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July 18, 2011

Staff Picks: The Digital Diet

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 8:38 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Daniel Sieberg is the host of Tech This Out! On ABC news, where he reports on the latest technology and recommends the best gadgets. But in The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life, he does something somewhat antithetical to that purpose—reporting on the growing menace of digital addiction affecting so many of our lives, he lays out a 28 day diet to break it.

A science and technology reporter, the author is no Unabomber Luddite, but he knows how our gadgets and online life can consume us if we’re not careful. His goal in the Digital Diet is to help us use technology without it using us. As he says, "technology should liberate you, not inundate you." He begins the book by relating stories of his own addiction and how he broke it. He tells of making his Declaration of Disconnection at The Huffington Post, which he begins by asking a profound question:

When did I become the kind of person online who annoys the hell out of me?
And ends by making this declaration:
I'm Daniel Sieberg. I'm a recovering social network addict. And my life is not a status update.
If you’re wondering if this book applies to you, ask yourself some of the following questions from chapter 1:
  • Do you sometimes feel the urge to pull out your smart phone when someone else is making a point in conversation?
  • Have you ever realized that you were texting while your child was telling you about her day at school and later couldn’t remember any of the details of her story?
  • Have you ever felt that something hasn’t really happened until you post it on Facebook or tweet about it?
  • Do you sometimes wonder if you could actually focus better in real life before all these gadgets invaded your space?
  • Does the flashing red light on your BlackBerry make your heart flutter?
  • Does a ringing/vibrating cell phone interrupt and trump everything else?
  • Has looking left and right given way to looking up and down as you type on a smart phone and try to navigate a sidewalk?
  • Do you often see the back of your child’s (or spouse’s) head silhouetted against the glow of a video game screen?
  • Do you feel anxious if you’re offline for any length of time?
  • Do you know you shouldn’t be texting and driving—but still do it?
  • Do you find your family can be in the same room but not talking to one another because you’re each interacting with a different device?
As the subtitle suggests, the book is broken into four steps. Step 1, “Re: Think,” is his exploration of how he personally, and we collectively, have come to this point. To sum up this section, I’d paraphrase Socrates and suggest that “the unexamined [digital] life is not worth living.”

Step 2 is to “Re: Boot” and begins with a detox:

In the detox stage, the goals are: (1) highlight the amount of technology in your life, (2) appreciate what it’s doing to your communication, multitasking and self-worth, (3) imagine your life without technology by eliminating it from your life for a short period of time, (4) briefly discover alternatives, (5) and establish boundaries with friends and family.
It is here he begins to lay out his 28 day plan and suggest action steps for your digital diet. It is also here he introduces what is perhaps the most important idea in the book—that of that of Virtual Weight Index (VWI), which is the mental equivalent of the body mass index (BMI). The VWI is how the weight of your digital life—all of your devices, social networks and services—“weigh on your mind.” He has a specific formula in the book for weighing your digital life that will be invaluable to the 28 day diet he lays out.

The book is filled with action steps you can use to achieve a more balanced digital diet. During detox, for example, he suggests you turn your social media passwords over to someone you trust and let them change them to remove any temptation you may have to log in, and to keep a journal of your thoughts offline (in lieu of posting every experience online). Quaint, eh? After detoxing for two days, staying off of social networks and disavowing text messages and other distractions, the author suggests you reintroduce those technologies slowly and mindfully, discovering for yourself what a healthy digital diet (or e-day, as he calls it) looks like.

Step 3 is “Re: Connect.” This is basically a digital menu—a list of “emerging technologies or web sites that benefit your life.” It takes a look at what our technology addiction is doing to us in the real world, mentally and physically, and provides exercises to combat those effects. It can be as simple as squeezing a tennis ball to combat carpal tunnel syndrome or downloading a scrabble or Sudoku app on your phone to provide mental exercise that keeps your brain sharp and elastic. It goes on to give you tools for managing your social networks in one place, organizing your online life and getting rid of your digital clutter. It ends with perhaps the most important step, rekindling our real social networks in the real world.

Step 4 is “Re: Vitalize” and is about “sending you back to the ‘real world’ with renewed confidence and encouragement.” It is largely a recap of the book that pulls all of the ideas, lessons, and action steps together—helping you in the process of harmonizing your analog and digital lives. It is here that, like Douglas Rushkoff does in his wonderful book Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Sieberg comes up with a list of ten rules:

  1. Avoid tech turds.
  2. Live your life in the real world.
  3. Ask yourself whether you really need that gadget.
  4. Seek tech support.
  5. Don’t be afraid to disconnect.
  6. Trust your instincts.
  7. It’s either the human or the device.
  8. Remember the “if then” principle.
  9. Structure your e-day.
  10. Be in control.
What do each of these rules mean? Well, for that, you’ll have to get off the internet and pick up the book. Actually, I'm sure you can find it online somewhere.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.