In August 2019, I went on a CEO retreat called Disconnect | Reconnect that was held by Steve August in the Columbia River Gorge in Portland, Oregon. Along with other CEOs, I took two days to completely disconnect from digital distractions and spend time in nature to expand my perspective and vision for my two companies.
With this expanded perspective, I spent an intensive two days reconnecting to my business to work on its most pressing problems.
It was simply incredible.
Although I found great value in the whole process and highly recommend it, some of the most important insights came from the simple act of disconnecting 100% from anything digital. We had no phone, radio, TV, computer, or Wi-Fi. It was simply a time to unplug from the world.
What I learned from this experience is that we are incredibly distracted in today’s always-on culture, and there is great power—both personally and professionally—that comes when you turn everything off and choose to be in the moment with those around you.
I left that retreat with a commitment to make disconnection a weekly priority. I wanted to bring that clarity, peace, and focus I found in the Columbia River Gorge back to my life back in Dallas, Texas. I arrived home on a Friday afternoon and told my wife, Melanie, that from now on, I was going to put away my cell phone every night after 8 pm. No emails or social media. It would just be the two of us getting to spend some quality time together with zero distractions.
I would love to tell you this new ritual has continued uninterrupted since my return, but the truth is that I failed miserably at this new commitment. By Wednesday, I was back to my old habits: checking social media during commercial breaks, writing emails after Melanie went to bed, and sneaking fantasy football sleeper picks for my upcoming draft whenever possible.
My commitment was still there, but my actions weren’t changing. As a behavioral scientist, I study this problem all time. I know willpower isn’t enough, and yet, here I was falling into the “willpower trap.” I needed an intervention to help me out when my willpower fades.
So, I analyzed my situation and used myself as a guinea pig to create a scientific nudge that would get me back on track when I went against my new desired behavior. In this article, I’ll share how I used mindstates to create that nudge and help sustain my digital detox.
Understanding My Behavioral Psychology
If you want to understand why you do what you do—or in this case, don’t do what you say you’ll do—you want to understand four factors: your goals, motivation, the way you approach your goals (called your “regulatory approach”), and any shortcuts you use in your decision-making, which are called “cognitive heuristics.”
When you know those four factors, you can identify the mindstate that is influencing your behavior and determine the “why” behind your actions, and more importantly, build a behavioral intervention that fits your personal psychology.
That’s because when you’re under the influence of a mindstate, you’re in an emotional “hot state” and rely more on nonconscious factors to guide your decision-making. Bottom line: in the moments where you’re influenced by a mindstate, you’re more susceptible to change.
By knowing my “detox” mindstate, I’d be able to design some simple interventions to tap into this mindstate and increase my chances of maintaining it. Hey, if it works for a multi-billion dollar company like Amazon, that same technique should be able to work for me!
With that in mind, I put together an action plan:
- Step #1: Understand my goals around not using my phone after 8 pm.
- Step #2: Identify the core motivation that’s driving me to go after that goal.
- Step #3: Understand my regulatory approach as it relates to my goals.
- Step #4: Identify any cognitive heuristics that would make disengaging easier.
With that plan, I set out to better understand myself—and was surprised by what I found.
Finding Unexpected Insight
I started out by working through the same exact questions I have my clients work through when they are trying to identify their customer’s mindstate. You can download this workbook for free here.
Step 1: I needed to identify my real goals behind this detox. Goals are important because they are the targets of every behavior and action.
My functional goal was simple: I don’t want to use my phone past 8 pm every night. But that wasn’t enough. I needed to understand my higher-order goal, which asks: Why is this goal important to me? What was I really trying to accomplish with this functional goal?
For me, this goal was about being more present with my family, especially Melanie. Our son Nicholas goes to bed at about 8 pm every night, so we get an hour or two after that before Melanie goes to bed. It’s a chance for us to spend some quality time together each day.
During that time, I wanted to reset and notice my surroundings a bit more. Instead of focusing on what I can’t control during those two hours (like work), I would instead focus on what I could control, which was mindfulness and being present in the moment with Melanie.
Step 2: I needed to understand my real motivation behind this detox. What was the underlying motivation driving this desire for mindfulness? Motivations are important because they fuel us to go after our goals. When you need momentum to keep pushing toward that goal, it’s your motivation that provides it.
This was the first surprise for me. I intuitively thought my core motivation would be achievement, or the desire to feel successful and proud of achieving this goal. Turns out, I was motivated by engagement, which means “to feel captivated, excited, and absorbed in an activity or to find release.”
The more I thought about it, the more this motivation made sense. I wanted mindfulness and to be present during those couple hours to either be fully absorbed in the moment with Melanie, or to just have a moment of relaxation and release from the stresses of the day.
After all, it’s these moments when we’re fully absorbed that make life so special. That’s why engagement is such a powerful motivation for people—including myself!
Step 3: I needed to identify the path of least resistance. The second unexpected insight was my regulatory approach, or how I tended to approach reaching my goals. With your regulatory approach, it’s all about being intuitive. Which path feels most natural to us as we pursue our goals? There are two types of approaches: promotion and prevention.
With promotion, you’re seeking to maximize your chances of reaching a goal. When you favor a prevention approach, you’re minimizing barriers or obstacles that could block your progress.
So, was I trying to maximize my chances of reaching mindfulness, or was I trying to minimize my risk of distraction? I thought for sure the results would show I was promotion-focused.
Nope! After a few activities, I discovered that the path that felt most intuitive to me was eliminating possible distractions. I think it goes back to willpower—I tried to be actively engaged and fell back into old habits.
Adding in Friction to Reduce Distractions
Step 4: Add some friction. With steps 1-3 accomplished, it was time to create some nudges to help make my decision easier each night. Oftentimes, this is about creating shortcuts to what you want. In my case, that was mindfulness. But given my regulatory approach, I didn’t want to create shortcuts because that would speak to a promotion focus. Instead, I wanted to add friction that would deter me from giving into distractions and prevent me from falling back into old habits.
I returned to my functional goal—get the phone out of my hands after 8 pm—and started building in friction from there. My first step was to add a reminder on my phone at 7:45 that told me I had 15 minutes left to check social media or fire off any final emails. At that time, my notifications also turned off: no alerts from email, news, sports, social media, etc.
My next step was to create a physical reminder of what I was trying to accomplish. After I finish checking my phone, I take it into our bedroom and put it on the charger. But that’s not all. I took an index card and wrote the following message on it: “Do not look at this phone. I want to reach my goal of being more in the moment and increasing mindfulness. Take a moment to reset and notice something new. Be fully absorbed in the next 2 hrs.”
I chose those words specifically to speak to my subconscious mindstate (cautious engagement.) I place that card on top of my phone every night, which is on the charger in my bedroom. If I want to pick it up after 8 pm, there’s a ton of resistance in the way now: I have to get up and go into the bedroom, read that card, ignore it and remove it, and then take my phone off the charger.
If I choose to pick up the phone, the card is there to remind me that I won’t be fully absorbed that night. I realize that it won’t always work, but at least it’s one final (effective) obstacle.
Now, when I go to pick up the phone out of habit or boredom, I have to ask myself, “Is picking up my phone really worth it?” Sometimes the answer will be yes, but most times, it’s “no.”
The Experiment Continues
After setting this up, have I always been successful? No. There was one night when I missed the reminder and kept my phone near me all night. I didn’t even realize I’d missed it until about 9:45. Other nights I’ve gone back to the bedroom to check email for reports I’m being sent.
So, no, I’m not perfect with my digital detox. But more often than not, this experiment has helped me more fully engage with Melanie and be more mindful after 8 pm. I’ve been more in control of my actions and not mindlessly engaging with my phone and all its distractions.
The tactics I’ve used to sustain my detox—the alert, turning off notifications, the index card—may not work for you if you’re also trying to unplug at night. You might have the same goal as me, but your motivation and regulatory approach might be different. If that’s the case, you’re operating with a different mindstate and will need a different kind of intervention.
Here’s what I can guarantee you: if you take a few minutes to identify your mindstate as it relates to this nightly disconnect, you’ll be much more successful in creating a psychologically optimized system that’s capable of changing your behavior. That truth applies to any kind of change you’re looking to make, actually. Now that I’ve had some success, I’m going to create interventions for late-night binge eating and consistency with prayer time in the mornings.
Clearly, we can see that behavioral science can have a significant impact on our behavior. Little things lead to big changes. Just think of how much it could do for your business, your career, and your business’s bottom line.
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