Man looks out at sunset with backpack.

Digital Detox: How the Outdoors Can Help You Put Your Phone Away

By Sorcha Szczerbiak

Smartphones are arguably among the most convenient modern inventions. But for every advantage they bring, you can probably think of a downside, too. They might help you stay in touch with friends who live on the other side of the world, but smartphones can also promote limited viewpoints, giving you the impression that whatever you see on social media encompasses a full and realistic perspective. Fortunately, spending some time away from your phone is as easy as stepping outside. 

Turn Off or Silence Your Phone 

Many people appreciate having their phones with them in case of emergencies — and that’s certainly understandable if you’re heading outside. However, researchers have found phone notifications can be exhausting and distracting, meaning they may do more harm than good.  

Consider bringing your phone with you when you go outside but silence the ringer or turn the device off. That’s a great way to enjoy the present moment while still having the device available if you need to urgently contact someone.  

Place your phone in a harder-to-reach place, too, such as deep in your backpack rather than in your pants pocket. It’s easy to become so conditioned to using phones that you reach for yours without thinking. Making it slightly less accessible should prevent that.  

Red wildflowers in field.

Tune Into the Environment 

The fast pace of everyday life can make it easy to miss lovely things, like the chirping of local birds and the colors and smells of just-bloomed flowers. However, conscious time spent in the environment gives you a fantastic opportunity to become more observant.  

Mental health professionals often recommend that people living with anxiety use the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique to ground themselves. It involves becoming more aware of the environment by noticing:  

  • Five things you can see 
  • Four things you can touch 
  • Three things you can hear 
  • Two things you can smell
  • One thing you can taste 

This approach helps people dealing with mental distress because it reminds them to focus on things happening now, rather than experiences that might happen or already have. Consider adopting this method during your digital detox, too.  

Practice doing it when you go to a favorite, nature-filled place, whether beside a creek or on a mountaintop. Get ready to feel pleasantly surprised about how the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique can help you find new things to love about places you thought you already knew well.  

Bring a Journal  

You may miss using your phone while being outside because you’d like to have it to snap pictures. Luckily, you can capture memories in ways other than opening a camera app. Think about writing or drawing in a journal to remember what you see through documentation beyond photographs.  

Although photos reveal a lot, they can’t capture details like how you felt after seeing a specific flower for the first time or how much you looked forward to stopping for lunch in a wooded clearing after a hike. 

Encourage yourself to fill the journal with as many — or few — details as seem appropriate.  

Sometimes, you might just want to write down a few sentences or make a rough sketch. But other occasions may call for filling pages with your accounts of the day.  

Family lays on cots and smiles at camp site.

Make the Outdoor Time a Family Affair 

If you have kids, you might feel concerned about how much time they spend staring at screens. Research from Japan suggests there are good reasons to be worried. It indicated kids with more screen time at age two have poorer communication and daily living skills two years later. However, the good news is that time spent outdoors can negate some of those unwanted effects.  

Think about going to a local park, campground, nature trail or other managed property, especially if bringing young kids along. Those attractions are more likely to have creature comforts like toilets and picnic tables for everyone to use if needed. You may even find educational signs that teach youngsters about the area’s native flowers, plants and animals.  

If the time away from a phone seems as hard for your kids as it is for you, remember the importance of setting a good example. If they see you’re doing fine without your phone and not trying to sneak a peek at it, they’ll soon realize there are plenty of other things to hold their attention. 

Besides trying these tips, remember to be patient with yourself. Digital detoxes aren’t always easy, but they tend to become much more manageable — and enjoyable! — the more you do them. Even if you can only go without your phone for an hour the first time, that’s a first step to be proud of and build upon in the future.