‘Technology Sabbath’ Offers One Day to Unplug

    by Mark Glaser
    June 5, 2008

    i-5262b0ebf080ab69731d625e250947ab-Gone Fishin.jpg

    Lately, I’ve been experimenting with taking one day each week away from work completely. You might think this would be an easy task as there’s a “weekend” each week that allegedly offers up two full days of rest. And yet, as I work at home, the shiny big screen of the iMac beckons at all hours, and I am often in front of its white glow the first thing every morning and the last thing at night.

    So, being that I am Jewish — though not very religious — I decided to shut down the computer each Friday night at sunset until Saturday at sunset, the traditional time of the Jewish Sabbath. I make exceptions when I need to get directions or check for a personal email. I still use my cell phone but try to limit it to personal calls only. While this day of technological rest can be a difficult routine, it has allowed me to stretch my time, spend more hours outside and be with people more in face-to-face settings.


    And I’m not alone. The concept of a “Technology Sabbath” is becoming more widespread, both in religious circles and among bloggers and media people who are overwhelmed with the always-on nature of the broadband Internet and smartphones. And that overwhelming feeling is exacerbated by instant messaging, social networking and services such as Twitter, that allow us to do more informal communications electronically rather than in person.

    Back in 2001, students at the Christian liberal arts school Seattle Pacific University took a week-long Technology Sabbath and only used technology for classwork. The Seattle Times reported that students started talking more in person rather than relying on frequent emails, played dodgeball instead of video games, and met in a “live chat room.” Could it be? “Chat” from mouths and a “room” with real walls?

    As I started taking my own Sabbaths each Saturday, blogger/author Ariel Meadow Stallings was starting a public version of something similar called 52 Nights Unplugged (with its own blog, naturally), in which she planned to unplug from the Internet, DVDs and cell phone every Tuesday night for a year. According to her rules, Stallings allows herself to use a digital camera, iPod and receive phone calls.


    After a New York Times article on taking “secular Sabbaths” mentioned her project, Stallings became a media sensation overnight, appearing on “The Today Show,” “ABC World News,” and in a story on CNN.com. Stallings has been amazed by the international interest in her project.

    “The response from the mainstream media has genuinely shocked me,” Stallings told me via email. “I knew this was an issue amongst my fellow geeks (one person even calls it ‘Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder’), but it wasn’t until the media inquiries started rolling in that I realized this was a national issue and then an international issue. The story’s been picked up in the UK, Italy, Australia, Columbia…clearly, it’s not just a geek issue or even just an American issue.”

    Stallings even set up a custom Ning social network for people who want to unplug regularly, and quickly got more than 300 people to join it from around the world. Perhaps it’s good to be plugged in so you can learn more about unplugging.

    Going Further

    Those with a religious bent have an easier time finding a moral basis for their Technology Sabbath. There’s the passage from the Bible, from Exodus, that’s part of the Ten Commandments: “For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” For a Technology Sabbath, there’s a lot to disconnect: No work, no computer, no Internet, no phone, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Flickr, no FriendFeed, no text messages.

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    Joe Carter

    Joe Carter has mixed his love for technology and evangelical Christianity for years, as a blogger at Evangelical Outpost and web communications director for the Family Research Council. He just took a new job as managing editor for Liberty Wire, an online magazine that will launch in August. Carter wrote an eloquent story about becoming enthralled with technology and needing to take an Info-Techno Sabbath:

    Am I the only one that has sung a hymn about spending eternity worshipping God and secretly believed that heaven must be an incredible bore? (No e-mail? No blogs? No YouTube?)

    Carter was inspired by Kevin Miller’s book, Surviving Information Overload, to start taking one day off each week from technology, the media and the Internet. He tries to go from sundown-to-sundown (just like the Jewish Sabbath), and tells others to choose the 24-hour period that works best for them. And Carter tries not to be too strict about the rules.

    “Because my problem is the information overload, rather than the technology itself, I turn off every device that works to force-feed me non-essential info,” Carter told me via email. “Some tools, particularly my computer and iPhone, are significant distractors so they are avoided completely. But others, such as TV and radio, can be used for other purposes. While I avoid NPR and cable news on my ‘Sabbath’ I have no qualms about listening to music in my car or watching a video with my family.”

    I undertand the pull of a Sabbath for a religious person, but what about secular people who are media junkies — or who work in the media field? Isn’t it our jobs to be totally connected at all times just in case Microsoft drops its bid for Yahoo on a Saturday night?

    “Those of us who work in media and technology (my job overlaps both) often make excuses for why we can’t disconnect from our devices,” Carter said. “But I suspect that we don’t have any more need to be tethered to our technology than any other types of business people or knowledge workers. The truth is that we don’t want to be disconnected, though we desperately need the break.”

    One person I found through a Twitter query was Paul Wiggins, an assistant editor and web producer for Fairfax Community Newspapers in Sydney, Australia. Wiggins, 48, told me he goes completely without computers and his smartphone from the close of business Friday until Monday morning’s commute.

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    Paul Wiggins at work

    “During the six and a half weeks of annual leave time, the office cannot contact me,” he told me via email. “Getting away from computers helps folks to engage with their communities, which is what we are supposed to be all about…My house is in a wireless blackspot and I’d need to get wiring done to get broadband access.”

    But Wiggins is far from being a Luddite, as you can see from this picture of him at work doing online editing. The difference between Wiggins and the rest of us overwired folks is that too much of our lives take place online, making it more difficult to disconnect.

    Slowing Down the European Way

    Not surprisingly, the idea of disconnecting is more ingrained in culture in Europe, where people have more work holidays than in the U.S. MediaShift associate editor Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, who recently moved to Barcelona, told me that most of her work colleagues in Spain and Europe had never heard of taking tech holidays because it’s a given that they wouldn’t do work when away from their offices.

    “Most people I asked about tech holidays said something along the lines of ‘Spain isn’t like the U.S; people know how to disconnect,’” she said. “In other words, they don’t have to take a tech holiday because they shut all of that down and relax after work. One executive doesn’t carry a Blackberry and says his friends and colleagues don’t either. While he still checks email even when on ‘regular’ holidays, he only does it once a day and at a certain time of day, to ensure that it doesn’t cut into his personal time with family and friends. The exception of course would be early adopters like bloggers and people who are on social networks, who are definitely not the majority here.”

    When Maderazo put out a call on Twitter for more connected types, she found that people were already trying to disconnect at least one day per week — if not more. Noelle Sadler, an American who works at an ad agency in Barcelona, told Maderazo she is especially good at disconnecting when out of town.

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    Noelle Sadler

    “I [unplug] as often as I can,” she said. “Leave the phone, laptop, etc., at home and disconnect. Even my watch sometimes. Very relaxing. Usually just go on a tech strike because I’m out of town…a luxury. I should try it here at home in Barcelona sometime!”

    Internet entrepreneur Jose Luis Antunez has a more hectic work life, and hasn’t taken an official vacation since 2001. Rather than take a real Technology Sabbath, he simply switches devices when everyone is on holiday.

    “The concept of ‘tech holidays’ doesn’t officially exist in Spain,” he said. “What happens is that those of us who are always blogging, Twittering, etc., just go off the PC and laptop during the summer (like the rest of Spain) but we continue to use the cell phone for those things.”

    But beyond just taking a vacation or one-day Sabbath from technology and the Internet, perhaps we need to consider our obsessive use of technology at all times of day (and night). I wonder whether I need more strict guidelines about when my work day actually ends and when time off begins. I would be scared to actually add up the time each day that I do work vs. the time I am relaxing away from the computer.

    Ariel Meadow Stallings, for one, has decided to do more than just her weekly night unplugged.

    “I’m definitely working to integrate what I’m learning from unplugged night into the other six nights a week,” she told me. “The biggest issues for me are mindfulness about the passing of time, and intention about what I’m doing at any given moment.”

    What do you think about Technology Sabbaths and unplugging from work on a regular basis? If you live in another part of the world, what is your cultural norm for taking time away from work and technology? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Fishing photo by Javier Garcia; photo of Ariel Meadow Stallings by Ariel; photo of Paul Wiggins at workstation by Paul Wiggins, all via Flickr.

    Tagged: modern life relaxation social networking
    • global yokel

      Many of us can’t stand to be away from the Internet because we fear that something interesting or significant will occur and we’ll be a step behind. I’m a junkie for the latest political news, and for some odd reason I don’t want someone else to have to inform me of what’s going on- I want to be the guy who is right on top of it and e-mailing my contacts with the scoop. It’s sick, and I appreciate you turning me on to the concept of a Tech Sabbath. I notice that after too many hours tethered to the web, I lose touch with my body and the physical world, and I feel lousy, and kind of guilty.

    • You may be interested in an article I wrote for the Forward called “Shabbat in The Age of Technology” about Danna Walkers experiment with a “technology fast” with her Understanding Mass Media class at American University. The article is accessible here.

    • Great article. I’m a freelance writer covering tech and business, I have a blog and I have 3 kids for whom I do a ton of volunteer work, much of it computer-based. I hadn’t consciously decided to take a tech break every week, but after reading this I realized that in the past two to three months, I’ve sought out the solace of hiking in the woods almost every weekend as an antidote to the amount of time I spend in front of a screen. Luckily I live in Portland, OR, and the woodsy trails of Forest Park are less than 10 minutes away. There’s something incredibly regenerating about not only unplugging for a while, but being in a place that’s the antithesis of the plugged in world. It’s like a tonic, and only takes an hour or two.

      Michelle V. Rafter

    • Very interesting…and I can relate. I’m almost dizzy in anticipation of getting back into techno-space, but am also refreshed after having been far, far away for a few days (make that a few weeks) during which I quickly skimmed e-mail and tapped out a few each day, but otherwise took a deep, replenishing techno-break.

      It included such experiences as helping my aging father visit his long-gone relatives’ final resting places (he told me after we’d been that he thought he’d never have a chance to do that again) and helping our soon-to-be raised son visit colleges to which he may apply when it is his turn, soon, for that.

      It was hard to get away and be away, but in the end, the focus on in-person time won, hands down, for reasons I’ll never regret.

    • I had to come back again after checking out your bio – now I know why your name sounded so familiar – we were writing for the Industry Standard at the same time, although I don’t think we ever met in person. Great column.

      Michelle V. Rafter

    • Demi

      Hi, Nice post! I have been taking Technology Sabbaths (but *drive* to shul :) for about three years now. It took me about 6 weeks to get used to it and stop obsessing every time i walked past my laptop at home — but it has definitely been worth it.

    • When I first starting Blogging a few years ago I took always took a sabbath from blogging and turning on my computer. Since I too am Jewish Saturday was the best day. Then I took a break from blogging for a little over a year. During that year I started a new job, I now have a really cool blackberry for work, plus I have discovered Facebook. I now find myself always needing to be connected online. Thank you for your post I will now attempt to go back to my one day of rest away from my computer.

    • Chuck Strawn

      As the person who coordinated the Tech Sabbath at SPU, it’s humbling to know that people are still impacted by it, and are still seeking ways to make peace in these modern times.


    • I work with the internet and whole-heartedly believe in tech sabbaticals. I practice them as much as possible. I try to stop checking my email and social media after 6pm and, try to stay away as much as possible on weekends – although with an iPhone (whether I read books via the Kindle app), this is certainly not an easy task.

      On vacation, I resist the temptation by not bringing my iPhone with me and looking the other way when I see an internet cafe.

      It is essential to disengage. Feeling as though you are missing something is an understandable sensation since information is now released 24/7, but you gain something by allowing yourself some moments of quiet and disengagement. Taking time to really be present is critical – otherwise, by constantly being somewhere else (checking in online) you miss life by trying not to miss life…

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