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Digital Wellness for Grown Ups

Beyond Digital Wellness

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article on the digital wellness movement, which attempts to use technology to help cure some of the issues caused by technology.

This movement, for example, is responsible for an app that “plants a tree” each time you put down your phone, and then shows the tree withering and dying when you pick the phone back up. It also produced a popular plug-in that displays, each time you go online, the number of days left in your expected lifetime.

Even Apple is getting involved in digital wellness. Their new suite of “wellbeing” features in iOS includes a wake-up screen that helps you “gently [ease] into your day” when you pick up your phone in the morning, and an improved Siri that makes suggestions about optimal notification settings.

I recognize that digital tools have a useful role to play in productivity. I’ve long advised, for example, that people use internet blocking software like Freedom to help jumpstart deep work training.

But something about this growing digital wellness movement makes me uneasy, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on the source of my concern: it’s infantilizing.

I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

My sense is that more and more people in our current culture of digital excess are hungry for this type of strong challenge.

They don’t want to depend on Apple to tweak their OS to be slightly less intrusive, or need to download an app that provides a fun reminder about disconnecting; they want instead to be so wrapped up in doing things that are hard and important and meaningful that they forgot where they left their phone in the first place.

There’s something about these new technologies (and the screen zombie lifestyle that surrounds them) that feels fundamentally childish. This is making people uneasy. They’re ready to grow up.

(Photo by Jacob Gomez)

78 thoughts on “Digital Wellness for Grown Ups”

  1. You are right, Cal. If one has something important to do, he won’t have time to deal about banalities and forget completely about his phone or computer altogether!
    With these apps, we are still reacting in palliative mode instead of acting on the root causes.
    Thank you, Cal for all the insight you are sharing with all of us and for your sincere commitment in your cause.

  2. A few months back I was tracking my daily computer usage with Rescuetime. I also had browser extensions installed which blocked certain websites.

    Then, one day, I came to a similar realisation: I am a grown man. I know when I have a good day of focused work and when I have a bad day of messing around just surfing the internet. I don’t need software to tell me this.

    Since then, I have removed all of these tracking applications and extensions and I feel much better about it. At the end of each day, I sit back and reflect on the day, and most days a pretty good for productivity.

    Sure, there are some bad days. But I think the simple act of reflecting on those days and doing better the following day is much more effective than using software to try and manage my behaviour.

  3. Wasn’t there an Einstein quote saying that one can’t solve a problem with the same way of thinking, that created it in the first place?

    Trying to solve the epidemic of shallow tech-use with even more tech (by the same people who created the distractions in the first place), sounds like a contradiction.

    • Absolutly!
      At the same time, tech giants are surfing on the wave and trying to embrace the movement in order to gain more from it.
      This reminds me of all the supermarkets that are now promoting organic and ´local farmers’.

  4. I like you’re book,you’re all ted video and you’re blog . I just wanna say thanku for sharing all this valuable information (best thing that changes in me is I spend more time of cal Newport blog then staring Kardashian’s Instagram account ??)

  5. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, this kind of development reminds me of the quote, attributed to Einstein, initially: “We cannot solve the problem with the same thinking that created the problem.” The addictive nature of tactile tech should be fought at the higher level of emotional thinking, in the cognitive areas where reflection resides….

  6. I am sorry for grammatical mistakes because I was in school and it’s hard to use phone there and I m going to stop using phone

  7. Your post reminds me of a line I heard somewhere (wish I could recall where): something is an addiction when you see it as the cause of and solution to your problems. This “digital wellness” movement fits that definition perfectly!

  8. I’m seeing this turn as well in addiction circles (two of my relatives overdosed on opioids and died, so I follow the literature). New approaches to addiction treat it at least in part not as a disease, but as a habit, the result of choices, and under the control of the addict. In other words, if it’s bothering you or is a negative in your life, stop doing it! (I know that oversimplifies things, but I tend to be sympathetic to your viewpoint here, Cal.)

    • I’ve heard Johann Hari talk about this recently as well. I think his book Chasing the Scream really gets into the lifestyle/environmental factors that also play a big role in chemical addiction, and really cannot be ignored in understanding things like the opioid crisis.

      • I work in the Emergency Department as a scribe and I can tell you that every day I go in to work I see patients coming in hoping to get narcotics. The opioids so alter people’s pain pathways that even minor pains are amplified a thousand-fold (very similar to the way coffee-drinkers often don’t feel fully alive until their second cup of coffee thanks to their brain’s receptors being so desensitized to caffeine), making them writhe on the hospital beds in agony from a small twinge in their back. We as a country need to learn at some point how to deal with pain and suffering and manage it meaningfully rather than just take a pill or some other quick fix. People don’t realize that quick fixes often lead to worse outcomes in the end.

  9. This is a bit like all behavior that can be modified.

    Not rich? Work hard, save your money, invest. Don’t rely on automatic savings tools, you weakling!

    Overweight? Stop eating crap, and don’t rely on a support network, sissy!

    Alcohol, tobacco or drug addiction? Well guess what. Just stop doing it; use your willpower!
    Don’t rely on therapy, clinics, or ultimatums from your family! Be a “grown man”!

    Actually, the last one may be the most appropriate analogy, since the combination of peer pressure and intentionally addictive elements makes much of technological addiction similar to narcotics.

    While I have gotten a lot out of many of your ideas, I’ve grown to expect more from you than this. The problem of technological addiction is too complex to attack with a simple-minded “just don’t do it” line.

    • I take your point, but I think you’re arguing against a strawman.

      Your interpretation of my argument seems to be that I think it’s easy for people to reform their digital lives if they would just apply some willpower.

      This is not my point.

      I’m arguing instead that many of the “solutions” of the digital wellness movement don’t take the problem seriously enough. If I’m wasting away hours every day on digital randomness, this is a big deal. I need more than some helpful apps. I would want “someone I respect” to pull me aside and impress on me that this is serious; that I need to make serious changes.

      I’m advocating an approach for digital issues that matches what we have seen work for other health and lifestyle issues.

      If someone has a drinking problem, for example, it’s not enough to hang a warning about liver damage on their beer fridge, or put up an inspirational poster at the bar; you need people they trust to intervene. To say clearly: This is a problem. Stop with the little fixes. You have to change your life.

      Same with obesity: few overcome this issue with some helpful tips and reminders about healthy eating. They have to instead completely overhaul their lifestyle — how they think about food, fitness, etc. — often requiring them to become part of communities dedicated to exactly this new type of living (c.f., the Palelo/Primal world right now…)

      This is what I’m advocating for the issues of digital excess. Cute apps, plug-ins, and OS features is not a solution for grown ups with real problems. The real solution is the stand up and resolve to make real changes in your life. This is hard. It helps to have support. But it’s the way we should be talking about these issues.

      • This reply I think goes a long way toward answering the questions I had on reading the post the first time. I have been using How to Break up with Your Phone by Catherine Price to deal with the distractions my phone causes. She integrates apps and tools to help you understand how much you are using your phone and why. She then helps you build a strategy to use your phone in the way you want and not be sucked into wasted time, anxiety, etc. I think a serious approach has to be more than just a cute app or interface tweak but some of these things can at least put a pause on your trigger and help you move towards a more comprehensive solution.

  10. we want instead to be so wrapped up in doing things that are hard and important and meaningful that we forgot where we left our phone in the first place. —- This is the real problem. I’ve read your books and it’s just not as easy as that.

    • I think you’re absolutely right. Building a life centered on hard and meaningful things is not all all easy to do. But it’s absolutely the right challenge to take on — especially if you feel more and more of your hours diverting away toward digital randomness.

      My sense is that more and more people are ready to be given this hard challenge. That is, they don’t just want some cute virtual tree app to remind them to be more mindful. They want to reform their life to the point where such things seems both childish and unnecessary.

      Our devices — among other factors — can help support a Peter Pan syndrome which is probably not good for anyone.

  11. Yes, but at least in the short run, some people need some kind of crutch. Just as an alcoholic should probably avoid bars altogether, some people would do well to use blocking software (or whatever).

    I suspect that *most* people who say “you should just use your free will to avoid the internet” are, in fact, still massive over-users.

    Most, not all. It’s a question of being realistic about one’s own weaknesses.

    • I think what he may be saying among other things is that there is denial on the side of the app users being trained to believe free-will can be replaced, or it’s not valuable, or too hard so don’t bother trying.

      The number of those in denial who say “use your free will” is kind of moot in light of the focus on those being trained to believe “free will is out dated”. It’s just more of the same “just sit back and let your device nanny you.”

  12. While every bit helps, and referring here to, for example, Apple’s tweaking their OS to be slightly less intrusive, I agree on the whole with your stance: We need to unplug ourselves out of the Matrix-like cocoon that is the dystopia of the current digital malaise in which society finds itself wrapped, much as Morpheus helped Neo do!

  13. Agreed! It reminds me of that pet you could have on the key chain (thought you must pay attention to that) that you had to digitally take care of. In our house there is no social media before, or during breakfast. That time is reserved for us to talk, and prepare food. The computer is a big distraction at any other time of the day. We could use a good “Dinozzo Slap” then. We all must remember not to become slaves to these devices. I am guilty of it as well as my husband. I doubt a tree app could provide the same guidance as a partner who we are accountable too.

  14. It’s a bit ironic that we need more technology to help us stay away from technology, don’t you think? To be successful at living intentionally without so much tech, I think it comes down to knowing your “why.” Why do I want to use less technology? Why do I want to live more intentionally? Why is technology hindering my life? Why do I need to be validated every 5 minutes? Once we figure out these questions for ourselves, it’s a little easier to disconnect.

  15. It shows that there is a hunger to unplug, that people do at least recognize the problem. It is typical I think of big corporations to take a need and commodify it. It has been our willingness to buy what is sold that got us in the digital/social media nightmare to begin with. I agree that this app solution is no solution at all, for that very reason. These apps still create a dependency. The dependency is not broken. Only shifting.

  16. I’m sure you’re already familiar with Manoush Zomorodi and her Note to Self podcast from WNYC but her “Bored and Brilliant” challenge she hosted awhile ago was enough of a success that she was able to publish it in book form and I think it’s success speaks to your point about real challenges. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book but the general idea was to “get real” about your technology use, including deleting apps that you admit to yourself are not healthy/productive for you.

  17. I think using these kinds of apps are still a good transition point. Most of the people are not aware they’re spending so much time at cetrain websites/apps, so monitoring this behaviors are sometimes a good wake-up call. At least it worked for me. After couple of weeks I stopped being dependant on these, so I could turn them off. It was a great solution to have old habits killed.

  18. Sitting still and breathing deep or going on walks/runs are the substitutes I use in place of digital ‘just-checks’ whenever I need to recharge after a couple hours of deep work. A quiet life of no external stimulation is really beginning to grow on me, bringing much inner joy.

    I do schedule distraction however, just like you advocate, Cal. 30 minutes in the night is when I submit myself to click-baits and engineered mind-hijacks 🙂 Once the clock runs out, it’s silence again. Been working out for me well.

  19. Cal – I am a bit surprised by this post. Certainly the heart is in a good place, and in the perfect world you would be absolutely right. But you have read Haigg’s “The power of habit” (and more research on the same topic) so you know very well the power of triggers, reminders, checklists, and rewards. While the optimal solution would be to just to use technology, it is also true that trigger apps are now needed to fight this addiction because they work as a combination of the triggers, rewards, checklists and reminders I was talking about. The trigger — Reward link is extremely powerful (heck, I am using it just to go to the gym and not be a slob!). I hope that you will want to clarify in a follow up article about all the complexities that you left out in this one.

  20. Aaand here’s where Study Hacks and Mr. Money Mustache nicely dovetail. Sometimes we need “face punches” from ourselves or others to examine our lives and choose more meaningfully.

  21. I heard you, Cal! I have been wondering about this issue for awhile now. In my opinion, those “cute” apps and tools are helpful, BUT they are not solutions. I, a firm believer in simplicity, thinks that the problem does not come from addictive tools and peer pressure, but maybe it emeanate from the inside, lack of quality in self-beliefe and self-control. If people are already rich inside, very unlikely social media and “cool” apps can turn them into zombies, hell, they could just benefit from the tools . But since there is something missing, they need to reach out to those tools and seek out help, to fill that hole(s).
    Thank you for listening and sorry for my bad English.

  22. I use “off time”
    It’s a simple blocking app
    And I deactivate facebook – periodically
    But since I share my poems on Facebook (my blog has very little traffic so far)… I have to reactivate it periodically… and deal with itching. My facebook is friends only, so sharing poems there does not count as publishing.
    Off time helps a little

  23. Much obliged for attempting to examine this, I feel firmly about this and love contemplating significantly more regarding this matter. In the event that conceivable, as you pick up information, would you mind refreshing your site page with significantly more data? It’s exceptionally useful for me.

  24. I foresee even more addictions to add to the list…… so now people will spend time wondering if they should pick up their phone and see how much their stupid tree has withered, or how many expected days they have left in their short life. In my opinion these apps only serve to further promote dependency on the technology and addictive behaviours, in addition to potentially making people feel badly about themselves for being unable to resist. The whole point is to ensure that the customers keep coming back instead of opting out.

  25. I really like this post Cal!

    I am typically super focused but find that there are still a few tech items that can cause me distraction.

    I’ve really challenged myself to turn off all app notifications, to set up rules about when I can or can’t check them and to even ask the question: why is this even installed on my phone?

    We really do need to live our lives not have them lived for us.

    To your brilliance!

  26. I deleted all social media. I went back to a flip phone. Texting on it sucks, but it reminds me to call the person instead. I usually only text if it’s a group text, or if it’s too late/early to call someone. I love my life better without being tied to technology.

  27. There is one more way to escape the urge for checking your apps every few seconds and it is provided by eScapes, a TV channel you can watch for free on XUMO:

    eScapes will fill your phone’s screen with stunningly beautiful, serene videos captured Around the World, accompanied by Smooth Jazz, Soft Rock and other popular, Easy Listening music, while reducing your tension and stress. You wouldn’t want to interrupt this nirvana just to check your notifications 🙂

    XUMO App has over 150 free TV channels and can be downloaded from Android and iOS App Stores. eScapes TV Channel #452 is in the Lifestyle group.

    eScapes might just be that antidote which will create a long enough distraction from the notifications to help you focus on more important things you would be doing otherwise. It helps me improve quality of my daily journey through this wonderful gift called life and I hope it helps at least one more person today.


  28. As a person who anticipated the potential pitfalls of smartphone ownership and the procrastination, distraction, and despair it could create, I made a vow a long time ago to never own one. My flip phone works fine for calls and the occasional text, but in no way threatens to devour my time and attention. There are certainly occasions when driving directions would help, but those minor inconveniences far outweigh the downsides of having a personal portable screen in my face 24/7.

  29. Love your thinking here. This morning I was going to google a how-to for a recipe when it hit me that years ago, I would ask someone who knew. Some living breathing relative or neighbor who would have that wonderful opportunity to share their know how with me. Going forward, people will be my first choice. And that’s hard for me because I google everything! Ugh!

  30. I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

    sounds like you need to talk to a therapist about your dad.

  31. How about we leave our phone at home, like when we have the old phone. Then go out and enjoy yourself.

    I wonder if people can still talk in person with others?

  32. This post is so precisely true. It really voiced something that is so obvious yet most would easily miss. I’ve been engaged in a self-de-digitizing process and its amazing how freeing it is – after a while. You only realize how deeply all these digital everythings have burrowed into your personal world after you decide to start to removing them.

    I took two days and did something of a silent retreat. A sort of electronic/digital fast. The almost instant true re-connection with those around you, things that are meaningful and a deep sense of reclaiming the reins of ‘me’ was simply refreshing.

    Great article. Love your post, my friend.

    To Good Living

  33. I really hate to be the bearer of bad news, because it sucks that this is true:

    About five years ago there was an article about phone safety in vehicles. And a LOT of people were in comments complaining that phones were hard to use while driving–that’s why so many accidents. I pointed out the onus of personal responsibility. Incredibly, someone replied that it’s the *TECH* companies’ responsibility to make safer phones for driving, not the user to be safer. The accidents, they figured, was the device companies’ fault because they should know “people are going to just keep driving unsafely”. I was floored. The person was getting a lot of thumbs up responses of agreement. Very floored.

    Some people like you and me want challenge and growth. Most want an infantile app for that. 🙁

  34. I found that by walking around and people watching either outside or in a restaurant that I get so disgusted with seeing so many people with their noses stuck to their screens that it’s a total turn off for me to be on by phone or computer more than necessary (and I work online….). Combine that with having teenagers and seeing the negative impact their screen time has on them, and I’m in search of a retro phone to purchase rather than spend close to 1000USD that so many latest models are running. The biggest plus I found from disconnecting to some degree was the amount of time in my day that I gained back. 🙂

  35. i’ve started to notice this, and i got constantly distracted by youtube on my phone (thankfully i don’t have facebook, instagram or snapchat and i deleted my twitter a few months ago).
    i didn’t install some app to help me with distractions, instead i just deleted youtube.
    now my phone is very lacking in stimuli-triggering apps.
    i don’t have anything like candy crush or snapchat lingering around.

    with video games however (as you brought that up), i have far more of a controlled use of them.
    i tend to play them on an occasional night where everything is silent and i have some intrinsic motivation to play them (much like wanting to play a sport rather than going on social media).
    in fact i actually enjoy them more when i play for at most 3 hours when i have a controlled use of them because i engage in what few hours i have because of my focus purely on the game.

    just thought i’d bring my 2 pennies worth on the matter.

  36. I leave my phone in the car and I refer to it as my car phone. If someone really needs me they’ll call my office line. It cuts down on a lot of unnecessary texts, too, since people know that I only check my phone periodically. Do I miss out on stuff? Most definitely. It’s a small price to pay to not be a phone zombie.

  37. My wife traveled for a business trip in another country and i have been suspecting her before she left. So i tried to see if i could track her and spy break into her phone then i contacted spymasterpro3x(at)gmail(dot)com a hacker whose google email was provided, for help then under 24 hours i got access to her phone with the help of this hacker he also proved the job with my wife locations and all i was so shocked knowing my wife has been in a hotel with her boss in her offices since over a month he has been sleeping with my wife and all i got to see her gallery pictures, Facebook, locations, whatsapp, text messages, call logs, deleted text messages and many more. In her call logs its her boss that calls most times am so confused but thanks to this great hacker for helping me with this, i never knew spymasterpro3x@ gmail DOT com could help me this way, GOD bless. As for my wife i am gonna take a divorce with the proof i have.

  38. I am keen to know what you think of other apps, which are not necessarily “social media” but fit nicely in its ecosystem (Uber, Tinder/Other dating apps, Food ordering apps, Workout apps, Fitbits etc.)

  39. Hey Cal!

    A big fan of your work!!!

    Would love to know what books you read! Do you happen to have a goodreads account?

  40. I agree with you. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work like this for most people. Why do people eat at McDonald’s three times a week while they know it’s not good for them. Why do people watch <5 min Youtube video's in stead of a thoughtful documentary? The best choice is often the hardest. I'm not sure if our reptile brain is really good at longer term decision making.

  41. I agree Doc. (only to a certain extent)
    But as I reflect on it, there is something actually useful in all these apps. They help me keep track of my time. They give me an understanding of how much of my time I spent working with focus. And more importantly, these apps inform me when in the day when I was feeling more productive over an extended period of time. Forrest is an excellent app I use that helps me keep track of time. I wouldn’t say it ‘infantilizes’ me.

    Just as someone who is using my fitness pal to track his/her calories isnt being infantilized but learning how to regain their control over their life. (Just like these apps)

  42. I agree Doc when you talk about this being a complex problem of digital addiction. But I would like to disagree and perhaps highlight that these are just tools for us to be more conscientious on how we spend our time.
    Apps like Forrest are tools, not a full set of solutions. For example, they help me keep track of my time. They give me an understanding of how much of my time I spent working with focus. Forrest is an excellent app I use that helps me keep track of time. I wouldn’t say it ‘infantilizes’ me.

    I personally believe apps like Forrest are not the solutions but I think downloading an application like this is the first step to solving an issue ( just like using My Fitness pal to track one’s macros might be the first step in helping an overweight person lose weight). They are but a first step not the solution.

    Nonetheless, I love your work and sending my regards from Singapore!!

  43. Google Home’s major mistake is not allowing people to change the key phrase to something other than, “Hey Google.”

    I’d be all over that shit if I could change it to, “Computer!”

  44. You are right, Cal. A digital thing to help you get off another digital thing does sound infantile and ridiculous.
    But it seems to me, the great changes are ahead, since there are a lot of people who can and do life mesmerized by other things than phone screens.

  45. “I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”
    – this paragraph explains why authors like Jordan Peterson and his book “12 Rules for Life” gained such prominence.

  46. Deep down a lot of people don’t want to quit. Why? Because they have nothing meaningful to fill the void. And it terrifies them more than the thought of wasting their time.

    It’s the modern way of masking what Thoreau called quiet desperation.

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  48. I’ve followed you a while, and I respect the hell out of you. You saved me from skating well into my 30s. You’re going to find that this message is going to become more hostile to people as you go along, and you are probably going to alienate more and more people. You’re doing good stuff though, I hope you don’t ever quit and wish I could meet you one day.

  49. apps and plug-ins may provide enough friction but maybe you’re getting at how they need to be combined with a commitment not to override or defeat these mechanisms that you decide to put in place


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