Reflections on the Digital Sabbath

What is the Digital Sabbath? The premise is simple: To go without digital media for a whole day as a form of rest. The challenge then, is to go without digital technology one day a week for three months. How did I do, and what did I learn? Perhaps this is something you might want to take advantage of in your own life.

Just a heads up — today's blog post does not contain any technical write-ups or explanations, nor does it really related to NodeBB in any way, shape, or form. Journey onwards if you want to read my incoherent ramblings about technology – or lack thereof.

Why?

Yesterday, I wrapped up the sixth digital sabbath, or "screen-free saturday" in a row. I've been conducting this experiment of sorts, to see whether measurable improvements to my day-to-day life could be gained, at a minimal cost to myself. To put it simply, a digital sabbath has been a net gain for me, with few downsides that require working around.

I had stumbled upon the website for the Digital Sabbath challenge years ago, but not paid it any attention. However, as my addiction to the internet grew, I often wondered whether it was adversely affecting both my personal and my professional life, and so I set out to see for myself.

While technically a millennial, I sometimes find myself with more in common with the Xennial micro-generation, the Oregon Trail generation, those with an analog childhood and a digital adulthood. Partially, this is due to my having only older siblings and relatives. What they were into at the time directly influenced what I was interested in as well. I remember my older brother fighting tooth-and-nail to get high speed internet (at a whopping 736kbps!) at our house, because 56k just wasn't doing it any longer. I remember feeling like I finally joined the information superhighway (boy, there's an old term) when our internet got upgaded to 3Mbps.

But enough reminescing about the Good Ol' Days. My point is that I remember what it was like to be without a smartphone, or to be digitally connected to the rest of the known universe. While younger cohorts couldn't physically imagine being without their phone, this was at least something achievable for me.

So, what was it like being a luddite?

To be honest? The digital sabbath made obvious my dependency on phones or digital entertainment.

✅ Realizing how much you consume digital media

I had gone into this experiment thinking that it would be easy to do, but I constantly caught myself about to use digital items! It was painfully obvious that this would be an eye-opening experience, when my first actions of the day were:

  1. Wake up
  2. Reach for my phone to check messages 🚨
  3. Prepare a bottle of milk for my son
  4. Turn on Netflix to watch something while he finishes his bottle 🚨

Before even brushing my teeth, I had consumed some form of digital media twice! For what it's worth, I didn't actually check my phone or watch Netflix, I merely caught myself before doing it.

✅ There are hours in the day that simply appear out of nowhere

I found myself with way, WAY more time to do other things. Just how much time did I spend on my phone, or watching TV?!

Without the distractions caused by digital media, I ended up being much more productive at my offline tasks, such as tidying up the house, catching up on reading, and creating content for the blog.

Prior to the first sabbath, I wasn't doing any offline reading, and my list of "to-read" was growing with no end in sight. I am looking forward to crossing some of those titles off that list!

You might've also noticed that I've been blogging (on this platform) much more often than before. Whereas prior, I would be lucky to come out with a post once every six months, I am now able to find the time to put pen to paper1, and I've gotten content out weekly since, and built up a backlog of content to post2. Amazing.

With digital distractions being what they are, I often had blog ideas that manifested themselves, but they were fleeting. They'd appear, and I'd dwell on it a short while, but the moment I got distracted by my phone, they went away for good, never to come back.

Since that first day, my wife has joined me in a screen-free Saturday, and we make weekly trips to the library3 to find new content to consume. Win-win!

❌ Social scheduling and coordination

Many of my social connections are maintained online, and being without makes it that much more difficult to coordinate events.

For example, I maintain a Discord server for climbers at my local gym. I also use WhatsApp and SMS to communicate with other friends who climb, and without access to any of these services (and without having made any preparations beforehand), I simply had to show up at the gym and hope for the best.

The workaround, of course, is to maintain some form of communication, which my case is a home phone line4. The second benefit here is that it has forced me to plan further in advance, instead of living in the moment and messaging "hey, anybody free to climb in half an hour?"

❌ Keeping screen free when nobody else is

It's quite hard to keep completely screen-free when you're surrounded by digital media in many forms. Televisions are everywhere (in restaurants, etc.), and moving images attract the eye. I often caught myself absentmindedly looking at a screen before I realized what I was doing!

I was also worried about my latent Reddit addiction. I'd always wanted to limit my usage, but ended up finding myself back on after some time. The appeal of fresh content was simply too much for my brain to resist.

Surprisingly, however, it was less of a problem than I had anticipated. When I was bored, I would look to my phone, and when on the phone, Reddit was my go-to for entertainment5. Without a phone in-hand, there was no draw to Reddit.

There's even a simple explanation for the above – which James Clear explains in his book, Atomic Habits: Changing your environment should be the first and most important step towards breaking a habit. Your environment contains all of the cues that trigger bad habits, and "willpower" is less about sheer force of will, but being smart about controlling and staying away from cues that trigger a particular habit. In my case, Boredom → Phone → Reddit was a clear environmental cue that I happened to suddenly excise out on that particular day. I didn't even feel a draw to use Reddit, it simply no longer existed for me.

Some other observations

  • It turns out having instant access to trivial factoids does not necessarily enrich my quality of life. It could no longer look up the answer to every question that popped into my head... and as it turned out, it didn't really matter!
  • I found myself needing my glasses less – I had used them mostly when viewing digital screens. With more time to pursue outdoor activities, glasses simply weren't needed6.
  • My hand strength is much weaker than it used to be in elementary/high school. Writing a single page of content was doable, but my writing was nearly illegible by the end!

In a world with COVID-19

As of this writing, many non-essential services in Ontario (and Canada) are basically on lockdown (e.g. gyms, restaurants). While the country itself has not declared a state of emergency, it all hinges on whether our social distancing efforts pay off.

Ironically, a digital sabbath actually complements some of these social distancing efforts. While many are turning inwards and consuming increasing amounts of digital media in an effort to keep entertained, voluntarily cutting yourself off from the inundating flow of coronavirus news can actually work to reduce your anxiety!

If you've made it this far, I encourage you to give the digital sabbath a try. I was initially sceptical about its efficacy at first, although it has paid off in spades in the weeks that followed. I find myself with more focus, more energy, and my weekend is actually mentally refreshing, in addition to being physically so.


1 Literally pen to paper, as I've also taken up bullet journalling. Perhaps that'll be the topic of another blog post...
2 Perhaps there's an argument to be made here about quality over quantity... we'll see what the blog posts end up being, eh?
3 Welp... that's no longer a viable activity. As of mid-March 2020, we're effectively in shutdown as we practice effective social distancing in our fight against the coronavirus.
4 Cost is the biggest factor against maintaining a home phone line. That, and that nobody calls it. I bought a $50 Cisco SPA112 and rent a phone number for $1/mo from VoIP.ms, so it's actually much more economical for me.
5 I mean, have you tried using you phone without wifi or a 3G/LTE signal? Booooring!!
6 YMMV, of course, if you're blind as a bat without your glasses, maybe don't start driving without them just because I told you to.
Cover Photo Polina Rytova on Unsplash