Tech Sabbath is OK, but we really need Tech Discipline.

Yesterday I took a technology sabbath, roughly 24-hours sans most digital distraction; I left my cell phone at home for the day, I didn’t once turn on my laptop or check a tablet, and my only exposure to TV or music via electronics came while I was in public spaces. Sure, I did a lot of things that day that I probably wouldn’t have done if electronics were in my life: I napped, I sorted trading cards, I went on a really long walk to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. I sat on a park bench and read a graphic novel with no soundtrack other than the breeze and the nearby docks. I sat, undistracted, in a local bar for 45 minutes without the soft glow of Facebook or Gmail’s white light to keep me occupied.

Did I learn something from the experience? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Was it the rejuvenating, restorative shot I needed to remind me of the natural me clouded by technological interference?

Well, you can probably tell by my tone.

Search “technology sabbath” on Google and you’ll end up with a daisy chain of websites that swear up and down about how our connection with technology is ruining our ability to connect with each other, nature, God, our souls, our pets…swearing off the digital connection for a day a week is critical to finding our true selves. In fact, a comic featured on The Art of Manliness (which I can’t help but resent every time I read an article from them simply based on the assumption that there’s one way to be “manly” (which is an assumed positive, by the way)) implies that the 24 hours of technology sabbath are the only reprieve of enlightenment and spiritual awakening we can find during a week of labor with mundane, soul-destroying devices.

But the problem is that these opinions are portrayed as binary, mutually-exclusive experiences: either you can commune with God, or you can commune with technology. And, as Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Decisive, taught me (a book definitely on the Currently Non-Existent Official HTML Reading List), when you think a decision consists of two, mutually-exclusive options, you’re usually framing it the wrong way. In these situations, it’s best to start thinking about how you could technically obtain both ends: how can you receive both enlightenment and connectivity at the same time?

It was almost ironic that I brought my new copy of Chainmail Bikini with me on my long Tech Sabbath walk, an anthology of short comics written by women about the ways gaming influenced their lives. Many stories were about offline gaming: LARPs (live-action role playing) and tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons certainly commanded large portions of the book. Still, authors devoted an almost equal number of pages to video gaming: games like Pokemon and Sonic Adventure and Animal Crossing were tools of escapism as well as self-discovery as these women learned more about their gender identity, sexuality, and personalities through time spent with digital devices. These digital experiences were core to these women, possibly some of their most enlightening moments in their lives, and they wouldn’t have been possible without a bit of devotion through the digital divide. So how do I answer the Heath’s question, how do you receive enlightenment and connectivity at the same time? Stay uninterrupted.

Ellen and I talked today about our technology sabbaths today, and there was one point we definitely agreed on: it was lonely. For me, time I could have spent calling my parents or arranging to spend time with others in natural environments was instead spent idle or isolated. But with that isolation came an independence that I don’t frequently feel anymore, a presence in the here-and-now that is inherently refreshing. When I left for my walk in the afternoon, I didn’t intend to be out of the house for hours and walk 7 miles, but when I did, that whole trip was mine. No emails, no text messages, no Facebook posts or Tweets pulled me away from right where I was in the moment. And really, I’d venture that dialing into distractions, digital or otherwise, causes the disconnect we feel from the world.

Around six in the morning I checked my email and found out that the final episode of Life is Strange released today (the link is to my reviews for each episode on a different website). A cinematic, story-centric adventure game by Square Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment, the previous four episodes of the game have been some of the most gripping, entertaining, heartbreaking, engaging times I’ve spent playing a game. I knew that Episode 5 would be a dramatic conclusion to a storyline I’ve followed for over half a year, and I sprung out of bed to start the download. The first hour and a half of the episode were terrifying, heartwarming, sickening…altogether emotional, visceral.

Then the game slowed down for a second and I checked my cell phone.

It wasn’t for anything important, I don’t even think I had a new notification. It was just a dumb habit that I gave in to when a cinematic ran a few seconds longer than I thought it should have. Next thing I knew I was checking an email. I read a few lines, then reprimanded myself for the distraction. I put my phone down, but the damage was already done: some of the intensity I felt for the story was just gone, evaporated in to thin air. The rest of the game was great (I 100% recommend it to anyone, by the way), but somehow it lost a piece of its grip on me when I pulled out my phone. Technology provided me a deep, connective experience I’d been waiting all year for, and I let another piece of technology take me away from it.

Perhaps this will sound like a “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” debate to some, but I stand by the sentiment that there is no either/or solution to the issue at-hand: this isn’t a matter of technological prohibition or total immersion, but a matter of self-control and learning how to remain in the moment for whatever it is we’re doing, whether it’s in nature or on a computer with three screens. I find that I’m easily pulled from one task to another by a simple bell or chirp from a nearby device, resulting in me getting dragged between various tasks, all of which end up partially complete. Problem is that I have this same issue in reality: when talking to friends I’m not just distracted when my phone goes off, I instantly jump to the next person who calls my name to ask a question, a clattering noise in the distance, an interesting house we drive by on a road trip. When my attention moves to the next item, a piece of that original discussion is forever lost, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve somehow disrespected that first person. It’s not just that I left the conversation; it’s that a part of me was never there.

It’s easy to point to technology as the devil that “makes us do it,” yanking our attention from the world around us to whatever the shiny, new topic is. But technology isn’t the true culprit: it’s our inability to control the situations around us, and our unwillingness to say no to the stimuli that interrupt us. The great part of a “technology sabbath” is that reminds us of the focus we’re missing in life; our new ability as a society to “multi-task” (which is more an ability to “quickshift” between items; we’re usually not really performing any tasks simultaneously) comes at the expense of our ability to be truly present. But the “6 days of work/1 day of peace” metaphor seems to convey that there’s no way to get that peace during the other 6 days of the week, and I can’t help but disagree.

Spare some sort of global disaster, technology isn’t going away anytime soon (and I certainly wouldn’t want it to). But after taking that day away from technology, I realize how much I live on technology’s schedule instead of technology living on my schedule. The key to deeper interaction, to the peace and clarity we romanticize when we apply religious terms like “sabbath” to technological prohibition, is self-discipline and understanding, learning what impulses we can handle, which ones we can’t, and how we need to shape the world to fit our needs instead of the other way around. Here’s how to get started:

  • Schedule a technology sabbath of your own. Though I’ve spent a good amount of time talking about the harm of the technology sabbath mentality, having a set amount of time to go technologically-cold-turkey helps you to understand why finding the discipline is important: what parts of technology are actually beneficial and worth keeping, and what incidental impulses you want to remove from your everyday life.
  • Minimize your phone’s random distraction capabilities. When first setting it up, it’s easy to just plug in your email address, find a ringtone you like and move on, but this means the phone runs on its terms instead of yours. I’ll do a follow-up post on how to tweak your smartphone to minimize distraction and link it here when it’s complete.
  • Close your email. Whether you use Outlook, Thunderbird, or just keep Gmail/Yahoo open in a browser tab, every new email’s notification serves as another distraction from whatever you’ve decided to pay attention to. Set the expectation with those that need to know that you only check your email every X amount of time, and that they should call you only if there’s information they need an emergency response to.
  • Schedule important events, and hold to the schedule. A digital calendar is nice, but a paper calendar works wonders to create feelings of concrete commitments that require attention.
  • Learn to say no to the interrupter. This doesn’t mean that you should never have unstructured, free time, but when you’re at a party with friends, be with those friends. If you’re on a date, leave your phone on silent in a pocket or purse. If someone taps you on the shoulder or calls to you while you’re talking with a friend, tell that person you’ll come back to them in a bit instead of instantly shifting your attention. Interruptions will always happen, but you get to decide the effect they have on your life.
  • Don’t sleep near your phone. If the first thing you do in the morning is check your phone, it’s pretty easy to let that device own your day. Buy a real alarm clock, and leave your phone in a place where you have to work to get to it. You can also leave your phone in Airplane Mode until a designated time so that it functions as an alarm clock, but doesn’t bombard you with other people’s priorities first thing in the morning.
  • Know when you need to leave your tech behind. Your mind will panic when you first think of leaving your phone in the house/car, but it’s a crutch, a habit; leave it behind if it’s going to distract you from a task you need to focus on.

I’m glad that I did technology sabbath, but I don’t think it solves the problem most people are setting out to solve. Think about the last time a movie really, truly gripped you: were you tweeting throughout it? Did you leave for popcorn or snacks multiple times? Ever been with a friend and taken a selfie together? How do you feel while that friend is posting it on Instagram, trying to come up with the perfect description or just simply tweaking filters and hashtags?

Technology is just another part of our modern life, a beautiful and dangerous part filled with experiences and interruptions. The more we train ourselves to handle or avoid interruptions and distractions in our day, the more we can experience a “technology sabbath”-like peace more than once a week.

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2 thoughts on “Tech Sabbath is OK, but we really need Tech Discipline.

    • I checked out the transcript of the Gatsby podcast; they delivered some interesting information! I’m not sure I can sub it, though…maybe I’ll try another episode sometime and see where it takes me. 🙂

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