Real Solutions For Digital Detoxing—Without Ditching All Your Apps

By Jessica Hamlin

Our phones can sometimes feel like an extension of our hands, and cell phone addiction is real. That’s why digital detox is a hot topic.

A digital detox can range from not using your phone for a day to not using social media for a set amount of time or sometimes getting rid of social media apps or your smartphone altogether.

But neuroscientist and Boundless Mind co-founder Ramsay Brown has suggestions on how to de-stress and digitally detox without ditching all your apps or trying to use mere willpower to not scroll through Instagram for hours.

At Boundless Mind, Brown and the team try to get people to use their phones more, but also less, so you use apps that benefit you more and spend less time on apps that don’t. These type of apps help “close the gap of who you aspire to be and how you behave now,” Brown says. They could be apps for learning a language, eating better, meditation, or even using your other apps better (more on that below).

“A phone is a tool that you control, not the other way around,” says Brown.

So how did we get to a place where phone addiction and digital detox are a thing?


Most of us don’t pay for Facebook, Instagram and other social media apps. As you may have heard, if you’re not paying for a product then you are the product. In this case, apps are competing for your attention.

The people who designed the apps have incentives and goals they need to hit for revenue, Brown reminds us, so they learn how to manipulate your mind so you are convinced to stay on an app longer and return.

Pinterest is specifically designed to get you to keep scrolling. Each post you like on Instagram is data mined to predict what the app shows you next so you stay in the app longer. When we get a Facebook notification and then open the app to see who liked our status, we get a burst of dopamine in our brain that rewards us for that action. None of these things are accidental, Brown says, they are engineered to activate the parts of our brain that create a small amount of stress that will only be resolved by continuing to use the app. This is why we have a hard time putting our phones down.


So how do we get our minds back from the apps that are trying to persuade and hijack them?

Brown has three simple ways. They don’t require you getting rid of your phone or quitting social media altogether but instead use your phone and apps better as tools that benefit you, under your control.

#1: Remove apps you don’t like.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but how many of us use apps that don’t leave us feeling good? Think about the apps on your phone like you think about your friends, Brown says. The more time you spend with someone, the more you usually become like them. Just like spending time with a negative person can leave us feeling down and negative, spending time in certain apps can leave us feeling a certain way.

Apps are not just pieces of software--they are actively designed to make you into someone else, says Brown. Do you want to become the kind of person they are going to reinforce you for being? So think about the digital company you keep, because just like friends, apps shape you. You are a little more like Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. after spending time on that app.

Go through each app on your phone and ask yourself: How do I feel after using this app? Does this app represent who I want to be? If it leaves you feeling crappy most of the time, remove that app and notice how you feel.

#2: Use apps that will help you.

Installing more apps may sound counterintuitive for a digital detox. But since digital dependence is real, some apps have been created to help you set better boundaries with technology and counteract some of their persuasive effects so you use your phone time better.

With apps like Space, which Brown’s company created, you don’t have to break up with apps like Facebook, you can just get some “space.” When installed on your phone or computer, the app inserts a 5-10 second breathing delay between you and an app like Facebook before it opens that app. If you’re binging that app, the number goes up and if you are using it more responsibly, that number goes down. Brown says this breathing room that Space provides is designed so you don’t have that instant gratification and won’t experience the highly reinforcing habit-forming pieces of these apps but still get to use them.

If you find yourself watching too many cute animal videos (been there) or going down the rabbit hole of BuzzFeed listicles when you need to get work done, you can try StayFocusd. The Chrome extension lets you set a timer for how long to use certain kinds of sites.

“Create processes that make it so that the effortless things to do is the thing you want to do,” Brown says. “Architecture a life that is hard for you to fail at.”

#3: Adjust notification settings.

At some point phones went from business tools to pleasure machines that push us to feel like we must tend to them every time they buzz, Brown says.

Adjusting your app notification settings is the simplest thing you can do. It also has a large return.

If you have notifications on for most of your apps, you could easily spend all day with interruptions every few minutes. Or, you could end up with a hoard of notifications trying to grab your attention anytime you use your phone.

Each time we get a mobile notification there’s a slight cortisol (stress hormone) release in our brain, Brown notes. That keeps us using the phone more because that’s what the makers of your phone and apps want.

But what do you want? Go through each app on your phone and adjust your notification settings so you only get notifications for what you need--perhaps that’s texts, phone calls/voicemails and email.

Remember that your phone is a tool for your convenience, not anyone else’s.

Happy detoxing!

The Feel Good Series is a series of community workshops presented by Savoir Collab and Do The Good Stuff offering IRL toolkits for owning how you feel and redefining what it means to take care. In our first workshop, The No Bullsh*t Guide to Finding Your Chill, we’re challenging the “stressed out” story with help from the experts and walking away with real solutions for managing stress and feeling good. We’re stressed, we get it. Now what?