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Why you should try a phone-free vacation (and how to actually pull that off)


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Photos: Folk Rebellion
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Remember when an OOO vacation message actually meant something? (You know, in the days before smartphones—when you couldn’t answer emails from the ski lift.)

Now, those days seem as hazy as a pre-digital Polaroid, and it’s got Folk Rebellion founder Jess Davis really worried. “Studies show 77 percent of Americans work on vacation, and [nearly] 40 percent of millennials work every day [of their vacation]—no wonder everyone’s so stressed out and exhausted,” the technology detox movement founder says.

“The younger generation is the one getting the bad end of the stick, because to them, ‘not working’ often means answering 15 emails and taking a conference call. They don’t realize that 10 years ago, that’s not how it was.”

Photo: Jess Davis
Photo: Jess Davis

Davis knows what she’s talking about: She experienced the dark side of the smartphone revolution herself. A former digital strategist who was “always on,” she suffered from brain fog, lack of focus, and waning creativity—classic signs of burnout—and only saw her symptoms lift when her husband forced her to give up her phone during an eight-day trip to Hawaii several years ago.

That experience gave her the clarity she needed to start Folk Rebellion, and now she creates experiences to help technology addicts develop healthier relationships with their devices. (Next up is a February retreat to Canada to see the Northern Lights before they go dim for a decade—yes, really).

Of course, kicking the tech habit isn’t easy. “Some people are frightened, some people cry, some are elated, and some refuse to hand over their phones,” Davis says of past Folk Rebellion retreat attendees. “There’s a lot of fear that comes with not having contact with the outside world.”

Keep reading to find out why you should go phone-free on your holiday vacation—and how to do it in a healthy way.

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Why do a digital detox?

According to Davis, there’s a scientific reason why you can’t fully relax on a vacation with your smartphone by your side: Every “ding” takes you out of the moment, and stresses out your brain.

And what if you turn off your notifications? As it turns out, even the things we do on our phones while “chilling out”—like scrolling through social media—are preventing us from truly getting the benefits of rest.

“If our brains are always being entertained, we’re not allowing those a-ha moments to come to us.”

“When we have quiet brains that aren’t consuming anything, that’s when problem-solving and innovation happen,” says Davis. “If our brains are always being entertained, we’re not allowing those a-ha moments to come to us.” (It’s no coincidence that Davis conceived of Folk Rebellion while separated from her devices).

Then, there’s the fact that vacation is just more fun when you’re not staring down at a screen. “Play board games. Go for a hike. Use an actual camera. Ask locals for restaurant recommendations or discover things by chance,” says Davis. “Getting lost is a really good thing.”

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How to break up with your phone the right way

Quitting your phone cold-turkey can be as stressful as having it with you, so proper pre-vacation planning is key, Davis says. Here’s her step-by-step guide to dropping that device.

First, tell your co-workers, bosses, friends, and family that you’ll be off the grid for a while. “You have to prepare people, because it’s going very against the grain,” she says. At the office, make sure your team is up-to-date on the status of all your current projects, knows who’s filling in for you, and has an emergency contact number. (Davis’ pro tip: Make it a landline. People will be less likely to contact you about something trivial if they know they’re calling, say, your mom’s house.)

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, create a designated spot in your hotel room for your phone and invite the ones you’re traveling with to set their devices aside, too. “Make it fun—this shouldn’t be a shameful thing,” she says. “At minimum, ask everyone to put their phones away at meals or at night.”

Resist the habit of capturing every little moment for Instagram, even if you’re using an analog camera. I know, this is a hard one. “People used to take 24 pictures on vacation, now they’re taking 200 in a day,” says Davis. “Your phone is almost like an external hard drive for your brain. And if your body knows you’re recording the experience, you’re not committing it to memory.” So, paradoxically, the fewer photos you take, the more you’ll remember that amazing dinner or museum trip.

When you’re back in the real world, set boundaries for technology use and stick to them. Davis recommends batching your emails—only checking and responding to messages during pre-determined time slots—buying a paper calendar for your home, and an alarm clock for your bedroom. “We have a ‘9-to-9’ rule in our house, where devices stay plugged in on another floor from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.,” she says. “It’s really important to have rituals.”

Ultimately, says Davis, the only way our always-on society will change is if everyone takes a stand against it. “As workers, we should band together and say, ‘We’ve been doing this for a couple of years and it’s not so cool. Here’s what’s going to make it better,’” she proclaims. Who knows, maybe someday email will no longer be considered a legitimate beach read.

Going phone-free isn’t the only way to be healthy on vacation. Check in to one of these eight hotel groups that prioritize wellness, or take some cues from these seven fit celebrities with crazy travel habits