My husband and I did an experiment several years ago that sounds simple, but changed our lives. It began like this: As we sat down for dinner on a Friday night, I lighted a candle, we each took a deep breath — and we turned our phones off.
Not airplane mode. Not “Do Not Disturb.” All the way off. For the next 24 hours, we observed what’s often called a digital Sabbath: We completely disconnected from screens, including phones, tablets and computers.
It was eye-opening. At first, we had to resist a constant urge to reach for our phones. But by the next morning, we were surprised to notice our attitudes beginning to shift — and our twitchiness beginning to fade. Without digital distractions, time seemed to slow down. Somehow, in just one day, we took a long walk, we read and we cooked a nice meal. I felt more grounded, as if I were getting back in touch with a part of myself I hadn’t realized was missing.
When the time came to turn our phones back on, we did so somewhat reluctantly — and felt much less compelled to check them. What’s more, the effects of the Sabbath lingered for days, like a hangover that felt good.
When I told other people about our experience, they were intrigued, but also scared — which is understandable given how integral our mobile connectivity has become to our lives. The trick, I’ve realized, is to prepare.
This Friday-Saturday is the National Day of Unplugging, an event organized by Reboot, a nonprofit that creates new ways for people to observe traditions such as a Sabbath day. In honor of the occasion — and to encourage you to participate — here are my suggestions for how to make the experience easier and more rewarding.
Set your rules. Are you just taking a break from your phone? Or are you avoiding any internet-enabled devices with screens, including tablets, smartwatches, laptops and desktop computers. (I recommend the latter.)
Warn people. Tell your parents, friends, roommates, boss or anyone else who’s likely to try to contact you that you will be unplugged. This helps you prepare and holds you accountable.
Get others on board. Ideally, everyone in your household should participate. Recruit a friend or post on social media what you’ll be doing and invite others to join you.
Make plans. Schedule enjoyable activities in advance. Make a coffee date with a friend. Put a book you’ve been meaning to read on your coffee table. Print out a recipe you want to try. Dust off a musical instrument. If your whole family is observing a digital Sabbath, pull out a board game or plan a hike.
Set up autoreplies. The fear of missing a text message keeps many of us tethered to our phones. The solution is a text message auto-responder, saying you’ll reply the next day. Do the same thing for your email. Possibly change your voicemail, too.
Use call forwarding. Go ahead and send your smartphone calls to your landline, if you have one. My philosophy is that I’m taking a break from screens, not from other human beings. So I put no restriction on landline calls — they represent live contact with people.
Get it in writing. Write down phone numbers of people you might want to call. Also, if you’ll be navigating someplace new, print or write out the directions. You can always ask for directions from a real person.
Keep a list. Pull out a pad of paper and use it to take note of things you want to do, buy or look up when your 24-hour break is over. You may well find that by the time you turn your phone back on, you no longer care.
Still freaked out by the idea of phonelessness? While writing a book on how we can create healthier relationships with our phones, I asked 150 volunteers to try their own digital Sabbaths — then asked them afterward if they would recommend the experience. The consensus? Definitely. “It’s an amazing feeling,” wrote one person. “I really expected there would be a pull toward my phone, but there wasn’t,” wrote another. “It was freeing. I was liberated.”
So go ahead — go dark for a day. If you can’t take it for more than two hours — or two minutes — you can always turn your phone back on. But you might be surprised by how empowering it can be to power down.