We all spend a good part of our lives surrounded by screens. And there's no denying that they're pretty great — even occasionally indistinguishable from magic, to borrow from Arthur C. Clarke. But every once in a while, it's nice to be reminded to step away from them, too.
Even though I'm a journalist who loves technology, I've been looking for ways to unplug more. And that's the idea behind the National Day of Unplugging, an annual event that starts at sundown on the first Friday of March and lasts until sundown on Saturday.
The day is organized by a group called Reboot, which is dedicated to affirming Jewish rituals. According to the group's website, the idea grows out of its larger Sabbath Manifesto movement, a push to revive the idea of taking the seventh day of every week to rest, reset and reflect. One of the principles of the Sabbath Manifesto is to avoid technology, which the group says can be interpreted broadly as anything from not sending text messages to refraining from using anything mechanical. You certainly don't have to be Jewish to join the movement, nor do you have to be too strict with yourself. Per the group:
The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living.
But you don't need an official day to unplug. And Reboot is far from the only group that has advocated for all of us to just put our darn phones down. Several restaurants have tried to limit diners' use of phones in their restaurants — some to foster conversation, others just to stop people from taking pictures of their meals. Recently a Chick-fil-A franchise owner even started offering free ice cream to families who agree to have a meal while storing their phones in a "Coop."
Of course, for some people, the problem goes far beyond wanting to sneak a peek at Instagram during dinner. Addiction to technology can be devastating, particularly for young people, who may run to the Internet to avoid dealing with stress and coping with emotions, said Hilarie Cash, a psychologist and mental-health counselor. Cash co-founded ReStart, which focuses on technology addiction treatment, and supports Reboot's efforts.
Obviously, not everyone who uses technology is an addict. But Cash did say that unplugging regularly from an always-on world is necessary for anyone who wants a healthy relationship with their tech.
And there are some ways to go about it.
"The first step is to take a break so the brain comes back to normal functioning," Cash said. Secondly, it's important to have a plan for how to properly balance tech use in your life, she added.
Balance is definitely a goal I had in mind for myself, once I realized that I was dreading every ding or buzz of my smartphones. (Yes, smartphones. Plural.) I'm obviously a fan of technology, but even I was reaching my limits. At some point, I realized that my relationship with my inbox and social-media accounts was not healthy. Given what I do, it's not uncommon for strangers to call me a moron — or far, far worse — at 1:30 in the morning by email, tweet or Facebook message. And I decided I really didn't want to deal with that in real time anymore.
The main thing I've done to get some space from my screen has been to keep my phones out of my bedroom. That probably doesn't sound that revolutionary to some people, but it's been a game-changer for me. I can still hear the phone ring in case of an emergency. But I don't check my email or get on my social-media accounts from bed. I even bought an alarm clock — a real one! — to remove another reason why I would take my phone to bed and to give myself some space from my phone in the first moments after I wake up. (I'm not alone in doing this.)
I've also made it a hobby of sorts to find technology that can help me unplug. The irony of this hair-of-the-dog approach hasn't escaped me, but I've found a few things that work well. Setting up times to send your phone automatically into "do not disturb" mode removes the temptation to check in on the office when you're trying to get to sleep. Timer apps, such as 30/30 or even the basic one on your phone, can help you budget time to focus on tasks and give yourself permission to put your phone down. One app I found called Forest actually turns not using your phone into a game: You set a certain amount of time to ignore your phone. If you succeed, the app plants a digital tree in a plot. If you fail, the tree dies.
Reboot made an app to start your digital day off right. The iOS app, called Friday, gives you a conversation prompt and some short essays a half-hour before sundown each Friday — for example, the best way to deal with a crisis, or the benefits of idleness — to make sure you go into your tech-free hours armed with some things to think about.
Even for those who don't think they have a serious addiction, Cash still thinks that setting up a full day out of every week to unplug is a worthy goal. "It will give your brain time to reset," she said. Besides, if you find you really can't do it, that might be a little red flag for you to note. Using technology is great; not being able stop is another thing altogether.