Rules for a successful Digital Sabbath

Digital Sabbath, detox, sabbatical— whatever you call it, there are ways you can make it more rewarding


In my book The Distraction Addiction, I spend a chapter talking about on the digital Sabbath, the practice of taking regular offline breaks from your digital life. One of the challenges when writing about technology is that your subject ages rapidly, and practices that were new when you wrote about them may be old hat by the time your book hits the shelves. I expected the digital Sabbath (or detox, or whatever term you prefer) to be a curiosity that would rapidly become mainstream, even a little boring. But that hasn’t happened. While there are more people who sing the praises of technology breaks, the reaction to Jessica Valenti’s short piece in the Guardian on her “digital staycation” (deleting the social media apps on her smartphone), continuing arguments about the pointlessness of digital detoxes, and claims that the whole thing has become commoditized, show that it’s still oddly contentious.

One of the arguments against digital detoxes is that they just don’t work: putting away your smartphone for a weekend won’t do you any good in the long term. And that’s right. But in my interviews with people who take regular digital Sabbaths, I noticed that, while every practice is unique, they also shared a few common principles. As with all contemplative computing, people observe how their entanglements with technologies work, think about how those relationships can be improved, and then find practices that fit their lives and extend and restore their minds.

So what do these people do? I found they all follow these rules.

Set a regular time. Sabbaths should follow a regular, practical schedule. Weekend days are often best. Unless you’re a farmer or construction worker, it’s hard to unplug during the regular workweek. Schedule either a full twelve hours, from when you wake up until you go to bed, or a twenty-four-hour period.

Figure out what to turn off. Do this ahead of time. Technical rules— e.g., anything with a screen, anything with a keyboard — are the easiest to set and follow; just don’t go overboard (the display on the coffee-maker doesn’t count as a screen). Dedicated Sabbatarians also follow behavioral rules; they may have some devices they stay away from but others they consider acceptable (e.g., single-player video games are out, but games you play with others are okay; e-mail and social media are verboten, but streaming movies are all right; the iPad you use at the office stays in the drawer, but the Kindle can come out).

Don’t talk about digital Sabbaths. It’s not quite as bad as Fight Club (“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club”), but until the habit becomes more common, don’t feel the need to advertise. It can be very helpful to coordinate it with friends or do it with another family (the kids will have more fun complaining together), but unless you want to have to explain to people that you’re really not becoming an antisocial Luddite, you might be happier preserving the Sabbath peace by not broadcasting it.

Fill the time with engaging activities. The digital Sabbath should be active; it shouldn’t be just a chance to catch up on laundry and pay bills. Do something you don’t normally do, something challenging, engaging, and aggressively analog. Get out in the world (I’ll leave the decision about the GPS up to you); cook something complicated; teach the kids how to fly-fish; find that hip eight-hundred-page novel you started last month and start marching through it. (Of course, if doing laundry and paying bills are psychically rewarding for you, then by all means; you have my blessing.)

Be patient. Like all contemplative activities, digital Sabbath requires some effort; it takes time for you to get into the spirit of the thing and lose that shaky need to check your BlackBerry. You won’t see dramatic benefits overnight; you might not see them in a month. Give yourself at least twelve weeks. Think of it this way: In a normal year, you might check your phone 12,376 times; I’m asking you to try checking your phone only 11,968 times this year, and then reevaluate. Rather than 720 hours online this year, see how 696 hours works for you. And you spend eleven days a year waiting for your computer to perform various tasks. Maybe spending twelve days having it wait for you will feel better.

Be open to the spiritual qualities of the Sabbath. For many of us, this is a bit of a challenge. But stepping away from the normal frantic whirl of work and the Web offers you a real chance to reflect on how life ought to be lived, or at least for you to concentrate more intently on its good parts. Take it. And don’t worry about discovering that you actually want to give it all up, move off the grid, and raise goats. That doesn’t really happen.

Enjoy your escape from “real time.” Abraham Heschel’s idea of Sabbath time being cut from a different piece of space-time fabric feels more relevant, and more welcome, than ever. The digital Sabbath is a chance to escape the “tyranny of things,” particularly the tyranny of things that chirp, vibrate, tweet, and plead for your attention, all the while promising you it’ll be worth it. It’s a chance to escape the unreality of real time and rediscover how to live at your own pace. It’ll be worth it.