I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really.
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By MARK BITTMAN
Published: March 2, 2008
I TOOK a real day off this weekend: computers shut down, cellphone left in my work bag, land-line ringer off. I was fully disconnected for 24 hours.
The reason for this change was a natural and predictable back-breaking straw. Flying home from Europe a few months ago, I swiped a credit card through the slot of the in-seat phone, checked my e-mail and robbed myself of one of my two last sanctuaries.
At that point, the only other place I could escape was in my sleep. Yet I had developed the habit of leaving a laptop next to my bed so I could check my e-mail, last thing and first thing. I had learned how to turn my P.D.A. into a modem, the better to access the Web from my laptop when on a train. Of course I also used that P.D.A. in conventional ways, attending to it when it buzzed me.
In short, my name is Mark, and I’m a techno-addict. But after my airplane experience, I decided to do something about it. Thus began my “secular Sabbath” — a term I found floating around on blogs — a day a week where I would be free of screens, bells and beeps. An old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.
Like many, though, I wondered whether breaking my habit would be entirely beneficial. I worried about the colleagues, friends, daughters, parents and so on who relied on me, the people who knew that whether I was home or away I would get back to them, if not instantly then certainly before the end of the day. What if something important was happening, something that couldn’t wait 24 hours?
Or was I just one of those Americans who’ve developed the latest in American problems, Internet addiction disorder?
As a baby boomer, I knew mine was no unique thought; we’ve always been part of some trend or other. And sure enough, as soon as I started looking I found others who felt the need to turn off, to take a stab at reconnecting to things real rather than virtual, a moderate but carefully observed vacation from ubiquitous marketing and the awesome burden of staying in touch.
Nor is this surprising, said David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington. “What’s going on now is insane,” he said, assuring me that he used the term intentionally. “Living a good life requires a kind of balance, a bit of quiet. There are questions about the limits of the brain and the body, and there are parallels here to the environmental movement.” (Dr. Levy coined the term “information environmentalism.”)
“Who,” he then asked, “would say you don’t need time to think, to reflect, to be successful and productive?”
THIS movement to unplug appears to be gaining traction everywhere, from the blogosphere, where wired types like Ariel Meadow Stallings (http://electrolicious.com/unplugged) brag about turning off the screen one day a week (and how many books they’ve read so far this year), to the corporate world.
For example, Nathan Zeldes, a principal engineer at Intel (employees there read or send three million e-mail messages daily), is running a couple of experiments, one in which people spend a morning a week at work but offline, another in which people consciously reduce their e-mail output. Though he’s not reporting results, he’s encouraged and he says people are participating.
“Even many corporate leaders now believe you need time to hear the voice of the new inside,” said Anne Dilenschneider, a spirituality consultant in Montara, Calif., a coastal town 17 miles south of San Francisco. “And this time need not be a day, or even a specific period, activity or lack of one. It doesn’t necessarily mean a Zen sit, just some time of solitude.”
Even without a Zen sit (enough to scare me away from anything) or a phrase like “the voice of the new,” I found that the secular Sabbath was not all that easy to maintain. Something as simple as turning off the electronics is easy, but try to make a habit of it.
On my first weekend last fall, I eagerly shut it all down on Friday night, then went to bed to read. (I chose Saturday because my rules include no television, and I had to watch the Giants on Sunday). I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for the phone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realized that I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and, finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.
I managed. I read the whole paper, without hyperlinks. I tried to let myself do nothing, which led to a long, MP3-free walk, a nap and some more reading, an actual novel. I drank herb tea (caffeine was not helpful) and stared out the window. I tried to allow myself to be less purposeful, not to care what was piling up in my personal cyberspace, and not to think about how busy I was going to be the next morning. I cooked, then went to bed, and read some more.
GRADUALLY, over this and the next couple of weekends — one of which stretched from Friday night until Monday morning, like the old days — I adapted.
But recidivism quickly followed; there were important things to do —deadlines, urgent communications. You know how it is. I called Andrea Bauer, an executive and career development coach in San Carlos, Calif. She assured me that, oddly enough, it takes work to stop working. “It takes different formats for different people, and you have to build up to it; you can’t run five miles if you’ve never run at all.” Increasingly, I realized that there is more to the secular Sabbath than an impulse, or even a day off from e-mail. And there are reasons that nonsecular Sabbaths — the holy days of Christians, Jews and Muslims — have rules that require discipline. Even for the nonreligious, those rules were once imposed: You need not be elderly to remember when we had no choice but to reduce activity on Sundays; stores and offices — even restaurants — were closed, there were certainly no electronics, and we were largely occupied by ourselves or our families.
Now it’s up to us, and, as Dr. Levy says, there’s little encouragement. “One of the problems with needing to slow down is that within the climate of our primary culture it sounds wishy-washy,” he said.
But what’s wishy-washy about taking time off? It didn’t seem to me that I had to collect Social Security before I realized that a 70-hour week was nearly as productive as an 80-hour one, and if I couldn’t get it all done in either, it certainly wasn’t because I was taking too much time off.
I went back to nonwork, diligently following my rules to do less one day a week. The walks, naps and reading became routine, and all as enjoyable as they were before I had to force myself into doing them. It’s been more than six months, and while I’m hardly a new man — no one has yet called me mellow — this achievement is unlike any other in my life. And nothing bad has happened while I’ve been offline; the e-mail and phone messages, RSS feeds, are all there waiting for me when I return to them.
I would no more make a new-aged call to find inner peace than I would encourage a return to the mimeograph. But I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.