureen S., 18 hours of screen time a week

The problem: I spend an hour every night reading the news, which usually upsets me so much that I have trouble sleeping. To calm myself, I playing a mobile game for another hour.

The goal: Stop wasting time on my phone.

The plan of attack: Program my phone to block apps in the evening and limit game usage to 15 minutes a day.

How the challenge went: Day 1. I notice a new Screen Time function on my phone. A graph shows me that I pick up my phone 42 times a day on average and up to 76 times a day on weekends. That adds up to more than 2 hours of daily phone time on weekdays, 4 hours on weekends. The numbers give me chills. How often do I complain I don’t have enough time to tackle my to-do list or just relax? The reality is, I do have the time. That night, I read a novel in bed and turn out the light at 10:30, feeling virtuous.

Two intense days later: I get home from work wanting to veg. Plopped on the couch, I open my game app. After 15 minutes, the screen goes blank and a message informs me I’m done playing for the day. That’s when I notice the little “Ignore Limit” button. Click. Mwahaha. Fifteen minutes later, guess what? Click. And again. And again. If this is what happens when I’m under pressure, then the game has to go. I delete the app.

On the train to work the next morning, I regret my hasty decision. My phone gets no reception for most of my commute, so I can’t browse the news or social media. I’d forgotten that my game was the only app that worked offline. For 20 minutes, I don’t know what to do with myself. I fume over my lack of foresight.

How often do I complain I don’t have enough time to tackle my to-do list or just relax? The reality is, I do have the time.

By the end of the week, avoiding the news at night is still surprisingly easy. But going without games is tough. I could read a book or magazine on my commute, but mostly I do nothing at all. At home after a crazy day, I try to channel my nervous energy into tidying up or prepping dinner.

At first I felt bad about not having a ready replacement for my lost game. Now I think it’s a blessing in disguise. Turning to one thing whenever you’re anxious sounds like an addiction. Depending on the day, I may cope by puttering for a while, watching TV or calling a friend to chat. But I make a conscious choice.

What I learned: Maybe even doing nothing for 20 minutes isn’t so terrible after all.

Bonnie V., 20 hours of screen time a week

The problem: I used to exercise for 20 minutes every morning. Now, I spend that time reading the news in bed.

The goal: Start my day in a happier, healthier way.

The plan of attack: Ask my family to keep me accountable.

How the challenge went: The alarm jolts me awake. It’s Day 1 of my detox. I get up without even glancing at my phone. I don’t need you, I tell the darkened screen as I power through sets of planks, sit-ups and push-ups. Afterward, I feel like a warrior.

But the next morning, I wake up with a stomach bug. Miserable, I crawl back into bed, lunge for my phone and open my favorite news sites. I’m in the middle of a particularly juicy article when my husband walks in and shouts, “Digital detox!” I throw down the phone like it’s on fire.

The virus lingers for a few days, so I end up setting a new goal. I’m still bypassing news first thing in the morning. But now I’m allowing myself to work out any time of day. Reinvigorated, I walk to and from work and even scale 10 flights of stairs to my apartment.

Halfway through the week, I notice I’m starting to feel calmer, more relaxed, more focused. Part of that may be from the extra endorphins, but the news-free mornings couldn’t hurt either. For the first time in years, I see the value in not knowing about every breaking news story before breakfast.

Day 5. It’s raining, my bed feels cozy, the midterm elections are coming up…and I fall off the wagon again. I open my news feed and read until my retinas plead for mercy. Still, by the end of the week, I manage to get back on track. I’m surprised by how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the extra 20 minutes every morning. Make a pot of oatmeal on the stove? Apply a second coat of mascara? Bring it on. I have time.

What I learned: Setbacks are inevitable, but every morning is another chance to try again.

Chris R., 27 hours of screen time a week

The problem: I scroll through Instagram to put off getting out of bed every morning.

The goal: Stay off Instagram until 10 a.m.

The plan of attack: Replace scrolling with podcasts.

How the challenge went: Raise your hand if you sleep with your cell phone on your nightstand.

*Slowly raises hand*

Yeah, I’m guilty of it, too. I’m also guilty of reaching for my phone in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, or first thing in the morning when I wake up. The notifications draw me in like a bug to a porch light, and resistance is futile.

Or is it?

My challenge was simple: Start small by not endlessly scrolling Instagram as a means to not have to get out of bed in the morning. Instead, before work each morning for a week, I’ll replace the zombie-esque double tapping and story watching with listening to podcasts.

I’m not gonna lie, I set the bar pretty low here. All I have to do is stay off of Instagram before 10 a.m. Seriously, how hard can that be? Turns out, pretty hard!

Each morning, I consciously avoid opening the app, and actively navigate to the Podcasts app instead. But what happens afterward shocks me. I listen to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast and Jonathan Van Ness’ Getting Curious podcast and Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness podcast and actually enjoy it. I laugh. I nod along. I even cry a couple of times. (Thanks, Oprah.)

And then I relapse. Fall back into my old ways. Pick up right where I left off.

Midway through the week, I cave and open Instagram before I even get out of bed. I posted a photo the night before and there are so many notifications that I find myself lured back in almost effortlessly.

I guess that’s the thing about bad habits: They’re so deeply ingrained in your subconscious that you often don’t even realize you’re doing the very thing you’re trying to avoid.

The rest of the week, I return to my new normal and resist allowing my thumb to reach for that familiar purple, pink and orange logo. And it’s so glorious that I actually continue listening to podcasts after the challenge ends. How about that for change?

What I learned: Self-control is really difficult to master, but it’s really about progress and not perfection.

Christine D., 20 hours of screen time a week

The problem: Over the past few years, I’ve become more reliant on Instagram – I use it for everything. It’s given me inspiration, but it’s also led me to create unrealistic expectations for myself.

The goal: Go cold turkey and quit the app entirely for a week.

The plan of attack: Delete the app from my phone.

How the challenge went: Removing the Instagram app from my phone ends up being the most difficult part of the journey. I feel like I’m cutting off contact with the outside world. What if I miss out on something important? To make matters worse, it’s Halloween weekend, one of my favorite holidays. If you hand-bedazzle hundreds of rhinestones on your popstar Halloween costume and don’t share a photo of it on social media, I wonder, did you even celebrate?

The answer is absolutely. Instead of taking photos so I can post them online, I focus on living in the moment. At one point, a friend asks why I didn’t post any pictures from the weekend. I explain that I was taking part in a digital detox with my colleagues. She shrugs, and we both move on. No social media? No big deal.

Over the next two days, I find myself constantly reaching for my phantom app to scroll in between work meetings, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and during my daily commute. To fill the time normally spent scrolling, I complete my office to-do list, text friends to catch up, and take in the sights and sounds of the city.

By days 4 and 5, I notice that I’m going to bed earlier – and arriving to work earlier – because I’m not wasting time scrolling. I’m also not reaching for my phone as often. One evening, my resolve is challenged when a spectacular cotton candy-colored sunset filled the sky. My first instinct is to snap a photo and post it for the world to see. Instead, I capture a satisfying mental image, with no “likes” or comments to worry about.

I notice that I’m going to bed earlier – and arriving to work earlier – because I’m not wasting time scrolling.

On the final morning of my detox, I pose for dozens of pictures at a friend’s bridal shower, but only capture a few for myself. Later that evening, my boyfriend says he saw pictures of me online from earlier in the day. I feel slightly uneasy knowing that photos of me were on the internet and I’d had no idea. As a former serial sharer, I can’t believe I had this reaction!

What I learned: It took less than one week for me to form a healthier sleeping pattern, increase productivity at work, and be present in social situations. Not only did I survive the detox, I thrived. I’m sure I’ll eventually download the app again. But for now I’ll continue live in the present, instead of behind a screen.

Laura K., 17.5 hours of screen time a week

The problem: Constant phone checking is holding me back from enjoying life and being my most productive self.

The goal: Be more mindful of the moment I’m in.

The plan of attack: Turn off all non-essential alerts on my phone and set parameters for myself.

How the challenge went: I realize that a lot of time when I pick up my phone, it’s not out of boredom – it’s because the phone buzzed and I’m trying to find out why. But then after I determine the source of the buzz, I reflexively check something else – my email, Instagram, the news.

So I turn off all of my non-essential alerts. I don’t need my phone to alert me to my friends’ latest Instagram posts, breaking news or the fact that a squirrel just ran across my driveway. And unless I’m reading or responding to family texts, phone calls and security alerts, I’m only using my phone for fun during lunch and my commute.

Over the course of the next several days, I enjoy a deeper focus and sense of productivity than I have in a while. When I walk in the door after a long day of work, I set my phone aside and don’t look at it again until I set my alarm before bed. I know I’m making progress when one night, I lose my phone completely because I got so distracted by real life.

Then something interesting happens. I start to slide, but not back into phone use. When I have a lull in a meeting or a down moment, instead of reaching for my phone, I reach for some other form of distraction – usually work email, but sometimes it’s another project right in front of me.

It makes me wonder if my brain has always been this distractible, or if I’ve been trained to crave constant stimulation as a result of our digital, always-on world. It also makes me realize that living in the moment is less about how I’m interacting with any one device and more about consciously paying attention to what is happening right now, right in front of me.

What I learned: I intend to keep the parameters I’ve put in place around my phone, but I also recognize that living a genuinely present, mindful life isn’t as simple as turning off notifications. It’s something I have to practice minute by minute, every day. I embrace the challenge. And I’ll never give up my phone.

Also of interest: