My Addiction to Devices… And How I Remain Sane in the Digital World

Robin Greenfield sitting barefoot inside his tiny house, while working on his laptop.
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It’s hard to say this publicly, but I have a problem. The problem is my relationship to my computer and online devices. It’s not so much the devices though, it’s the connection they create to the online world. I’ve had this problem for a while now. I’m thinking perhaps about seven years. I’m 32 years old and I look back to the last time I can remember having a consistent healthy relationship with my devices. I know in college from 2005-2009 it was pretty healthy. Social media wasn’t remotely the same back then as it is today so it was a lot easier. When I traveled the world in 2010 I remember logging in to write my blog, send emails, do research, and spend time on social media, but I’d log off for days at a time and head into the jungle. Then there’s the grey area between 2011-2013. I had a better relationship with my computer then I’m pretty sure, so I’m guessing the problem really got bad in 2013. That was when my first eco-adventure began and when I really started blogging, using social media for a bigger purpose, and getting involved in the media.
I remember riding my bike across the country on a wild adventure, yet still being glued to my cellphone reading the comments on my posts and constantly checking my email. I would pull over my bike to look at my phone quite often. Even with the beauty of the world all around me!

In 2017 I was wondering if I may actually be addicted. I would often say that I am addicted to my devices, but I wasn’t sure if I actually was, so I did some research on addiction and found out that what I have is extremely habitual behaviors. I don’t think it’s a true addiction. There are definitely patterns that match up with addiction though.

I can’t stop myself from checking my devices even when I don’t want to.
I have a hard time giving myself limits. I tell myself I’m just going to check my email, and then I find myself online still an hour later.
I spend time thinking about it even when I’m not on it. I am sometimes nervous when I’m away from it for a while, anxious of the messages piling up or missing something important.
It has affected my sleep, staying up too late and missing out on sleep even though I’m exhausted, or waking up and before even taking a few breaths, going right onto the computer.
I even have snuck a look at times, not wanting others to see me on the device.
And it did affect my last partnership, as I would prioritize being on the computer over spending quality time with the one that I loved.

It sounds a lot like an addiction. However, since doing that research, I would pay attention to my actions and I believe that I am not addicted, and rather it is just an extremely habitual pattern.

When I get away from the “substance” I don’t go through any withdrawal. Instead I feel better. If I don’t have access to the devices, I don’t go searching them out and I’m often able to fully take my mind off of them. If the devices are there I can’t resist and have minimal self-control, but if it’s not an option, it’s pretty easy.

I’m not just writing this blog for me. I’m writing this to help others who are in a similar place to me. And whether we want to admit it or not, I don’t think that I am an outlier in my generation. I think what I just described is something a majority of us are experiencing. Whether most people will admit it or ever realize it is a whole different story. I hope that me admitting it can help others to let their guard down and begin the healing process if it is what they want to do.

I’m putting myself into a vulnerable situation, by admitting publicly, what I just have. It doesn’t shine the brightest light on me. It doesn’t make me look fully self-controlled or empowered. I am instead admitting that I am weak, that I use these devices as a crutch, and that I am flawed. But we all are. That is the human experience. I’m happy to say that I don’t suffer from any substance abuse and am not addicted to any drugs. I live a pretty healthy life, but my relationship with the internet is damaging my otherwise good health and my happiness as well.

With that being said, I also have observed that I have taken a lot of control over my situation and am actually far more in balance than a lot of people that I see. I don’t even have a cellphone. I got rid of it in January 2015 (read the story about why I got rid of my cell phone here). I have been cellphone free for 3.5 years and I have no intentions of going back in the near future. I probably have much more disconnected periods than most people in the USA in my generation. In fall of 2016 I went on a 75-day trip through South America with no cellphone or computer and I’ve done that multiple times. I do manage to disconnect, but again, when the devices are around I find myself stuck to them.

I also want to acknowledge some realities for me. I use social media as a tool to affect positive change in the world. I have a deep purpose in using social media. I use email to connect for a lot of the environmental projects I’m working on. In today’s culture much or our real-life interaction does stem from online interaction, especially events created on Facebook. I keep in touch with my friends around the world through my computer. The online world is central to my offline work and passion and purpose. None of that is an excuse for the imbalance that I have, but rather just facing the reality that there is a lot of good reason to be online. With that being said, I do not think that I NEED to use the internet to be highly effective. I think it’s possible to be highly successful in many fields, without using the internet exceptions  for a few hours per week, or even none at all.

I acknowledge that my relationship with these devices does make me a hypocrite. I speak about prioritizing health and happiness, but these devices get in the way of that. I speak about a deep connection to nature, but my connection is often severed by my internet habits. I speak about how crazy it is that the average US American watches something around four hours of TV per day. I don’t have a TV, but I do spend just as much time on my computer screen and I do get carried away watching pointless videos sometimes. I acknowledge and embrace my hypocrisy. For the last seven years, since waking up to how my actions affect the world around me, I have been slowly chipping away my hypocrisy. The reality is that almost every one of us is a hypocrite to some degree. For me it’s about drastically decreasing my level of hypocrisy and being open and honest with myself and others about the hypocrisy that still remains within me. I believe that anybody who cares deeply about the earth and humanity, in the time that we live in, will always be a hypocrite. It’s impossible to remain in our society, and not have some levels of hypocrisy. I embrace this.

With that acknowledgement of hypocrisy, I want to share with you my tips for having a balanced relationship with your computer, cellphone, and all devices connected to the internet. I will do this by sharing what works well for me and what I have found success in over the last years. I have not mastered any of this, but I am on the right path for me and have had massive breakthroughs. I want to say that I am not the perfect person to deliver this message because of my inability to perfect this practice, however maybe after all it is better for someone who is imperfect to share their experience and their successes and failures. I have worked very hard to get where I am today.

So here we go, here is what I do to live in balance with the internet:

  1. I shut off my computer and my iPod touch at 8:00 at night. This allows my mind time to unwind before bed. Screens stimulate my mind and throw off my natural sleep patterns. I suggest turning off all devices, including TVs, at least one hour before bed. If I’m in a house where it’s an option, I shut off the internet router as well.
  2. I don’t keep my devices next to me in bed. I try to put them away in a drawer away from the bedroom where they are completely out of sight. I don’t use my phone as an alarm clock (I only set an alarm a few times per year anyway). Instead I would recommend a simple watch or small clock to keep by the bed. I’m actually thinking about having a little lock box where I put the devices every night and then placing the key somewhere difficult to access to keep myself even more accountable. It’s all about making things less convenient. When the devices are convenient I hop right on them. Small inconveniences can deter me.
  3. I wait to turn on any devices until at least a half hour after waking up. This allows me to be much more present with the morning and start the day off right. Instead of going right to the devices I take time to walk outside and take some deep breaths of air, stretch out, go for a swim if I’m near a body of water, or exercise. Ideally, I even prepare and have breakfast before turning on any devices.
  4. Because I have a hard time with self-control I use an app called Freedom. This allows me to block my internet. I have it set to turn off my internet from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM seven days a week. I have it set so that once it’s blocked there’s nothing I can do to turn it back on. Ideally I wouldn’t need an app like this, but I do, and so it is.
  5. I use apps to block content that I don’t want to get distracted by. I stay educated on the current political situation, but let’s be honest, I also waste a lot of time on it and the current political scene can really bring darkness to my day. For this I use Trump Blocker. If I want to know what’s going on I can turn it off, but this app keeps me from being constantly bombarded. Trump is blocked from my internet completely while it’s on. I also block all news sites. The Freedom app has been the most successful for me but I also use BlockSite and StayFocusd. I have a lot of sites blocked during the day to give me that little extra deterrence but do have it set where I can turn off the block if I need to go to that site, unlike Freedom that I have set at night where the block is set and there is no turning it off while it’s on. I also block ads with Adblock Plus.
  6. I cleaned up my social media accounts. On Instagram and Twitter, I unfollowed every account that was not serving me wisely, and I only follow a few accounts that really matter to me. I mute all the accounts that I do still follow on Instagram and Twitter. On Facebook, I unfollowed everyone. Currently if you go to “Settings” then “News Feed Preferences” you can then select “Unfollow people and groups to unhide their posts.” What I did was unfollow literally everyone. Then I could consciously choose to refollow the people and pages that I truly want in my feed. Or I can just consciously go to the page or profile I want to see. Many of us have never seen the bottom of a newsfeed because it’s never ending. Mine now says “There are no more posts to show right now.” I also use B.(FluffBusting)Purity which I use to block certain parts of Facebook, including the newsfeed. These apps can be used as a consistent, scheduled solution, or used in a moment where disconnection is needed to be forced. This is not about not consuming any content, but consciously choosing the content that I do consume.
  7. I often leave my devices at home when I go out to a social event, exercise, run errands, etc. I don’t have an exact formula here, but I try to just leave my devices at home a lot of the time when I go out. This gives me breaks throughout the day. If you work a 9-5 job then a suggestion would be to leave your phone and computer in the office while you go to lunch each day.
  8. If I am having a meal with someone I turn off my devices (or at least put them on silent) and give the person my attention.
  9. I take two days per week completely off of the internet. Note: This is the one that I fail at almost every week, but I know my life would be wildly different if I managed to do. If two days per week seems crazy, then one day per week is an option, or if not a whole day, then just one-half day per week.
  10. I turned off all notification on my devices. I see people overwhelmed with constant notifications, and I was this way in the past. But now I just check the different accounts when I want to, rather than needing instant notification at each message or comment. The only notification I get is when someone is calling me (I use google voice to receive calls on my computer). No social media notifications whatsoever.
  11. I don’t have a cellphone, but I do still have an iPod. I de-cluttered it and deleted all the unnecessary apps. I suggest downsizing the number of unnecessary things you do on your phone. All of my apps fit onto my home screen. For the apps that I don’t use but can’t delete, I made a folder to tuck them all out of way.
  12. I downsized my online world by deleting unnecessary accounts. This took a good amount of time but was worth the investment.

Other options include: Deleting social media entirely, getting rid of the computer and just going to the library, and getting rid of the cellphone. I did get rid of my computer when I turned thirty but after three months got another one as I found that I was not making the impact that I wanted anymore. Those are always options as well so I wanted to plant the seed for those who are into that.

Now I want to acknowledge that I am far from perfect at achieving everything that I’ve listed above. I go back and forth between doing an excellent job and falling deeply back into my extreme habitual behavior. But what I can say is that when I do succeed at following my own guidelines I am far healthier both physically and mentally and happier. And contrary to what you might first believe, that I would be less productive since I’m on the devices less, I’m actually far more productive. My creativity flows much better and I feel less blocked. I value the time I do spend online more, which results in me wasting less of the time on meaningless content and results in me being far more productive and effective with my time online. The time that I do spend online tends to be far more enjoyable. I still get the rush that the internet provides, but much less of the downer feelings that it provides. Less truly is more in every way.

Some of the things I listed are one-time actions that alleviate problems instantly and can make a lasting impact. Others are actions that have to be taken each day and where self-restrain still has to be applied. If you are trying to break free I would highly recommend taking the time to do the one-time actions upfront that will have a long-term affect. I look at it as a time investment. Sure, it might take some time now to unfollow everyone for example, but it can save hundreds of times that amount of time investment over the next few years.

We live in a difficult time and I strongly believe our imbalance with our internet connectivity is one of the leading challenges of our time. I hope that this writing and these suggestions prove to be helpful to those of you on a similar path that are looking to overcome these challenges and live a deeply connected life full of happiness, health, and freedom.

For more reading see:
Why I Got Rid of My Cellphone 
Selling My Car… Bought My Freedom
My Timeline of Transformation From Drunk Dude to Dude Making a Difference
All My 111 Possessions

Cover photo by Sierra Ford Photography

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