Let’s get this part out of the way first - I grudgingly accept the sad irony that you’re reading this on a screen and I’m about to advocate not looking at a screen as much or as frequently. Unfortunately, there’s no way around publishing this online, it's how we read, learn and ultimately distract ourselves today.
The effects of the immediacy and portability of screens is a very complex subject. To get a sense of how much the screens affect us for now, let’s set aside the cattle trough of recent studies that detail the effects of an always-on screen life and not debate that double-blind, state-funded white paper by the Impressive University of Your Choosing or Do-Good Foundation closely aligned with your political beliefs. For right now, let’s try a little thought experiment, and observe how we react to it.
Imagine turning off your phone, tablet, and laptop this Friday night, and not turning them back on until Monday morning.
No texting, no email, no YouTube, Instagram or Facebook. Your inbox will accumulate emails, you will miss Instagram stories, Snapchats and the President’s tweets (plus the subsequent reactions.) No WhatsApp, WeChat, or Reddit. You, and your brain, would be disconnected.
How does that feel? I’d imagine your reaction is “I can’t,” or “you don’t understand,” but really sit quietly and become aware of how you feel about it. Don’t worry, I get it - work expectations, the kid’s carpool to swimming practice, your friend from high school who’s getting divorced and texts you late at night - whatever, I know what “I can’t” feels like.
Shutting your devices off for 24-48 hours a week is called a “digital sabbath,” and I’m here to report that it's initially terrifying, revealing, difficult and ultimately incredibly healthy. I’m embarrassed to say that my first digital sabbatical had me slapping my pocket for my phone, sometimes picking it up unconsciously before realizing it was powered off, literally waking up in the middle of the night because I thought I heard alerts, and sweating out what emails I had yet to respond to.
Now, before you paint me as an exception to “normal” - I have kids, I run a business in which someone is awake and working in another time zone anytime during the 24 hour day, usually with a question, problem or proposition. The vast majority of my work is done through email or the phone, and some answers need to be given or received quite quickly. And the demands of kids, as all parents know, are a complete pain in the ass.
But I had become concerned that the “always-on” was affecting the way I thought, my concentration, and ultimately the way I felt. I had found myself checking my messages between sets at the gym, having my family just accept that even though it was late at night, I “had” to take the call/message/email, and feeling a little anxious during long flights because I “didn’t know what was happening.”
In short, I decided my fear to disconnect meant that I had a problem. I’m not an emergency room surgeon on call, or on-duty military, no one is going to die or be endangered if I don’t return my email about the new statement analysis over the weekend. And it wasn’t the kind of fear that one has about getting hit in the face with a shovel - it was an uneasy feeling that what I had become used to was not the best thing for me.
So I did it. I told the people close to me that I’d be taking the time off (digitally) and they could call the house phone or just drive to the house if they needed anything, and then shut everything off. The first weekend, I read, wrote (with pen and paper), worked on the house, went to dinner with friends. Monday morning came and I turned my phone on to a cacophony of message and voicemail alerts. I went downstairs before sunrise and checked my email, anxious that I had missed something, let someone down, or made myself look bad because of my “absence.”
It wasn’t until later Monday that I realized nothing bad had happened, and in fact, my concentration seemed to be better. I was truly startled by my phone ringing while I was working or driving, and I was less apprehensive about shutting my phone off the next Friday.
The effects accumulated. After four or five weeks, my thoughts had become less fragmented, longer, and my ability to “stay present” somehow seemed easier.
I was able to see over time that healthy thinking had been blocked by the constant distractions.
So perhaps you might start small. Don’t take your phone to lunch. Shut off your devices on a Friday night at dinner and promise yourself you’ll hold out until noon on Saturday. As a family, make a pact that dinner is without devices, even when at a restaurant and you’re hungry and the food is taking longer than you want it to. And don’t kid yourself, you’re not ignoring the email sliders on your screen, the pings, dings and purrs that your phone makes. Don’t believe me? Shut them off for a while, and see how you feel.
It’s all about being present.