Time For a Digital Detox: Creating a healthy digital culture

October 2018

In this edition of Soma’s Innovation, Wellbeing and Performance webinar, Christopher Lorenz, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Soma Analytics, spoke with Laura Willis, founder of Shine Offline. The discussion explored Laura’s personal story and the founding of ‘Shine Offline’, as well as the role of phones in your personal and work life, and how this can be monitored to achieve peak performance and reduce stress.

Christopher: Welcome Laura. You are the founder of Shine Offline, which is all about shining offline. Can you give us a little bit of a background about yourself and how you came up with the idea to Shine Offline?

Laura: I had a pretty dysfunctional relationship with my phone a few years ago. I am self-employed and when I became a parent I had to go back to work very quickly. My daughter was only four months old, I was working from home and quite quickly it became apparent that my boundaries were off, and I had no work/life balance. My daughter’s arrival made this really apparent to me.

I hit an all-time low and ended up with a panic disorder and insomnia.

As part of my recovery, I started to practice mindfulness meditation on a daily basis. I found that that gave me some clarity of mind, to make me realise that I was using my phone in a really inappropriate, ineffective way.

So, I started to experiment with how I used it and changed where I used it, when I used it, how I used it. It was really hard but quite quickly things improved:

My wellbeing improved

My relationship with my daughter improved

My focus improved

Everything improved.

When I told people what I was doing, everybody in my life seemed to have their own issue with their device. A lot of people seemed to be struggling, and although there was a lot of research and editorial content around this topic, nobody was actually going out there and shaking things up and getting people to really think about their relationships with their devices.

So, my good friend Anna and I launched the business three years ago, and we’ve been helping people to shine offline ever since.

Christopher: If you want to shine offline while watching our webinar…

Laura: A very good point, Christopher, thanks for reminding me.

I want to invite everybody to turn their phone off or put it on flight mode for the next 25 minutes or so, and if viewing this on a computer, put your email to offline.

We always ask people to shine offline whenever we are giving a Keynote or running a workshop for two reasons:

        So that you can focus and not be distracted

Because our relationships with our technology are really emotive.

There’s a lot of psychology behind it. If somebody gives you permission to turn off for half an hour, it’s really interesting to look at your reaction to that.

Is it relief?

Is it anxiety?

Christopher: I think that’s a brilliant challenge. So, we’ll challenge you to shine offline for the next 25-30 minutes.

Laura, you’ve been a Keynote speaker, you run conferences, you’re very sought after, you’re growing as a company, how come there is so much interest in shining offline?


  • Firstly, because pretty much everyone owns a smartphone.
  • Secondly, because there aren’t really any guidelines on how to use it in an effective, efficient and sustainable way.
  • Thirdly, from a business context, workplace wellbeing has become really popular in the last couple of years and your mental health is central, it’s a central benefit if you can have a healthy controlled relationship with your phone. So, companies are investing in this topic.

As well as the wellbeing piece, the business is suffering, and the bottom line is suffering if:

Your people are overwhelmed:

because they can’t process all of the information that’s coming their way.

They’re exhausted:

because they’re checking their phone in the middle of the night and before they go to sleep, so their sleep is disturbed.

They’re not focused:

because their inbox is open, and their phone is notifying them throughout the day, so they can’t get into a place of deep work and concentration.

So, smart businesses who want to be future ready and innovative are looking at this issue and realising that this technology is amazing, it’s a gift, it’s given us so much, but at no point has anybody stopped, paused and taken a step back to say:

“As an organisation, are we using it an effective and efficient way?”

“Are people empowered to use it the way it’s meant to be used, in a controlled and balanced way?”

Is Your Relationship With Your Phone ‘Toxic’?

Christopher: When people come to you at workshops and events, what are the signs of a dysfunctional relationship with their smartphone?

Laura: I would say that ordinarily, people are on a bit of a treadmill because there’s a culture of connectivity. It’s normal now for everyone to walk around with their smartphones in their hand and be on them at any time throughout the day.

I think people generally aren’t aware that they have a dysfunctional relationship with their device.

Generally, it’s not that apparent that somebody has a dysfunctional relationship with their phone until you allow them to start to think about it for themselves.

We give them space to reflect.

We inform them about the potential negative impacts that it could have.

In our sessions we allow people to work in groups to really discuss the joy and fulfilment that their devices give them and then the way they’re maybe completely ruining their lives. It’s at that point where people recognise: “Actually, that’s really good, but that bit isn’t particularly good.”

The challenges that people will face are:

Low mood

because of social media.

Poor work/life balance

because they literally don’t know how to turn off their work email on the weekends/holidays.

Negative impact on relationships

where people feel that they’re not connecting in the same way with their loved ones anymore because technology is getting in the way.

Feeling that there’s an inability to focus and concentrate:

getting to that place of deep work, to innovate and create.

It’s not a one size fits all:

Everybody has a very different relationship with their device

Everybody has different circumstances

We find that 95% of people leave our workshops after 90 minutes with us, feeling empowered to make some positive changes into how they’re currently using their device. So, that tells us that pretty much everyone has some sort of dysfunction when it comes to how they’re using it.

Christopher: Absolutely, and I think what’s important to highlight is, even though we called the event, “Time For a Digital Detox,” it’s not really about detoxing, right?

Laura: No. Detoxing implies that this technology is inherently toxic. We don’t believe it is.

Detox is useful because whenever you have a break from something, it allows you the space to be able to reassess your relationship with it. But the important thing is when you then pick the phone back up:

You’ve recalibrated how you’re using it

You’ve changed your perspective on how you need to use it

It’s about turning towards the technology. It’s about pausing and reflecting on your relationship with it, which allows you to make some important changes.

Christopher: I think I read a study by Deloitte saying that one-third of people have argued with their spouse or partner about phone usage?

Laura: We always have a queue of people at the end of a Keynote or a workshop who want to talk on an individual level. We always have a Q&A, but this is a very emotive topic for a lot of people.

Quite often I’ll get somebody saying, “I signed up to attend today because my other half has a really dysfunctional relationship with their device. I’m actually alright with mine but I can’t get them off theirs and I wanted some tactics as to how to address it with them.” What I say is, “Well, you’ve obviously taken some stuff away today, you’ve learned a lot. Maybe go home and share it with them. Show them the flyer that we give out, the leaflet that we give out, and maybe set yourself a little challenge as a couple. What’s one thing that you can maybe do over the next week to try to shine offline?”

Work relationships, personal relationships, relationships with children, they’re all being affected because people feel disconnected because the technology is getting in the way.

Phone-use and Work Performance

Christopher: What impact does ‘always being on’ have on our work life?

Laura: I think it’s multi-layered. There are a lot of issues.

A simple one that people can really relate to is technology in meetings. It’s normal these days to bring your laptop and your smartphone into the meeting with you, and that’s great because it can complement whatever’s being discussed. But, there’s definitely a sense that it’s getting in the way of true collaboration amongst colleagues, where there’s maybe a rudeness that’s being perceived where people seem to be distracted and not listening.

Quite often we’ll get reports back from a business head saying, “On the back of the seeds that you planted amongst our team, we now have screen-free meetings where everybody is given half an hour to prepare, they come in with a pen and a pad. They’re not allowed their phone. They’re not allowed their laptop. We find that everybody’s getting on a lot better. The meeting is a lot more energetic. People want to just get in and get out and get on with their work.”

I think that’s one very simple thing that has become normal because people, again, are just chucking technology into a situation and not thinking about the negative impact that could have.

Christopher: Do you see any specific sector or any specific industry that’s particularly interested or maybe other industries that say they’re not interested at all?

Laura: When we first launched, “wellbeing” was a big buzzword because we knew that your wellbeing could improve if you had a good relationship with your digital technology.

Companies that are perceived as friendly companies really engage with us. Companies like: Pret a Manger, Ella’s Kitchen, Lonely Planet

There’s an expectation within the professional services that you need to be serving clients and working 24/7. We feel those industries need us more than anybody else because that culture already existed before this mobile technology was around.

We’ve been working with banks and law firms and seen a massive change in the past six to eight months. We’re getting repeat bookings from law firms, where one partner will book us in and then recommend us to other departments.

Those sectors need us more than ever because it’s those sectors where people are burning out to the complete max. People have said that they can’t do their jobs anymore because they get no space and time away from work.

Because most people own a smartphone and because every single business uses communications technology to run their business, everybody needs what we do.

We’re working at a global level where we’re developing Train the Trainer and webinars.

We’re also working with companies that have somewhere between 70 to 3,000 staff where the message can get filtered down a lot quicker and the organisational change can happen a lot quicker.

I’m glad to say that the phone is ringing, and the inbox is busy. It’s something that everybody needs really.

Christopher: What’s in it for organisations?

Laura: I’d say that every business who wants to be future ready needs to support their staff:

To have an awareness of their relationship with their technology

To produce a healthy digital culture at work

Microsoft carried out a survey about the digital culture of their B2B customers. 20 thousand respondents in over 21 countries from small and medium-sized businesses. They found that businesses that have a positive digital culture are:

Where people were supported to use the tech in a sustainable, balanced way

Where they understood how the technology worked

Where they understood, if they wanted to go offline that the technology would allow them to do that

Everything we want to be as organisations were better:

  • Performance
  • Productivity
  • Innovation
  • Collaboration

So, this technology isn’t going anywhere, it’s only getting bigger. More systems are being launched to help us communicate, as staff and colleagues, and also with our clients and suppliers.

Your biggest resource is your people. Your people are your business. Your business isn’t working at its best if your people are:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Exhausted
  • Disconnected
  • Unfocused
  • Unproductive
  • Can’t be innovative

The benefits of this are tenfold. Every business needs this in the same sense that everybody needs to have a healthy balanced diet and look after their physical health because this stuff is intrinsic to our world these days. It’s a fact.

Christopher: I find it particularly interesting that the companies you work with are so varied, especially these sectors like professional services, law firms, where you would expect this 24/7 culture. It makes so much sense that this kind of technology only exaggerates the culture that’s already there.

Laura: Two examples from law:

One conversation I had was someone within a law firm saying, “All I want is to go out for dinner with my friends after work and I can’t do that because of this mobile phone that’s going off and the expectation that I can be contacted all the time.”

Another person who basically said they never see their children anymore, and that basically, lawyers are going to be really grateful if we can manage to really get this message pushed out within the sector.

I was speaking at a legal event yesterday and I said, quite openly, that I think the legal services are going to actually suffer if they don’t get a handle on this. Burnouts are at an all-time high and anxiety and depression and suicide rates are really high within law because people can’t get away from work and whenever they are at work they’re not educated on how to manage the break times and stuff. This sector is going to suffer because people won’t want to study law because will go, “Why would I want to work within that? I can earn my money somewhere else.”

How To Implement a Digital Detox

Christopher: What can I, as a person, as an individual, do about that? What are some of your top strategies to contain this?

Laura: There are lots of little behavioural changes that you can make. If you go onto our website, there’s a blog where we put our top tools and tips.

If we step back for a moment from the actual behaviours, and I’ll come onto that in a minute, the first thing you need to do is understand your relationship with your device. You need to understand:

  • What stresses you out?
  • What are the triggers that get you to go onto it?
  • “Why am I looking at Facebook, I was on it ten minutes ago?”
  • “Why and I logged in again?”
  • Why do I keep refreshing my inbox?”
  • Is it fear?
  • Is it anxiety?
  • Is it a fear of missing out?
  • Is it a fear of missing opportunity at work?
  • What is it?
  • What’s driving you back there?

You also need to work out where you want to place your attention.

I was at an event yesterday and I watched a guy who spent the whole day, this is not an exaggeration, on his computer at this event. He did go to the loo a couple of times, but he took his phone and he walked with his phone all the time. I would love to have had a chance to say to him:

“Do you want to spend all your day on your device? Well, if you do, by all means, fire ahead, brilliant, you’re apart, you recognise that, and you want to.”

But a lot of people are putting their attention on their phone without even stopping to think about it and where you place your attention is who you are, because that’s how you spend your life.

So, we need to do that and in order to do that, you need to pause and stop and take a moment. Give yourself a bit of space away from the phone.

I suppose that’s where the detox comes in; be that a detox one evening or for a couple hours at the weekend or whatever.

The other thing that’s really important is, in this day and age the world is designed to distract us, we’re distracted all the time. It’s information overload. We’re getting bombarded from all directions.

It is our duty to exercise our attention and that’s why since the smartphone was launched there’s a massive increase in the practice of mindfulness.

You need some sort of mindfulness practice, that could be a formal practice where you’re sitting and doing mindful meditation for ten minutes every day or that could be a mindful exercise:

        Challenging yourself to read six pages of a book without looking away

        Starting to sing again, because singing is a very mindful activity

        It could be gardening

        It could be cooking

Then, it’s about making really small behavioural changes.

There was a lovely piece in The Guardian a few weeks ago about how people can’t read narrative anymore and reading narrative, the benefits for your brain, for your cognitive is actually massive.

I spoke at a conference last Monday and a woman in the audience had been to see me speaking the year before and one of my top tips at that had been, get a watch, because I would recognise that I was going, “I wonder what time it is?” That was an excuse to look at my iPhone. So, when I got a watch I didn’t have that excuse anymore and this lady put her hand up and said, “I got a watch after I saw you last year and it’s changed my life.” So that’s one tip.

Another one is that 80% of people use their phones for an alarm clock. So, get yourself a small child or an alarm clock and get your phone out of your bedroom.

If your phone is set to wake you up in the morning, Deloitte research has shown that one in three of us are checking for messages in the middle of the night. That’s disturbing your sleep.

Also, it’s the first thing you do in the morning. You haven’t even put your toe on the floor and you’re in your work email or your Instagram or reading BBC News and these things often don’t put us in a brilliant mood.

So, get yourself an alarm clock.

The third very easy one is, this is my hooter and is meant to represent notifications. Everything is set to notify us, and we can turn those off.

I spoke at a big global sustainability company on Monday and there was this massive debate in the room, in the middle of my Keynote and I’m like, “Will you all stop talking to each other?”

“But you just put your email on offline mode and then you can work in a focused way.”

“How do you do that?”

“I didn’t know you could do that either.”

You can turn stuff off. So, start to take some control back for yourself.

Implementing a Digital Detox at Work

Christopher: What are some of the things you can do to create a healthy digital culture within your organisation?

Laura: One senior sales director emailed her team after a Shine Offline workshop and asked them to stop CCing her in an email because she recognised that her biggest stress was her inbox. The email specifically said,

“You are in this job because we wanted you because you’re the right person for the job and you have the skills to do it and I empower you to get on with it. If you need me to know about something, by all means, CC me in, but I don’t need to know about everything, just get on with it, it’s fine.”

She saw a decrease of 60% of traffic coming into her inbox from internal communications. So:

  • She’s now empowered
  • She’s got more space in her day
  • Her team were empowered
  • The morale has increased

Screen-free meetings. This is a lovely way that you can start to put your toe in the water around experimenting with this.

Screen-free breaks. Leave the phone at the desk, stick it in the drawer, go and get together as people.

Mindfulness sessions. We do quite a lot of work with Naked Wines in Norwich and they now have a daily mindfulness session where they listen to a headspace meditation for ten minutes. They’re actually assessing the impact that’s having on performance, productivity and mood amongst those people.

Think about the impact that your email communication is having on people. A lot of people just fire emails off at night because they’re trying to catch up, not intending anybody to respond, but this isn’t talked about at work. So then, maybe people, more junior members of staff or other members of the team see a necessity to respond.

You can embargo emails. You can draft them in the evening and then set them to go out the next morning at quarter to nine, or whatever.

So, there are loads of things you can do. You can get down into:

  • What are the personalities around the table?
  • What are we doing at the moment that isn’t working that’s stressing people out?
  • What could we do a bit differently?
  • There’s something that everybody can do regardless of what your demands are, to just make a change.

Rapid-fire Questions

Christopher: As in every webinar, we have our recurring section of a couple of rapid-fire questions that I’d like to ask you. The first question, what do outsiders get wrong about shining offline?

Laura: The first thing maybe is that it’s about digital detox and it’s not about coming into contact with the device and your relationship with it.

The second thing is that people are really horrible to themselves and this stuff is really hard. It’s treating yourself with some kindness and understand that this is the way the world looks and if you’ve got some positive intention to make some good behavioural choices, it won’t always work, you’ve got to get back on, you’ve got to keep trying.

Christopher: Second question, if you had a huge billboard, for example, the one on Old Street Roundabout…?

Laura: Old Street Roundabout? A lot of traffic.

Christopher: A lot of tech people as well. If there was one thing you could put on the billboard, what would it be?

Laura: I wouldn’t put something on the billboard, I would actually build a little platform, sticking out of the billboard.

We probably work with about 4,000 people now and I would contact them all and ask them to volunteer themselves for two minutes to tell me one thing they’ve done to make a positive change in their lives.

I’d put together a 24-hour agenda and I’d stand on the podium with a megaphone, and they’d have a megaphone too, and I’d interview them.

I could guarantee that every single person that drives or walks past would take something away because everybody will have done something different and the benefits that they would have seen in their lives will be different.

Christopher: Last but not least, Laura, what is your secret stressbuster? What is your favourite thing to do to relax or recover from a stressful adventure?

Laura: Going out on my bike. I live beside a very nice river in Twickenham, not the Thames, the River Crane. There’s a river park walk about five minutes from my house, I’ll go on the bike and I’ll stop sometimes. I’ll just take a moment, because, if you sit in a certain way it can feel like you’re in the middle of the countryside, the reeds and the flowing river.

One day a man stopped and said, “Are you okay?” because I was just sitting, “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just taking it in. It’s amazing.”

Just get outside for 20 minutes and give yourself a bit of head space.

Christopher: The Japanese have a nice term for it, they call it forest bathing.

Laura: Forest bathing? I love that.

Soma’s Key Takeaways:

  • Shining Offline is not about detoxing, throwing away your phone, your phone is not toxic. Instead, it is about being in control, controlling your attention.
  • Mindfulness is useful in learning to control your attention.
  • Try screen-free meetings, screen-free breaks. Set boundaries when out of work hours. Introduce the positive.
  • Buy a watch so you aren’t drawn to your phone to check the time.
  • Buy an alarm clock and remove your phone from your bedroom.
  • Start to question how you use technology. Why are you logging back into facebook? What emotion is driving this? What is the purpose?

Would you like to learn more about Kelaa Mental Resilience?

Soma Analytics is an award-winning digital health company innovating in the sphere of mental wellbeing and stress management. The lead product, Kelaa Mental Resilience, includes a smartphone application for the users and an analytics dashboard for HR, providing a platform for employers and employees to work together on improving mental wellbeing and productivity. The Kelaa platform enables integration with EAP providers or other existing wellbeing initiatives. Soma Analytics works with large organisations that have seen significant benefits, such as a 16% reduction in stress, or a 20% stress-related cost reduction.

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