Isn’t it time we turn off our devices and focus on what matters most in our lives? Leading up to the election, we were all on our screens more than normal, getting pinged and buzzed at every new development… and we tolerated this way of life, thinking when the election happened in November that it would get back to normal. But there has been. No. Relief. The bombardment of upsetting news alerts, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts comes even more furiously than before. According to a recent Nielsen study, the average time an American adult spends staring at a screen is 74 hours a week… and the majority of it is stressful. I have recently heard people saying that they have turned off their notifications so they can maintain sanity, knowing this period is a marathon not a sprint. I invite you all to try an experiment to take it all one step further: for one day a week, solo, or with your partner, best friend, or family, try turning it all off.
I’ve unplugged one day a week with my husband and two daughters for the past seven years for what we call our Technology Shabbats, and it has become a secret force field of protection to give me the strength, perspective, and energy for the other six days. When you do something every week for that long, it changes you in big and small ways.
I have to rewind a bit.
In 1997, I first met my partner in everything, Ken Goldberg, who practiced Shabbat. I found it profound when he, as a busy robotics professor, said, “I never work on Saturdays, it’s Shabbat. We need one day off.” That truth that he knew so deeply, was not only profound, it was sexy. Sexy to have deep wisdom guide you… and as a cultural Jew, I was intrigued.
Fast forward to 2005, we’re married, we’re parents, work and life blur together 7 days a week and the iPhone comes out. We now have this addictive, compelling device in our pockets ready for a hit of distraction, entertainment, or escape. I remember before we took the plunge going from our flip phones to iPhones, placing our two unopened cellophane wrapped white boxes on the kitchen table. I struggled to convey why I felt like opening them would be a detriment to our relationship. But of course, we opened the boxes and soon, we were mainlining data, text, emails, and calls like everyone else.
Now I should tell you, I also love technology. I founded The Webby Awards 20 years ago and I have always been one of the first people to try things out and experiment with different creative uses of it. I know the benefits of what technology can bring to our lives, businesses, connectedness. But as I see over and over again, connecting broadly is meaningless unless you also connect deeply.
In 2009, my father died and my daughter was born within days of each other. I thought a lot about life, death, the meaning of it all. It was all happening too fast and technology seemed to speed up time and interrupt the present moment in an assaulting way. An organization I am a part of, called Reboot, did a National Day of Unplugging, a 24-hour respite from technology. When they asked me to join them, I was ready.
So there I was, unmoored by losing one of my strongest connections, my father. I looked at the other people I loved deeply in my life and knew I had to do things differently if I wanted to live in a way I felt good about.
We were ready to bring some presence back. The day that we participated in the National Day of Unplugging was so good and clean and present, we decided to make it a weekly practice. A modern interpretation of a very old Jewish tradition.
Now people ask, “Is it hard?” At the beginning you do have the phantom limb sensation of reaching for your phone to look something up, call or etc. But I keep a piece of paper out with a big black Sharpie, and for the first couple of hours, I jot down whatever combination of to-do’s or reminders that tumble from my head. Then I feel set free.
People also say, “Oh my teenagers would never do it.” So if you want to say as a family you value being present, you do a family day together that values being present. Later, as you look back on your favorite moments where you were all really connected, you’ll see, that’s the day, the day the screens were off.
Some people say, “We have too many events on Saturday, what with soccer games etc. It will never work with my family.” My answer to that is print out a schedule on Friday afternoon. It’s amazing that we were able to do things prior to 2005.
“What if people need to get in touch with you in case of an emergency?” We have a landline for just that purpose.
The irony here is that one of the tenets of Judaism is to not proselytize. I am not even a religious Jew, but I love the traditions, and when I think there is a wisdom, or a practice that is life-changing, I must share it far and wide … especially in a world where we may actually evolve with bent necks since no one seems to look up anymore.
So I share this with you and invite you to try it out, like I did seven years ago. The 8th annual National Day of Unplugging is from sundown, Friday March 3rd — sundown, Saturday, March 4th. Here, take my hand. Life’s pretty stressful these days. Let’s try an experiment. Join me and take the pledge to unplug.