"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Technology
February 21, 2022

The First Digital Sabbatical Of 2022

I’ve spent the last week largely offline taking a digital sabbatical. Here’s what I did and why I did it.

Late last year, I wrote about how I was going to structure my time in 2022. One of the things I mentioned was taking regular digital sabbaticals. I wanted these sabbaticals to “force me to rethink my routines. To remind me that time is passing and it’s important to consider where it goes.”

The word “sabbath” comes from the Ancient Hebrew word shabát, which means “day of rest”. Our English pronunciation owes a bit to the progression of the word through Ancient Greek and Latin. From this, we get the root for the word “Saturday”.

This day of rest isn’t marked just by a lack of work but also includes reflection, retelling of important religious stories, like the escape from slavery, and the exodus, and looking to the future with hope.

But, increasingly, the word “sabbatical” is used to imply a kind of holiday. In the business world, so-called “sabbaticals” are used as a perk to discourage tired workers from joining the “great resignation.”

I’m aiming for something more like a one-in-seven ritual. It’s not a holiday. It’s a break from my dependence on the internet, and screens, and digital technology inside the normal routine of work and life.

The Idea Of A Digital Sabbatical

The concept of a digital sabbatical has been with us for a while. The earliest reference I’ve found is this hilariously dated piece from 2008. But the idea continued to gain traction before this New York Times article in 2010. Tiffany Shlain wrote an influential essay about digital sabbaticals in the Harvard Business Review back in 2013 called Tech’s Best Feature: The Off Switch.

The concept also has its skeptics, most notably Cal Newport, who wrote in 2015 that it papers over the challenge of digital addiction and exhaustion.

Still, digital sabbaticals remain popular. A cursory search reveals articles like It’s Time for a Digital Sabbatical, Enrich Your Life – Go on a Digital Sabbatical, and How My Digital Sabbatical Helped me to Revolutionise My Workflow.

I’ve tried digital sabbaticals in the past. But, to Newport’s point, they’ve often felt like a reaction to exhaustion and overwhelm. A last resort, if you like. I’ve never tried a planned sabbatical.

Compare the sabbatical with a holiday for a moment, and then imagine what life would be like if we took holidays only when we couldn’t cope anymore, if we waited until work and stress was drowning us before taking time off? Thankfully, we don’t wait that long. We plan our holidays and look forward to them. Why not do the same with sabbaticals?

And if a sabbatical is going to function as, you know, a sabbatical, then it has to happen again and again, as a recurring ritual with its own rhythm.

Creating A New Ritual

You may have noticed the last two years have been odd. My guess is it will take a while to understand how this experience has changed us.

I’ve been increasingly unhappy in recent months with how I move through the day. I get through everything I need to, but it feels like there’s a lot of friction. Mostly this comes from a habit, which has worsened in the last two years, of punctuating each transition in the day with some kind of digital candy, a Twitter check, a YouTube video, a game of digital solitaire… small and largely innocent acts that are a kind of self-medication for existential pain.

In particular, I was troubled by how I didn’t seem to have the usual appreciation for the passing of the seasons. The way I was using digital technology didn’t help.

So I spent the last week largely offline, taking a digital sabbatical.

My original goal was ambitious: no “social media, no blogposts, no YouTube, no streaming TV, no Zoom, no online courses, no non-urgent communications.”

What Happened On This Digital Sabbatical

I did manage most of that. I deleted the Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram apps from my devices. But I watched a bit of streaming TV, attended a writing workshop via Zoom, and did the same for my regular Pilates workouts.

The interruption was still palpable. Early in the week, I found myself seeking cheap dopamine hits anyway, surfing websites like Create Digital Music or Mac Rumors, which are full of little hits of dopamine delight.

Several times during the week, something would happen, like seeing a horse and buggy go down my street, and I would find myself composing a tweet or Instagram post in my head.

This is the challenge: taking things like social media away is largely meaningless if you don’t have something to replace them with.

Instead of tweeting about the horse and buggy, I wrote about it in my journal. Instead of picking up a device while waiting for the kettle to boil, I just watched the clouds pass by or the birds in the sky. Throughout the week, I enjoyed handwriting drafts and notes and future blogposts.

From one perspective, the sabbatical wasn’t as pure and radical as it could’ve been. Screens played a bigger role in the week than I’d hoped.

But from another perspective, the week did force me to reflect on how I use my devices and why I turn to them so often. It did see me asking some big questions about how I use social media.

The sabbatical prompted reflection – which is the whole point.

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