(September 24, 2019 / JNS) Growing up, my family never did Shabbat. While I loved the link to my Jewish ancestors, the questioning, the humor and the food, many religious elements of Judaism (the patriarchal stories, structure and temple experience) turned me off. When I met my husband, Ken, in 1997, he told me he didn’t work on Saturdays because “It’s Shabbat.” Most of my life, the only people I heard took a full day off for Shabbat were Orthodox Jews or other observant Jews that were way more religious than me. I loved how clear he was about this boundary. He had lived in Israel during graduate school and came to look at it as a form of self-defense.
Then in 2007, the smartphone came along, and that device seemed to infiltrate every moment of the day and night. Suddenly, work and leisure were all blurred together, and it was hard to be truly present. It came to a head in May 2009 during a 10-day period when my father died, and Ken’s and my daughter was born. I felt like life was grabbing me by the shoulders and saying “Focus on what’s important.”
Something had to change.
Fortunately, it did. In 2010, the Jewish organization that I am a part of, called Reboot, invited my husband and me to participate in the first National Day of Unplugging, going completely screen-free from Friday night to Saturday night. It clicked. This was what Shabbat meant to me—a day freed from the relentless interruptions of the phone and laptop.
That first screen-free day felt so good that my family and I decided to keep doing it every week, and nearly a decade later, we still are. It’s the favorite day of the week for us and for our two daughters, now ages 10 and 16. We call it our “Technology Shabbat,” and it has improved my life in nearly every way. I’m happier and healthier. I sleep better. My relationships are better. My creativity and productivity increased. Each week, it is a ritual I rush towards. It seems to slow down time, letting me truly enjoy the things that matter. Then, on Saturday night, I re-appreciate the marvels of technology and being so connected all over again. Every week, a full day off from screens gives me a true reset.
I wanted to share what we’d learned doing this practice, so I did. I wrote a book about it: 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (published this week by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books) interweaves the story of how it has completely transformed our lives with a deep dive into the neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, history and benefits of both having technology and having a day of rest—turning the screens off, one day a week.
Throughout the book, I also explore the bigger picture of the past, present and future of technology and humanity. I offer ways to bring this practice of unplugging into your own life (and get your partner, children, friends and boss on board, too) and share how what you give up is far less than what you get back: connection, focus, productivity, creativity, reflection, happiness and balance.
I want to share an updated version of Shabbat that has been life-changing for me and my family. We are living with the results of everyone being distracted, available 24/7, and the problems this has created for our society, our children, our communities, our democracy and ourselves are only growing. 24/6 is not a detox. It’s a way of co-existing in a more healthy way with technology, and it draws upon centuries of wisdom of Shabbat backed by the latest research, made accessible to everyone, as a way forward.
The same week the book is published, I’m inviting people around the world to join me in trying “Tech Shabbat” for themselves.
For the past five years, every fall, my nonprofit, Let It Ripple, has hosted “Character Day.” This is a global day of in-person and online events devoted to considering the importance of character strengths and all the latest research on how to make them stronger—qualities like empathy, perspective, courage, honesty. Millions of people around the world participate. For our sixth annual “Character Day 2019” on Sept. 27, we’ll be examining the impact that screens have on character strengths like empathy, perspective, gratitude and curiosity, asking when they make us better people—and when they don’t.
The day will end with a global invitation to unplug on a weekly basis and features five all-new two-minute films; a global live stream featuring interviews with rabbis, scientists, authors, artists and other experts; and hands-on discussion kits and materials to encourage exploration and application.
I hope it will help more people reconsider their tech use and find a way to break weekly from it, especially those, like me, who don’t have a traditional Jewish practice.
Thousands of years ago, when the ancient Hebrews began observing Shabbat, it changed the world. Now, with the digital revolution at hand, it’s time to change it again. “Tech Shabbat” offers a path, giving us a weekly break and making us more mindful of our use the other six days. I hope you’ll join me this Sept. 27 and see for yourself.
Tiffany Shlain is founder of the Webby Awards; an Emmy-nominated filmmaker whose films include “The Tribe and Making of a Mensch;” and author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. She invites everyone to check out CharacterDay.org. Follow her at: @tiffanyshlain.
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