Screen-less Saturdays: In Praise of a Digital Sabbath

24 hours of being totally unplugged feels like a mini-vacation

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Photo by Gerrit Vermeulen on Unsplash

During this eternal sped-up slo-mo spring, I’ve been oscillating between feverish bursts of productivity and glassy-eyed inertia. I’ve managed (just about) to stay on top of deadlines, but with a media diet that has left precious little energy or inclination to tackle Worthwhile Things during the time that’s become available because both travel and travel writing (previously, a not insignificant portion of my output) have both evaporated.

Instead: feeling guilty. Guilty at how my novel-in-progress has foundered on the quicksands of digital distraction. Guilty that I’ve devoured hundreds of articles online, but haven’t been reading Crime and Punishment or Emma. Guilty that I haven’t yet started trying to learn Portuguese again (for the eighth time). Guilty at how my (admittedly sporadic) attempts at HIIT, press-ups and yoga have dwindled to nothing (though the lack of an electric mixer and food processor is doing wonderful things to my arms).

I didn’t need Poirot’s deductive powers to conclude that technology (or rather my relationship to it) has been making bumps bumpier. That the sheer volume and intensity of information barrelling into my eyeballs has been largely to blame for my scattershot attention and feeling, at times, exhausted, unproductive, angry, overwhelmed.

Even though I ditched social media a while ago, I’m no luddite. Technology has had a profound and in many ways positive impact on my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to be a freelance writer over the last seven years while travelling on five continents (melting ice-caps, please forgive my carbon-intensive sins). I wouldn’t have met my partner, and I wouldn’t get to connect with friends and family right now.

Nevertheless, I’ve been reminded (yet again) that when work and pleasure both involve staring at a screen for many hours at a time, then stepping off the dazzling Information Superhighway and spending time in the analogue undergrowth is vitally important. It might seem difficult or counterintuitive at first, but in making this a part of your daily or weekly ritual, you’re soon seduced by the almost transgressive thrill of temporary disconnection — and the cool, shadowed calm that typically ensues.

With this in mind, I recently began practising a “digital sabbath” on Saturdays — no phone, screens, internet. Instead, I make food, scribble in notebooks, daydream, nap, play boardgames (thrashing your other half at Scrabble is even more satisfying than steaming beets correctly, it turns out). Sometimes I whip out binoculars (a recent purchase) to indulge in a budding hobby — birdwatching.

The Financial Times cruelly refuses to deliver its sumptuous Weekend edition to the rural wilds of Northern California. Instead, I’m rediscovering the quiet, bordered joy of print with subscriptions to The New Yorker and Atlantic. Those exemplars of middlebrow American intellectualism aren’t exactly Austen or Dostoevsky, but for now, they’ll do.

When I return to the digital world on Sunday morning, it feels like I’ve had an invigorating mini-break. I’m trying to bring a little bit of that stillness into daily life. I play jazz while cooking instead of listening to podcasts. And, I’ve also unsubscribed from a whole bunch of daily email newsletters (which typically are the entry-way into exhilarating, compulsively fascinating — but ultimately exhausting and depressing — internet rabbit holes).

On evening neighbourhood walks, for example, the phone typically gets left at home. But even if it did come with me (and sometimes you do want to snap a photo of that gorgeous evening light), it wouldn’t be much of a distraction. This is because, inspired by the suggestions in Cal Newport’s wonderful book, Deep Work, I’ve tried, over the last two years, to ensure my phone is as boring as possible. That means:

  • No news apps or news notifications

Although there’s a way to go, I’m cautiously optimistic that the slow, upward crawl towards sanity has begun.

This is an edited version of a mini-essay I published on my monthly newsletter: a dispatch about culture, food, nature — and the other ingredients that form a meaningful life. Subscribe here.

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