How Our Family Takes A Digital Sabbath

The power of disconnecting from distraction

For a few Sundays now, we’ve taken a Digital Sabbath. On the seventh day, we let the CPUs (and our minds) rest. We put down the devices and try to just be, as a family. Here’s how it goes.

First, We Cheat

First off, we cheat. While this is most decidedly not a religious thing (we call it Secular Sabbath), not using technology does have some Talmudic basis. Some Orthodox Jews won’t even turn on a light during Shabbath, on the grounds that this is ‘lighting a fire’. Some won’t even open a fridge. A true digital detox would be close to turning the router off and not touching anything at all, which is not what we do. We still:

  • let the kids watch Netflix
  • read eBooks
  • check recipes
  • listen to music

We do this on the grounds that these Internet activities are not distractions. These are all things that people used to do without Internet, but in the modern age they just happen to be online. The point is not that online activity is bad, but the constant distracting nature of it is. Hence while I call it a Digital Sabbath, it’s really a Distraction Sabbath. The point is not that devices are not what bedevils us, but that distraction is. Hence the router is still on and we still use some devices. Just not to distraction.

What We Don’t Do

What I don’t do is open my computer. Since I’m not working there’s literally nothing good that can happen there. I don’t use Twitter or read the news or refresh any of the endless tabs I’ll do on a normal day. I’ll use the TV or the smart speaker for the kids, but I won’t do any personal computing at all on that day.

The result is that, on a Sunday, if my wife wants to talk to me, I’m never in the middle of someone is wrong on the Internet. I can just be where I am. I can be quite rude when interrupted, even though it’s completely impossible to tell when I’m doing something vs. doing nothing on a computer. I’m working on that, but on Sundays it’s easy. I’m just not doing anything. I’m not online.

I suspect it’s like this for many couples. You’re on the phone too much! No, YOU’RE on the phone! The day is full of micro-irritations where you ask your spouse something and they’re not there. This can snowball into resentment. It’s somehow uniquely pissing off to be rejected for a phone.

On a Secular Sabbath we at least get one day where that doesn’t happen. Because it cannot happen. If we reach out to our spouse they’re always there, their brain hasn’t fallen through some digital wormhole into another world.

For the children it’s more like we’re entering their world than anything else. On a normal day their digital lives are entirely gated by us, on Secular Sabbath we also go behind the gate. On Secular Sabbath we practice what we preach.

For my wife this is important because this means a day where the kids never hear I’m busy or not now. They can get this even when we’re not working because our attention is constantly fractured into glass. And it’s really not fair, because they don’t get to have devices at all. On Secular Sabbath we’re at least equal, treated as the apes with poor impulse control that we are.

What We Do Do

I didn’t realize it, but the digital world introduces a lag into reality. If I talk to my wife she may actually be talking to someone else, so there’s a delay. If she talks to me, I may actually be on Twitter. Reality has become another app among many, and a voice is just another notification. And there’s no team of engineers optimizing the addictiveness of me. I’m just me.

When you take a Digital Sabbath it eliminates the competition. Reality is the only app you’re running. There are no other notifications. Just voices, and faces, and the people around you.

For that day we just sit and play with Legos, or talk, or read books. If someone is doing something it’s obvious that they’re doing something. Nobody is staring at things nobody else can see. If we want to talk to other people we go visit them (in a garden, sitting far apart), we don’t disappear into a screen.

Given that the kids are digitally deprived every day, we actually just end up being like them. We play. We read books aloud. We eat. We have playdates. When we have a moment we pick up a book. I finally finished some graphic novels I’ve had around for a year. It reminds me of when I was a child, combing through my parents’ bookshelf because there was simply nothing else to do.

The Result

I write this on a Monday, back on the computer. The first thing I found was that I was simply less inclined to check everything on the toilet first thing in the morning. I’m not strafing my eyeballs with Twitter to start the day. I can’t resist all day, but I resist a bit longer. During my daughter’s Zoom class I wasn’t in a hurry to do something else, I was able to pay more attention (like I keep telling her to do).

In that way, Sunday changes the week (or at least the next day). I don’t have to constantly beat myself up and feel bad, I just take a day off and that makes the other days easier. I still have the same habits, but they’re not daily habits, there’s a break. That makes a difference.

It’s just that we live in a world where people are paid lots of money to figure out how to make us use devices more, whereas no one’s ‘growth hacking’ life. There’s no engineers at the Parks Department trying to get you to sit on a bench and watch the ducks. The ducks aren’t gamifying their bread pecking for maximum returns, with hopes of a quick exit to Scrooge McDuck.

We live in a world of furiously optimized technology and hideously unoptimized us. We try to take back control through other apps, but these still keep us within the same ecosystem, a thumb away from distraction. Our only real power is putting the devices down. We have to just give it a rest.

That’s why I try all these things, getting rid of my smartphone, calling people, and now taking a Secular Sabbath off. Especially in this pandemic era, I find myself hitting refresh all the time, and feeling exhausted. Taking a Digital Sabbath is a chance to refresh our family. I certainly start the week feeling refreshed.

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