One Day Each Week Without Laptop, Phone, or TV? How a "Tech Sabbath" Can Heal Your Mind

A day of rest, it turns out, is still a good idea.

Photo by Mike Shaheen / Flickr.

Dan Rollman recently noticed a disturbing trend in his social interactions. “I was starting to get more birthday wishes on my Facebook wall than phone calls and handwritten cards from family and friends.”

This inspired him to create the Sabbath Manifesto, which encourages people to enjoy time with loved ones, silence, the outdoors, and other pleasures they may remember from the time before the Internet took over every free moment.

"I just want to spark some dialogue about the pace of life and our relationship with technology.”

And it’s not just Rollman. Across the country, Americans are starting to think about how a constant stream of electronic communication affects the quality of their lives. Many of them are consciously unplugging every once in a while, and encouraging others to do the same.

Sal Bednarz made headlines in San Francisco when he asked customers in his café to turn off their laptops for a day. Bednarz first opened the Actual Café in his North Oakland neighborhood to increase social interaction among neighbors, but he found that the Internet got in the way.

“When you walk into a cafe where there are 20 people and they are all on laptops and nobody is talking to each other, it creates a certain experience. Unless you experience a café environment where there are no laptops, you don't know what you are missing.”

The Actual Café is now laptop-free every weekend. Bednarz isn't anti-laptop per se: “I use laptops. Technology is an important tool. But we are human beings and we need actual interaction. That's where name of the cafe came from: actual interaction.”

On June 26, local businesses in San Francisco sponsored a Tech-Free Day, inviting participants to visit an unplugged café or attend a potluck picnic. Aubrey Harmon, a self-described “multitasking stay-at-home mom who also writes,” unplugged her TV, computer, and smart phone and went to the picnic—which banned technology but encouraged singing along with a band that played an acoustic set in honor of the occasion.

Harmon found that she was “more present at the picnic, not hiding behind a camera or phone,” and decided to make breaks from technology part of her family life: “I realized that it's good for my son to balance TV and technology with face-to-face and outdoor time.”

“Twitter and Facebook are how we communicate. We fully embrace that. We just want people to take a time out.”

Dan Rollman's Sabbath Manifesto offers 10 principles for observing such a weekly day of rest. He developed it in collaboration with Reboot, a nonprofit organization working to make traditional Jewish rituals relevant in modern life.

“You don't have to be religious or even be Jewish to participate in the Sabbath Manifesto,” says Amelia Klein, Reboot's program director. “I don't want to push people to follow the Sabbath Manifesto in a letter of the law manner,” says Rollman. “I just want to spark some dialogue about the pace of life and our societal relationship with technology.”

Reboot judges the success of the Sabbath Manifesto—without a hint of irony—by looking at their web statistics: 20,000 visitors to the site in the first month, 4,000 mentions on Twitter, 2,000 fans on Facebook. The Sabbath Manifesto website's community page hosts hundreds of joyful testimonials, not just from Jews but from Muslims, Catholics, atheists, and everyone in between.

Rollman sees no contradiction with using the Internet to promote the Sabbath Manifesto: “We aren't trying to be anti-technology. We are just asking questions about how we use it and the amount we use it. I have no qualms about using technology to promote an event that suggests turning off technology once a week.”

Klein concurs: “Twitter and Facebook are how we communicate. We fully embrace that. We just want people to take a time out.”

The Sabbath Manifesto—
10 Ways to Take a Day Off

1.    Avoid technology
2.    Connect with loved ones
3.    Nurture your health
4.    Get outside
5.    Avoid commerce
6.    Light candles
7.    Drink wine
8.    Eat bread
9.    Find silence
10.  Give back

Related events, like Tech-Free Day and the National Day of Unplugging, are resonating deeply across the United States. Sal Bednarz is thrilled that his café's laptop-free weekends are building actual community.

He remembers a neighborhood filmmaker who was working in his café during the week, but still being mindful of the unplugged philosophy: “She made a point of taking breaks and talking to people next to her. She came up to me afterward and thanked me because she had made two new friends, and five new business contacts.”

Many people report that a day away from a screen lets them reconnect with what really matters in their lives. Frank Bures, a Minneapolis-based travel writer who decided to make his Mondays internet-free, says: “It goes back to Thoreau and living deliberately instead of mindlessly. How do you want to spend your life? Staring at a screen and following link trails, or being in your own mind?” Bures believes that the ability to focus our attention on a single problem for a long time is endangered by the constant interruptions of electronic communications. To him, this is tragic: “Your attention is finite, and it is what defines your life. If you just give it away, your life adds up to nothing.”

Bures became so much more productive on Internet-free Mondays that he decided to extend the Internet ban to 3-4 hour chunks on other days as well—with a little help from technology. “I use the “Self Control” program," he says. "It shuts down your wireless, and there is no way to override it.”