The 18th century masseria at the digital detox retreat
The 18th century masseria at the digital detox retreat


The truth about my “digital detox” holiday

The rules are simple: no phones, no laptops, plenty of yoga. Caroline O’Donoghue was cynical until she sat on the orange ground of an olive grove and took stock

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

It was the survey that did it. Before the survey, I was just another writer who fancied a press trip in Italy. Before the survey, I had joked to friends that I was being sent to an ashram, a cult that confiscated your tech and forced you to do three hours of yoga a day. Before the survey, the only reason I consented to go on a "digital detox" was because I thought I could get a funny article out of it. 

But before any of that could happen, I had to fill out the survey: the one that judged just how badly my "addiction to technology" was. 

“Thinking about the last few nights, how would you rate the quality of your SLEEP?”

Zero meant "poor" and ten meant "deep". I hovered. I was falling asleep earlier and earlier – but I was also waking up more and more, gasping with dry mouth, dreaming about rats. Rats have always featured heavily in my worst dreams. 

I gave myself a four. 

“Thinking about the last few days, how would you rate your ability to CONCENTRATE and FOCUS on one task or subject at a time?”

My instinct was to give myself a seven, but then I thought about it a little more. They say women are excellent multitaskers, and I have always assumed that I was one of them. But lately, my screen at work has started filling up with dozens of tabs, some of them just the beginnings of Google queries I never got around to completing. I hesitate. I give myself another four. 

The survey is not scored, but if it were, I would almost certainly be a D. 

The rules of Time To Log Off are simple: on the first day, you hand in your phone, your iPod, your iPad, your laptop, and any other personal technology you might have on you. The company is owned by Tanya Goodin, an entrepreneur who also owns digital agency Tamar and TLC, a charity that works primarily with children in South Africa. Despite being a pioneering figure in the tech industry – she's able to recount entire lunches with Steve Jobs – Goodin firmly acknowledges her own over-dependence on screens and social media. She believes there is a strong link between heavy internet and depression and that our ability to focus and think critically has been severely affected by our reliance on the internet. Hence, the digital detox holiday. 

Without phones, small talk becomes big talk and silences become longer, more comfortable

On day one, it almost feels like I'm on the set of a reality show. I am introduced to the five other contestants, we're shown to our rooms, our phones are dropped meaningfully into a basket. We do yoga. We do an awful lot of yoga over the next few days: a 90-minute class at 8am, and another one at 6pm. There are a lot of job titles that I don't fully understand, but the common thread is that almost everyone is under enormous pressure at their jobs. One woman has worked at the same company for 11 years, and has been signed off on stress-leave a half dozen times. She is currently on stress-leave again, and has planned a string of restorative holidays to keep herself busy. Another journalist has brought his work with him: a 600-page printout of a retired CIA agent's memoirs that he is skimming by the pool for a story. 

At first, the conversation is strained. We are six strangers with almost nothing in common with no phones to fall back on, and no wine to bond over. When an awkward silence hits, there's no "let me just check my emails one minute”. You just have to sit in it, weathering the storm of human silence. After two days, we no longer start conversation with "this thing I saw on Twitter last week". We go on long walks on the Puglian coast, and conjure a strange kind of honesty. We ask questions like: Are you happy? Do you love her? Is it hard? What about your dad? And we listen very closely to the answers. I say things about myself that surprise me as I say them. Small talk becomes big talk and silences become longer, more comfortable. It occurs to me how frantic technology makes me, how my conversations at home have started to sound more like glib Twitter back-and-forths. Joke after joke, arch comment after arch comment. I'm funny, I'm funny, I'm funny, follow me, follow me, follow me. 

On day three I walk into the middle of an olive grove and sit on the orange ground, by myself, for an hour. I think about olives. I walk back and try to remember the last time I did nothing.

I get my phone back before the airport shuttle bus, but I don't turn it on until I'm at London Bridge, six hours later. I have a tight knot in my stomach, terrified that something will have gone wrong while I was away. Terrified that I will have been fired, or have damaged a relationship irreparably by not being "there" for someone. As the first couple of texts come through, I can't help grinning at how banal they are. Someone inviting to me something, someone talking about a podcast. I put my phone back in my bag and try to see if I can leave it there, untouched, until I get home. 

Caroline went to Puglia with Time To Log Off.


The 18th century masseria at the digital detox retreat
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Breathing Space
Journey Woman

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