Like many of you, I am in a codependent relationship with screens. In the last two years, I have Zoomed into work meetings, virtual yoga classes, book clubs, birthday parties and funerals. For leisure, I watched Netflix and kept a Tagalog or Korean drama playing in the background while cooking. And when I got bored of Zoom or TV, I turned to a pocket-sized screen that’s constantly pinging with tragic news from all over the world.
Studies show that the exponential increase in screen time during the pandemic may have long-term effects such as unwanted weight gain, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, myopia (nearsightedness), depression and sleep disorders. According to Psychology Today, our collective relationship with screens exists in tandem with the burnout cycle.
After a long day of work, all we want to do is sit and relax. But the simple act of doing nothing can incite guilt, especially when you’ve got a barrage of deadlines to meet and productivity goals to pursue. And how do we cope with the anxiety of doing nothing? By filling that void with a movie, TV show, video game or music. It’s a never-ending, blue-light-drenched cycle that I’m all too familiar with.
Honestly, at this point, I’m ready to throw all of my devices into the ocean. The only thing that’s stopping me is the blood brothers pact I unknowingly made with Google Maps when I first started using it in the early aughts. I’m now so directionally challenged that I wouldn’t be able to use a paper map to get out of my own neighborhood. While I dream of being tech-free, it’s impossible to ignore how much of my life actually depends on it.
In an effort to cultivate a new relationship with technology, I chose to commit to a 24-hour screen detox—a much cheaper solution than tossing my MacBook Pro and iPhone into the Pacific.
Here’s what happened when I unplugged for 24 hours.
Tech-Free Days Require Preparation
I planned to turn my devices off promptly at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, at the end of a busy week. As the clock ticked down, I began to feel like I was planning for a lightweight apocalypse. My brows wrinkled and my millennial brain spun out:
Do I have enough film for my Polaroid camera?
How will I commemorate a perfectly plated dinner?
Should I make plans with the girl I’m dating?
Do I have enough groceries?
How will I order takeout?
I Googled the phone number of a nearby Chinese restaurant and wrote the number down so that I could order delivery. Ten minutes later, I realized that I would have no way of calling them without my cell phone. Plan B: I’d just pick the Chinese food up from the restaurant! I wrote out a makeshift MapQuest-esque guide with turn-by-turn directions and an encouraging note to myself.
Next, I made plans with my boo—let’s call her N.—for the following evening and let her know about the screen detox. I warned her that we wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other if there were any last-minute changes in our plans. Since it’s a new situationship, I was nervous about spending quality time together without TV or music as a distraction. We made plans to meet at 6:30 p.m. at her place, and I tried to hide how excited I was to get to know her better.
With plans secured, I turned off all of my devices one by one and tucked them in the corner of my closet.
8:30 a.m.: A Jubilant Morning and Some Unexpected Karaoke
I woke up frantically searching for my phone on my nightstand before realizing that I didn’t have it for the day. Once the panic wore off, I realized how recharged I felt after a solid night of sleep, with significantly less tension in my brow muscles. I made a mental note to make the last two hours of my regular days screen-free so that I could reap the same benefits.
I meditated for an unknown period of time. Typically, I use a guided meditation from YouTube. This time, I had to rely on the good ol’ sounds of Hollywood: birds chirping, the incessant whooshing of traffic, the chorus of air conditioners buzzing in harmony, the sound of my neighbors’ laughter bouncing around the hillside. To my surprise, I found this Los Angeles brand of silence soothing.
I spent the rest of my morning reading in my favorite spot in the house: a cute reading nook surrounded by plants. After devouring two solid books of poetry and a simple breakfast, I blinked at the stack of unread New Yorker magazines that I had set aside for the screen detox. Is today the day I’m finally gonna catch up?
Before lunch, I cleaned my house while singing at the top of my lungs. Cleaning is one of my favorite weekend chores and I usually scrub the bathroom floors with my Filipino cousin Bruno Mars in my headphones. Without my phone to supply the tunes, I had to sing infectious pop songs solo, sans a backing track.
And once I started, I could not stop. I belted Mary J. Blige while cooking lunch and tested my falsetto while singing Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” in between bites. After my meal, I sang a few of my favorite songs in Tagalog, impressed that I still knew every word even though it’s been a few years since I’ve been back to the Philippines.
I sang while washing the dishes, sweeping and mopping my room, changing my linens and making a smoothie. I must have kept going for a good three hours, though I can’t confirm this because, apparently, I am unable to properly read the hands of an analog clock.
3 p.m.: Afternoon Dreams That are Way Better Than the Stories I Missed in The New Yorker
I decided to take a quick nap, thinking there’d be more time for journaling and reading those judgy issues of The New Yorker later in the day. I slept deeply and my mind wandered into a wild dreamscape.
In my dream, I begged my friend Dee, a non-binary rollerskater, mystic and Akashic records reader, to help me find a meeting space for queer and trans people to meet weekly to talk about financial freedom. They took me to an old office space in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I used to work, but when we entered the building, it looked just like the student lounge of the art school I attended for college in downtown Chicago.
The halls looked exactly the same: Generic gray-blue lockers and classrooms with large glass windows that overlooked expensive industrial sewing machines, 3D printers and laser cutters. The only difference was that all of the people wandering the halls had purple skin. I looked down at my hands and watched as they slowly turned purple, too.
Dee opened the door to a room at the end of the hall. Suddenly, we were back in my plant-filled room in Hollywood, complete with the fresh linens I’d just put on my bed. “This is what you’ve been looking for,” they said. With Dee’s help, I welcomed the purple-skinned people into my bedroom. We all linked arms, drank orange smoothies from sports guzzler helmets with built-in straws, and laughed all the way to the bank.
I woke from the dream feeling energized and alert. I scrambled to write down each juicy detail in my dream journal. Suddenly, the clock read 6:15. How had I napped for three whole hours?! I was running late to meet N. and had no way to tell her that I wouldn’t have time to pick up dinner beforehand.
I quickly packed an overnight bag, then rushed to her apartment. Luckily, she lives nearby and I don’t need directions to get there. N. was waiting for me by her front door with her adorable dog, Lulu. Together, we embarked on a comical GPS-free journey to Hoy’s Wok on Sunset Boulevard.
Imagine this: We had to rely solely on street signs to get where we were going, looking carefully at each strip mall to figure out which one housed this specific Chinese restaurant. It was like 1995 all over again. When we finally found the restaurant, all of the lights were off. In the window, there was a makeshift sign that said, “HOY’S WOK CLOSED 7/10 & 7/11 FOR FAMILY EMERGENCY.”
Oh, no! I thought. I hope the Hoy’s Wok family is OK! And, shit. I only had this one plan. Sure, there are plenty of restaurants in the area, but how would N. and I ever pick one without the knowing eye of Yelp or Google Reviews? We laughed until our sides hurt at the absurdity of our situation. N. suggested the restaurant we went to on our first date, a vegan burger joint called Monty’s about 20 minutes east on Sunset Boulevard. Delighted that we could get there with little to no chance of getting lost, we drove off into the literal sunset on Sunset Boulevard, sharing sweet kisses at red lights.
When we got to Monty’s, N. wanted to Shazam every single song—and she did, because she wasn’t the one doing a screen detox. On the wall, there were posters of celebrities who are vegan, and I was surprised to see Travis Barker’s face. The drummer from Blink-182 is vegan? Is that for real? I needed to look up this useless piece of information. I made a note to Google it once I was reunited with my screens.
9 p.m.: A Recovering F*ckboy Can’t Turn to His Phone to Avoid Intimacy
On the way back to N.’s apartment, we listened to the radio. The radio! Remember the days when we trusted random people to choose our music for us? I might not know if Travis Barker is really a vegan, but, thanks to a radio commercial, I now know that 39 percent of Americans believe in the five-second rule. N. and I amused ourselves by sharing regular stories with each other in over-the-top radio commercial voices.
Back at the apartment, N. and I snuggled on the couch after taking Lulu on a walk. At this point, we would typically watch something on TV or listen to music. A recovering f*ckboy at heart, I’d typically check my phone every now and then so that my romantic interest can’t see how much I actually like them. This time, there was no place to hide.
We spoke candidly about our dating experiences as queer people of color, what it felt like to come out in our late 20s, and what we wanted to do differently in this relationship. Instead of turning to a phone or TV as a buffer, I had to lean into the miracle of being seen wholly by someone who just gets me. I spent the rest of the unplugged evening melting into her arms, cracking jokes in between intimate conversations.
The Morning After: 24 Hours Wasn’t Enough
The next morning, I woke up feeling so refreshed and relaxed that I decided I needed 24 more hours of screen-free bliss. N. and I took a long walk in my neighborhood after breakfast, then hung out in her pool. I spent the afternoon alone, singing at the top of my lungs again. That night, I fell asleep at 8:30 p.m. and woke up the following morning at 8:30 a.m. feeling like a brand-new person.
Even though I’d abandoned my high hopes of reading The New Yorker, my screen detox was mostly spent resting, laughing and reconnecting. It was also a crash course in paying attention to LA’s geography so that I can go screen-free for hours, even days—something I plan to do on a monthly basis.
In just one digital-free weekend, I learned more about myself than I could from any Instagram horoscope. I learned that, when I unplug, I make space for another person to connect with me in an honest and healthy way. When I stop chasing optimization, productivity and efficiency, I enjoy making mistakes. When I stop relying on a screen to numb me from burnout, I find internal sources of joy living in my very throat.
Leo Aquino (they/them) is a storyteller living in Los Angeles. They write stories about personal finance, relationships, sexual wellness and culture. Follow them on Instagram.
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