I’ve often wished there were a remote control for real life that let you fast forward through the unpleasant parts and pause on the good stuff. There’s not, but there is a practice that will put you back in control of your time. To explain, I need to hit rewind.
Ten years ago, everything in my life was blurring together. My phone never stopped buzzing. I felt distracted and rarely present. I knew I needed a way to slow it all down.
My family and I started going completely screen-free one day a week for what we called our Technology Shabbat. We read, journaled, cooked, had friends over, went for bike rides, played music, made art, and sometimes we just did nothing.
A decade later, we’re still doing it every week (our daughters are now 16 and 10), and it’s still our favorite day. It’s made the whole family happier and more balanced. My husband Ken and I also feel much more creative and more productive after our Tech Shabbats.
While real-life remotes don’t exist, this practice seems to have a similar effect. It makes days with tech feel fast, but lets you linger on the best parts of life on your screen-free day. What’s the one day you want to feel extra long? Your day off.
I urge you to give it a try, especially if you’re feeling like you’re on your phone too much. The rules are simple: each week, don’t use your phone or any other screens for 24 hours. (My family does it from Friday night to Saturday night, because we’re Jewish, but I should note we’re not religious; you can do it whenever works best for you.)
Here’s how to get started.
Planning for your first Tech Shabbat is a little like planning a day trip to the ’70s or ’80s. Fifty years ago, when people were predicting what life would look like in the future, they talked about space suits and teleportation. I doubt anyone imagined we’d be culturing our own pickles and making macrame wall hangings. But here we are, and I think this desire to return to analog items makes sense. When time is your greatest luxury, the things that take the most time—making things by hand—become more valuable. Tech Shabbat allows you to take a break and remember an era when spending time on things that take time was part of the pleasure.
Since your Tech Shabbat technology will date to the disco era, that means your phone is on the wall and stuck there. If you don’t have your landline anymore, it’s time to get it back. Besides being useful when you lose your cell phone—not to mention in other actual emergencies—a landline can be very handy on Tech Shabbat.
If people need to get in touch with you, if you want to call someone you miss, that’s your portal to do it. The landline is limited. It has one purpose and no dazzling distractions.
While you’re shopping in the past, get yourself a watch. Not an Apple Watch; just a watch. (Don’t go crazy on me and get a pocket watch. We’re not at the Renaissance Faire or the Steampunk Expo.)
One piece of modern machinery comes in handy as you prepare: a printer. Use it the day before your screen-free day to print out schedules, maps, and any other information you’ll need. You’ll also want to print a list of your most important phone numbers: family, best friends, doctors, special-occasion takeout, skunk removal services, etc. Keep this by your landline. I also keep a shorter version in my wallet and our kids’ backpacks, because it’s useful in a weekday emergency or when you drop your cell phone in the toilet in the airport on your way to another country. (Yes, that happened to me.)
You can also use your list when you are out and about on your screen-free day if you really need to contact someone. How do you do that? You find a 21st-century portable telephone booth—i.e., borrow someone else’s cell phone. These living, breathing telephone booths (people) are everywhere.
You may also want a big pad of paper and black Sharpie pens. It’s much more satisfying to write anything down with a Sharpie. This black Sharpie is for all the things you’d typically pick up your cell phone to deal with: write a to-do list, ask so-and-so about this, schedule that, etc. Your thoughts will circle around your head like a bee looking for a flower to land on. Let them land on the paper, little blossoms of thought. There it is, in deep black letters, waiting for you on Sunday.
If you want to listen to music, get a record player (or go lo-fi with a boom box) or verbal speaker where you don’t have to look at a screen.
Now let’s talk cameras. Humans have been compelled to document our lives since the days of cave paintings. It’s only natural that you’ll want pictures from your screen-free days, especially since that’s usually when the best moments happen. Trust me: I am a documentary filmmaker. I get it. I love to record my favorite moments and relive them.
But I have to tell you, there is something delicious about not being able to record something and just having to experience with your non-monetized eyeballs, with your very being. When I’m trying to document something to share on social media during the week, I find I suddenly lose 20 minutes thinking about how to best capture the moment, what filter to use, how to caption it just right. Tech Shabbat lets you let go of all that.
At the same time, pictures are pictures, and if you just have to take one, here are some options. If you have an actual camera, great. Even if it’s digital, that’s fine, as long as it’s not a phone and thus a portal to a whole other world of distractions. But if you can’t resist and you must take that picture and the only device nearby is a smartphone, here’s the way to do it: Put the phone on airplane mode, take that photo, and then put that thing away. Don’t spend time having everyone look at the photo, editing the photo, and God forbid, sharing that photo. Just put it away.
Now, I know what you are thinking: I have to buy things and install a landline? But let me ask you: How much are your sanity and sense of balance worth? New iPhones cost a thousand dollars. The shopping list below will run under $100 if you get all of those things, but you certainly don’t have to. Some you probably have, some you may not want, and you can always make substitutions.
Either way, don’t let acquiring them stop you from trying Tech Shabbat. Go ahead and unplug, whether you’ve got the analog gear or not. You can always buy stuff later, when you know what you actually need.
But if you like to shop, here’s your list: Installing landline: $15 to $20 a month Radio or record player, simple model: $40 Watch: $20 Sharpie pen: $2 (or splurge on a three-pack for $5)
Choose Your Day
We go screen-free from Friday night to Saturday night, because that works best for us, an updated version of the Jewish Shabbat. For others, it’s Sunday. Either way, I recommend doing it on the weekend if you can, because these are traditionally non-workdays, and it helps you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself when your screen-free time is on a rest day for people all over the world. But that’s not always possible, so pick the day that fits your schedule.
I highly recommend you unplug for a full 24 hours. I know there are many people and articles recommending “don’t look at your phone before bed,” “go for walks without it,” “don’t have it on the table when you are eating.” Yes to all of that, but you need the daylong break, too. Shabbat is a more-than-3,000-year-old practice for a reason: It works. After going screen-free weekly for nearly 10 years, I know that the big benefits come from doing it for the entire day, every week. Some things just take time. As my friend Alan asks, “Do you want bread, or do you want dough?” You want bread. So give it all the time it needs.
(Speaking of Dough)
It’s really satisfying to do things old-school once a week. Every Friday, we make an “everything” challah to enjoy at Shabbat dinner that night. This yummy sweet bread has a crust like an everything bagel. We mix and knead it in the morning and let it rise all day.
Making bread may not be your thing. (Although putting your hands in dough instead of on your phone feels pretty great.) You also might work long hours and not have time for a project you have to let rise during the day. That’s OK. The idea is to have something extra and unique, be it food you eat only on that day, flowers on the table, or wine you drink only for special occasions—something that enhances and marks the day.
The next important step in prepping for your Tech Shabbat: Tell your family. (If there are guilt trips for not being reachable every second, just give them your landline number. If you don’t have a landline, considering getting one. Besides Tech Shabbat, a landline is handy when you lose your cellphone and in actual emergencies.) Tell all your friends you’ll be offline by announcing it through the plethora of communication tools available to us now—via mouth, on the book of Face and the gram of Insta, and if you are on Twitter, tweet that @#%$ out. Trust me. It helps to hold you accountable, and your friends and family will support you. They may even want to join. (Writing my book 24/6 will hold me accountable for the rest of my life. I like that.) Tell your boss and coworkers. I highly recommend framing it as "I’ll be more productive, more creative, happier, and more efficient if I go offline for 24 hours."
Screen-free days are a great time to spend with friends, family, people who feel like family. We bond over food, and eating with others has demonstrated health benefits, like lower rates of depression. It’s also fun, which is why we always invite guests for our Shabbat dinner to start our screen-free day. We often invite new people we’d like to get to know better, since we’ll have time to talk without distractions. Surround yourself with people you admire, people who are there for you, who you are there for, people you can learn from.
A couple of times a year we do what we call our Chutzpah Shabbat. “Chutzpah” means “boldness,” so this one is all about inviting someone we barely know but deeply admire and find particularly interesting. It’s an exercise in bravery. Make a list of people who inspire you, you want to know better, or you relish spending time with. Start inviting them over. People love being invited over for dinner. I enjoy thinking about the idea, “The five people you hang out with most, you become.” It makes you want to choose wisely, and in a lot of ways, that’s what our screen-free time is all about.