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How To Know When You Spend Too Much Time Online And Need To Log Off

A realistic-looking illustration of a 20-something white man and 20-something white woman hugging. Over the other's shoulder, each of them is checking a tablet with a lit up screen.
(Valeriy Kachaev/Spruce Books)
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The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my phone. I'm checking emails, looking at Twitter and Instagram and reading good morning texts all before I've even gotten out of bed.

And I'll keep doing that throughout the entire day, until I go back to bed for the night.

It's hard to tell just how often people use their phones. A recent survey claimed Americans check their phones once every 4 minutes.

If, like me, a lot of your technology habits are automatic, you may not even be aware of your behavior. Sammy Nickalls, author of Log Off: Self-Help for the Extremely Online, designed a quiz to help you assess your digital habits.

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It can be difficult, and even scary, to confront the reality of your online habits. A natural reaction is to try to swing in the other direction and go cold turkey with a digital detox – just completely unplugging and going off the grid. Nickalls says that's not a sustainable strategy.

"A lot of times it's just a couple of weeks that you're just completely off your social media," she says. "And then what? You go back online and you don't really have a plan to be able to figure out how to strike that balance between being completely offline and being too online."

If you feel unbalanced by how much time you're spending online, Nickalls says cutting out the Internet isn't as important as cutting down. She suggests a strategy called digital minimalism, a term coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

With digital minimalism, you can engage with the digital world in a way that's intentional and appropriate for you.

Here's how to get started:

Set some basic boundaries

An illustration of a foot kicking through the screen of a smartphone with the word CRASH written above.
(Valeriy Kachaev/Spruce Books)

Social media is designed to be addictiveLife Kit has a whole episode on how to manage your relationship with it.

Try turning off push notifications and deleting social media apps from your phone to create natural obstacles to access them. If that's not enough, you can use screen timers or app blockers to make it even tougher to log back on.

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Setting these boundaries changes how you interact with the internet and social media, but that could also mean it changes how you interact with other people. "The really great thing about rolling back your social media use is that it kind of helps you see which relationships were kind of a bit shallow," Nickalls said. "If the relationship is meant to stay, it will."

If there are people you know you want to keep up with who you usually connect with on a particular platform, let them know how they can stay in touch.

Whatever you do, do not go to bed with your phone

An illustration of a 20- or 30-something woman with dark skin and medium-length hair lying in bed and hugging her pillow with her eyes closed.
(Valeriy Kachaev
Spruce Books )

I charge my phone literally on my pillow next to my head. You too? That's not ideal.

Nickalls says there are major relaxation benefits to keeping your phone away from your bed: "Have you ever been to a hotel ... and you get into the sheets and it just feels so nice to have this time to yourself?" Keeping your phone away from your bed can replicate that feeling.

"When I put my phone outside of my room and just let myself relax ... it's like I got that presence of mind back," Nickalls says.

One study looked at this very relationship: how sleeping without a phone impacted a person's well-being. The co-author of the study told CNBC more than half of the participants dropped out of the study after learning they wouldn't be able to use their phone in their bedroom for a week. But the authors found that "sleeping without smartphones improves sleep, relationships, focus and wellbeing," and increases happiness and quality of life.

Other studies link alackof enough good sleep to physical ailments like heart disease and diabetes, as well as mental health problems such as anxiety.

So, getting good sleep is good for you, and charging your phone somewhere else could help you experience that benefit.

Try charging your phone away from your bed and keep track of how it impacts you.

Take stock of how you feel when you scroll

An illustration of a white person's hand reaching out of the screen of a smartphone and holding a round, yellow sad face emoji.
(Valeriy Kachaev
Spruce Books)

Ask yourself how you feel when you're logged in: Are you stressed? Tired? Bored? Energized? Do particular apps trigger certain emotions? Nickalls says it might be hard to recognize these feelings at first.

When you're online, write down how you feel and see what patterns you have. From there you can decide what to keep, what to get rid of and what to minimize.

Curate your social media experience by going through your timeline, unfollowing the accounts with posts that bring up negative energy for you and elevating accounts that inspire you, make you laugh or bring you joy.

And if you notice you're slipping into a negativity spiral, just log off.

Get to know yourself again by reinvesting in your hobbies

AN illustration of a 20- or 30-something white woman reading a book with an excited look on her face. She wears glasses and has a somewhat retro hairstyle.
(Valeriy Kachaev
Spruce Books)

Fully practicing digital minimalism can take a few weeks, says Nickalls. You should start by shutting down your social media for about week, and then slowly reintegrate your favorite apps one at a time over the following weeks. This will help you figure out which apps are contributing to your life and which aren't.

"After taking this long process to figure this out, I found myself deleting my Facebook, deleting my Instagram, because I realized there was almost no benefits to it for me. I kept my Twitter because I just can't say no to Twitter," Nickalls says.

You might notice you have a lot more time on your hands if you start practicing digital minimalism and using the Internet less. Figuring out what to do with that extra time could be daunting at first.

Make a list of activities you enjoy and people you like hanging out with. When you feel the urge to grab your phone and scroll, try one of those hobbies or calling a loved one instead.

The goal with digital minimalism isn't to figure out how to live without social media or the internet — it's to be more intentional about when and how you use it. Technology should enhance your life, not distract you from it.

"That's really the core of it," says Nickalls. "It gives you an opportunity to grow in ways that you wouldn't have even been able to conceptualize before."

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