Modern gadget-obsessed humans find it hard to switch off, even on vacation: Apparently, more than half of working adults, especially younger ones, will interrupt a break to check on what’s happening at the office.
Besides the temptation to stay on top of work emails, social media’s never-ending updates makes it hard to disconnect. Even if you’re just checking how many likes your most recent Instagram vacation shot is gathering, this information is actually making you less satisfied, and that’s not how you want to spend your vacation.
Instead, try to unplug from internet and apps on your break. Here’s how to prevent your gadgets from acting as constant distractions—or go one step further and leave them behind.
1. Prepare your escape
To help make your digital detox successful, you’ll need to put in a little groundwork before you leave home. This will give you less to worry about while you’re away, and make a desperate colleague or concerned family member less likely to interrupt your vacation.
You should start by setting up that standby, the trusty out-of-office email. Compose a message that explains you’ll be out of the office, shares the date of your return, and alerts the writer about who they should contact in your absence. On your social media networks, you can post similar messages, so your friends and family don’t panic when you haven’t responded to their WhatsApp group chat for four days.
Beyond that, the exact measures you should adopt will depend on your specific situation. Think about the people you might need to check in with any why. Does the cat sitter know where everything is kept? Have you left your coworkers all the information they need about upcoming due dates or administrative jobs? Does your cleaner know you’ll be out of contact for a few days?
You don’t need to plan for every contingency—the idea isn’t to give you too much stress in the hours before you set off—but even a little foresight will pay off when your vacation begins. That way, you can avoid logging into the office calendar or responding to frantic texts while you should be lounging on a beach.
2. Leave the gadgets at home
Below, we’ll discuss how to hush your notifications and reduce the amount of time you spend within your apps, but if you want to truly unplug, you have a more comprehensive option: Leave all your electronic devices at home. This is the most effective way to really live in the moment during your vacation.
Yes, you can avoid packing your laptop and tablet. Print out copies of your travel documents and itineraries, pack a physical map, and bring a book for entertainment. This will give you one more incentive to not check emails on the go.
When it comes to your phone, the last hold-out for the digital disconnector, bear in mind that people managed to survive vacations before smartphones existed. If you need an emergency contact number, what about the landline at your rustic cabin or the front desk of your hotel? If you can’t stand living without your podcasts, check whether your old iPod still works—yes, it is technically another gadget, but it’s much less likely to monopolize your attention than your phone is. Similarly, you can capture photos with that neglected digital camera instead of your more-addictive smartphone.
If you really need your phone in case of emergencies, or you simply don’t own a substitute camera, then take a less extreme tack: Establish a policy of leaving your phone at the hotel when you leave for the day. That way, you might permit yourself a bit of screen time in the mornings and evenings, but your daily travels will remain tech-free. Or take one of the following steps to ensure that, although your pocket computer goes with you, it doesn’t distract you too much.
3. Cut off your data
Let’s say you need to keep your phone with you so people can get in touch in case of emergency. In that situation, you can enable calls and text messages but hobble the apps you don’t really need, from Snapchat to email. You do this by cutting off your phone’s access to cellular data. In addition to weaning you off your phone, this will help you avoid high roaming charges, especially if you’re traveling in a rural area or a foreign country.
For any smartphone, it’s pretty easy to shut down your cellular data. On an Android, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Mobile network and turn off the Mobile data option. On an iPhone, head to Settings > Cellular Data and switch off Cellular Data. When you return from vacation, go through the same menus to turn your data back on.
If you want to keep your phone with you—say so you can take photos or listen to music—but cut off its connectivity even more, you can go a step further and put it in airplane mode. This will prevent calls, texts, and data usage, but you should still be able to access your camera and any locally-stored files.
This approach does require a little discipline. After all, it’s pretty easy to restore your cellular data connection and turn off airplane mode. Plus, you can always connect your phone to Wi-Fi hotspots. So if you’re a true tech addict, you might consider shutting down your phone during the day, or going back to the idea of leaving your gadget in your hotel room when you’re out and about during the day.
4. Silence apps
Even if you do keep your data on, you can at least limit the notifications that force you to constantly check your buzzing device. Decide on the few apps you want to hear from while on vacation and then cripple their ability to ping you at any time of day or night. This requires that you go through your phone app by app, so you might want to configure your notification settings while you’re en route, to help pass the time.
On Android, you set which apps can send notifications in Settings > Apps & notifications: Pick a given app, then tap Notifications to turn off its alerts. On iOS, you want to find Settings > Notifications, choose an app, and configure the alert settings as needed.
If that sounds too time-consuming, you can fall back on your phone’s Do Not Disturb mode, which sets limits on the times when apps are allowed to interrupt you. On Android, it’s in Settings > Sound > Do not disturb; on iOS in Settings > Do Not Disturb. You can use this mode to limit your notifications to brief windows of time, say one hour in the morning and one in the evening—or whatever you prefer.
To take the idea further, you might want to consider turning off social-media apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This prevents them from pinging you when you’re supposed to be relaxing. If you want to go full scorched-earth, you could take this opportunity to delete your accounts for good—or at least for the month-long grace period that most of these networks provide.
5. Limit screen time
One final strategy for disconnecting is to bring your devices, but set agreed-upon limits on your screen time. If you have iron willpower, you could just set a schedule—say one hour each morning—and stick to it, but let’s be real: We all fall down Wikipedia rabbit holes and spend way too long scrolling through our social feeds. If you’re only human, and might drift outside your self-imposed boundaries, then get help from a program like FocusMe or Freedom.
The program FocusMe (for Windows, macOS, and Android) blocks specific apps and sites. It lets you customize these limits in a number of ways; for example, you can set the block to stay up until you turn it off, or to end after a set period of time. FocusMe has a free trial, and after that, it costs about $2.50 to $7 per month, depending on how long you sign up for.
If you’re an iPhone owner, you might prefer Freedom (for Windows, macOS, and iOS). It provides an online portal that lets you pick out the sites and apps you want to block, either by name or by categories like “social” or “TV/video”. This one also has a free trial, and then it costs $2.42 to $7 per month.
Between these two options, FocusMe offers slightly more flexibility in terms of what you can block and for how long—unlike Freedom, it lets you single out individual desktop apps. However, Freedom has a more polished and intuitive interface. Ultimately, we recommend that you pick the one that works with your brand of smartphone, and let the app keep you away from addictive smartphone use for the duration of your travels.