Buried deep in the “someday” folder of my Todoist is the germ of a book I am nowhere near brave enough to write: “A Year Without Screens.” Picture it: 365 days in which you shun all smartphones, computers, and TV. It could be a nightmare, or it could be incredibly good for real-life relationships and create mad focused reading skills (for one thing, imagine only learning about Trump’s onslaught of outrages in a once-daily newspaper).
Is that digital-free life even possible in the 21st century? Without access to a remote Pacific island, probably not. When your profession involves reading and writing on the internet, certainly not. Okay, how about just 52 days a year without screens?
That’s the gist of another task I wrote down ages ago that still languishes in my someday folder: “Make Screenless Sundays a thing!” A totally, 100 percent screen-free Sunday is something my wife and I managed to do a grand total of once, around seven years ago. We made art on actual paper and went for a hike and read and ate without distraction, and it took fewer hours than expected to get over the “phantom limb” sensation of being phone-free.
Sunday seems the perfect day to go screenless. There’s none of the hustle and bustle of making plans with friends — usually requiring a device — that Friday night and Saturday usually bring. The onus is on resting and resetting. The work week hasn’t started, and staring at screens feels more wrong and sad than it does at other times of the week. You’ll be getting more than enough screens in your face come Monday morning.
So why does the very thought of trying another totally Screenless Sunday bring me out in hives? It can’t all be about the fact that I’d have to postpone my weekly dose of Succession by one day.
‘If life is a balancing act, this one day a week reminds me where the center of gravity is’
I pondered this question as I read 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, a book out this week by Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards. Shlain and her Jewish husband, both smartphone addicts, have spent the last decade practicing “Tech Shabbat” with their kids from sundown Friday through Saturday. Laptops are shut down, phones turned off all the way, directions for any Saturday excursions are printed out in advance.
Having cut the cord of a home landline, Shlain re-installed one in case of emergencies; instead of hopping around Spotify, the family rediscovered the joys of whole albums on vinyl. The big phone-free home-cooked dinner with friends on Friday is followed by relaxed Saturday-morning journaling.
“Living 24/6 isn’t just about unplugging for 24 hours,” Shlain writes. “After I began doing Tech Shabbat, I noticed I was using my devices in a different, more manageable way. I tempered my habit of turning to my phone at every possible moment. I stopped waking up with it and started my [regular week]day with my journal instead … if life is a balancing act, this one day a week reminds me where the center of gravity is.”
Turn off the news spigot
Which is undeniably healthy behavior in our always-on culture. But if you’re a screen addict like me, you’re probably marshaling arguments in defense of your habits right now. One of the biggest pro-screen points is the current state of the news. Really important stuff is happening at a rate of knots, even on weekends! In the age of Trump, the endgame of impeachment, with Brexit and climate catastrophe approaching their respective event horizons, is it not our job to bear witness as much as we can?
It is indeed, and that’s precisely why we need regular breaks. Impeachment is going to be a long haul, our longer-term crises more so. We cannot possibly take it all in or respond appropriately if we’re exhausted or jittery — a distracted, perpetually outraged state of being that has weakened many of us, and strengthened Trump, for more than two years.
Everything that Shlain and her husband say about the rejuvenating effects of Tech Shabbat (he got into it on a trip to Israel years ago, where he noticed how much more productive everyone was going into work on Sunday morning) goes double for the essential self-care of a screen-based news break.
Your family can more effectively process what the fuck just happened this week if you give your brains time and space to, well, process. Listening to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me may help; radio is perfect for restorative screenless days. Or if you start getting a Sunday newspaper delivered as your screen news methadone, you’ll be helping to fund reporting that is more essential – and under threat – than ever.
We don’t all have to take our break at the same time. In fact, it might help to be able to give your phone to a friend or significant other for the day, so they can let you know if there’s an urgent message and respond on your behalf (like a Tech Shabbat shabbos goy). Both of you might be surprised to learn just how few of your pings, buzzes, and notifications are truly important.
Some of us may be more inclined to Screenless Sundays; others may find their standing commitments mean a Tech Shabbat makes more sense. A few brave souls might attempt both, and good luck to them. Who knows what levels of focus a complete screen-free weekend could portend.
The Kindle exemption
The point is, we go at our own pace and we define our own rules. Flexibility helps, says Shlain. Other than the initial turning off of all devices, she doesn’t police her Tech Shabbat too hard. You can bring digital interfacing and TV worshipping way the hell down without being a fundamentalist about it. If Shlain’s family gets lost, for instance, one navigator turns on a phone for as long as it takes to get them on the right path again. No big deal.
Alas, Shlain doesn’t ask what would seem to be the obvious question to a tech-head: What about Kindles? Allow me to suggest a rule: E-ink Kindles on your day off are cool. They’re single-purpose devices with no LCD light, so if you have a riveting e-book you’re in the middle of, go for it. Kindle apps on other devices are not cool.
Similarly, drawing on an iPad sounds like it should count, but that would put you one extremely tempting swipe away from all the other apps. Grab some construction paper and markers and make art tactile again.
And who knows, maybe you’ll have so much fun in that kid-like screen-free state of mind, the concept of 365 screenless days might even seem close to feasible.