Eat less internet with digital fasting







June 2, 2022

With digital fasting, you disconnect from the internet or particular sites and apps for stretches of time. This article explores fast types and how to plan for one.

Fasting means abstaining from food or drink for a prolonged period. People used to fast for religious reasons. Now many folks use the practice to improve their health or lose weight.

Modern approaches like intermittent fasting, for example, suggest you only eat during a specific time window, say between noon and 8 pm. Contrary to many diets, it's not so much about what you eat but that your body reaches a state where it starts burning fat instead of sugars. That only happens without food intake for many hours.

What is digital fasting?

With digital fasting, you disconnect from the internet or particular sites and apps for stretches of time.

Just as food enters your body, all the information you consume through your screens goes into your brain. Overload your mind with data, and it feels bad, bloated, or both. The goal of digital fasting is to limit this information intake to find focus, peace of mind, and a sense of presence that's lost when you're always on your phone and computer.

Different types of digital fasts

Digital detoxing is the most well-known example of a digital fast. You essentially go cold turkey, meaning you swear off all connectivity and devices for at least days and often weeks or months.

Another example is the Internet Sabbath proposed by author William Powers in his book Hamlet's Blackberry, during which he and his family refrain from screens one day a week.

Besides digital detoxing and the Internet Sabbath, you can also apply the idea of intermittent fasting to apps, sites, and screens. You set a daily window during which you connect as you please, but you abstain from doing so outside those hours.

Should you detox, fast intermittently, or take a Sabbath?

Choosing a suitable digital fast comes down to two questions:

  1. Are you aiming for a habit or a one-time experiment?
  2. How experienced are you with intentionally disconnecting?

A one-off, short digital detox is a great starting point if you're new to digital fasting. Make it 24 or 48 hours, perhaps a weekend, and see what it's like.

Consider a weekly fasting habit with an Internet Sabbath day when you've tried a short detox and enjoyed the experience. Aim to disconnect completely and stay away from screens. You can also try a lighter version by reducing screen time as much as possible and not checking into any messaging, email, and social media apps. Functions like Focus and Screen Time on iOS and Android's Digital Wellbeing are excellent aids for such a semi-Sabbath.

Intermittent digital fasting is usually a daily habit and so not an endeavor to take lightly. On this path, you strive to condense your connectivity to a small time window each day. You live the rest of your hours disconnected from the internet, or at least from needless distractions and notifications.

Entries from my daily messaging log.
Entries from my daily messaging log to determine the first and last moments of checking in for the day.

How to hold a digital fast

Here's how to hold a digital fast:

  1. Pick the type of digital fast that suits your goals and circumstances.
  2. Decide whether you'll abstain from the entire internet and all screens or only specific apps, services, and devices.
  3. Set a goal, like a ten-day detox or a daily fasting window from 8 to 8. You can also strive to keep the connectivity window as small as possible each day but without a fixed target.
  4. Create accountability and support by sharing your fasting intent with others. You can talk about it with friends and family or post about your fast publicly, for example, in the open Experiments or private Share & showcase sections of the Saent community.
  5. Prepare for your fast. Whatever will help to reduce your need to connect, do it. Setup a Focus or Do Not Disturb schedule on your phone. Adjust your notification settings. Switch to a dumb phone during your digital detox. Maybe you even want to set up an auto-responder on your emails explaining you're on a digital fast.
  6. Track your progress daily. Depending on the type of fast you've picked, you could mark each day you've not connected or count the hours you haven't done so. I note the time of all my email and social checks, so I can see when was my first and last time to connect each day.

(I use this Google sheet to track my personal productivity metrics, including those for digital fasting.)

What to expect when you eat less internet

I've tried all these digital fasting approaches over the years. I'm currently especially into intermittent digital fasting for all my email, messaging, and social apps.

That practice gives me a clear daily goal: check those services as late as possible, and disconnect as early as I can. I'm not aiming for a specific number, just to maximize the number of fasted hours every day.

The intermittent approach also motivates me not to do an early morning or late night email or social media check. Doing so would break my fasting window and reduce the number of hours I can count.

I also loosely observe an Internet Sabbath. One day per weekend, I don't use my computer or check into any messaging or social services.

These practices take time to develop, and I've found they reinforce each other. When you track your daily digital fasting window, as in the chart above, the Sabbath shows as a spike around weekends and adds to your fasting hours.

In my experience, digital fasting delivers what it promises: more peace of mind, presence, and focus. At the same time, it's as challenging as everyone who has ever tried says it is. You shouldn't expect to turn it into a habit without failures. And you certainly need to find ways to prepare, monitor, and motivate yourself, just as with the food fasting variant.

Want more ideas for healthier digital nutrition? Check out The Digital Diet Plan, with five simple rules to observe for all your virtual consumption.

Get posts like these in your inbox every Sunday 📨

Want to stay up to date with the latest thinking on personal productivity? Our subscribers get exclusive first access to a new weekly article on focus, time-management, AI, and other topics.

Join 7,000 others and never miss a productivity tip again. Simply enter your email address below to sign up.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
No spam. We only use your email address to send you a weekly article—you can unsubscribe anytime.