If it’s Saturday and you’re reading this, I am far away from you.
That’s because every week, I unplug and celebrate what I call the digital sabbath. I know, I know, it’s kind of blasphemous, but it is the best way to think about the activity of disconnecting from the Internet to give my brain a breather.
Many cultures have celebrated the sabbath, or a day of rest. (The etymology of the word, according to Google: Old English, from Latin sabbatum, via Greek from Hebrew šabbāṯ, from šāḇaṯ ‘to rest.’) In Judaism, it’s held on Saturday. In Christian circles, on Sunday. Buddhist rest days follow lunar cycles. Even some secular cultures have had state-mandated rest days. From ancient times, we’ve understood the importance of taking a break. (Even if it’s done for some dubious religious reason.)
Psychological studies have demonstrated that our brains need downtime. Not only to recover from the stress of the constant distractions of work and media, but to harness the brain’s ability to do creative work. That’s right, there’s evidence to suggest our brains are productive while they’re resting:
Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.
There are many ways to achieve the kind of rest required. It can be as simple as going for a walk in the woods. Meditation works wonders, as do short naps. The new hotness is something called mindfulness. All of these are difficult — if not impossible — to do when you’re being bombarded by distractions from the digital sphere. Which is pretty much everything these days.
So my solution is to disconnect from the Internet. Friends and loved ones can still reach me by phone. I’ll allow myself to read a book (yes, even on my Kindle), watch a movie or play a game on my console. So I’m not totally free of the digital sphere, but I am free of the part that will interrupt me and distract me from my mental downtime. Some Saturdays, it’s difficult. That iPhone just sits there. I know its Twitter app is only a click away. The urge is usually strongest in the morning, and by the afternoon, I’ve adjusted to not communicating online. By the evening, I’ve forgotten that I need to. Often, it will not be until late on Sunday that I remember I have social media accounts that need maintaining, emails to read.
In other words, life slips in during my absence from the Net. I have conversations. I nap. I think. My mind is free to wander without the shackles of a digital feed.
Do I think everyone needs to do this? Not really. I’m sure there are many people who can resist the siren call of their devices without unplugging completely, but I’m also sure there are more who can’t. Those are the folks who may want to consider this, or something like it.
Is this all I do? Of course not. I also exercise, meditate, and drink red wine. (Usually in that order.) I also have a memo taped to my office wall, which helps me keep on track with writing:
What practices do you follow?