Eight Tips for Taming the Tech

This blog post originally appeared in summer 2012 on Jana Riess's blog, Flunking Sainthood:

Our family turned to sabbath practice when life with two careers and three children started feeling way too hectic and scheduled. Remember that scene in Modern Family where Claire and Phil are trying to find a small window of time in which to shoot their son Luke with a BB gun to teach him a lesson? "He's got a soccer game at 3:00, and then--Oh, we've got to leave for that dinner thing at 5:00. 4:15. We could shoot him at 4:15."

Our life was like that. (OK, maybe not exactly like that.)

Sabbath seemed like a good way to combat the busyness. We spent one day each week in rest and play, doing only those things that delighted us: playing games with the kids, hiking in the woods, baking, and in my husband's case, brewing beer.

At first, we didn't put many restrictions on our computer and cell phone use during sabbath. Facebook is fun, after all, and a great way to connect with loved ones near and far. But as our sabbath practice continued, we felt the online chatter pulling us away from being present. Sure, we weren't working, but our gadgets were leaving us feeling fragmented and distracted on a day of supposed restoration and joy. So we decided to unplug: during sabbath, we signed off from Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and other online communication.

At first, I was twitchy and anxious. But over time, the weekly tech sabbath got easier, even pleasurable. Now I breathe more deeply, think more expansively, and enjoy the day on a new level. (I'll be honest: I also cheat sometimes. It is what it is.)

Whether you're trying to claim sabbath or just get a better handle on your Internet use, it's helpful to have some tools at your disposal. Here are my best tips for taming the tech:

1. You will miss things. Accept it. There's no getting around it: while you're on tech sabbath, friends will announce their engagements on Facebook, and fans will pick apart the latest Game of Thrones on Twitter. Trust that the connection you feel with loved ones online will endure the 24 hours you're away from them. (Your mother was right: if they're really your friends, they'll understand.) Also trust that the truly important tidbits shared online will come to you in another way. Those newly engaged friends can pick up the phone, right? And if not, rest assured that you'll get a play-by-play of their wedding plans on Facebook anyway.

2. Don't play catch up. I don't recommend going back to read what you've missed. Those tweets and status updates were for a particular time and space--let them go. My analogy to online communication is the lazy river at the water park. Get in, ride the current for a little while, and then get out. Yes, there will still be people floating along, around and around, world without end. But you've got other things to do--or in the case of sabbath, not do.

3. Treat yourself like a toddler. Those of us with little ones know the value of a good distraction. "No more Thomas the Tank Engine videos, sweetie. Hey! How about these Legos?" When I start to feel like logging on, I challenge myself to look around and notice five things I hadn't seen before: the bird perched on my patio, the way my daughter's hair tumbles into her face when she's drawing. Sometimes that distraction is enough for the temptation to pass.

4. Change the scenery. Figure out where your digital "happy places" are and leave them. Shut the door to the office, turn off and stow the laptop, get outside. Find your triggers and eliminate them as much as possible.

5. Enlist the hive to help you. I heard about a woman who quit smoking by making a deal with a friend: if her friend ever caught her smoking, the woman would have to donate a substantial amount of money to the KKK. The possibility was so odious that she quit cold turkey and never touched a cigarette again.

The first time I took a weekend sabbath from Facebook, I announced it for the sake of accountability: I'm taking tomorrow off from tech stuff. If anyone catches me here, call me out, and I'll send you a batch of homemade cookies as penance. (A lot milder than a donation to the Klan, but it was enough to keep me away from the computer the next day.)

6. Lock yourself out. Every Friday evening I delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone. Not only does this make it harder to log in reflexively, but it's also become a ritual of disconnecting. It's easy enough to reinstall them when tech sabbath ends--another ritual, this time of reconnecting.

7. Or have a friend lock you out. For a true digital detox, have a friend of yours change your social media passwords so you won't even be tempted. Obviously you need to choose this person carefully, but I haven't been burned yet.

8. Replace the online rituals with new ones. My kids still do cute things on the sabbath that I wanted to record. And I still have random thoughts that came in 140-character bursts. Instead of sharing these with the world, I keep a "one sentence journal" instead--a paper notebook filled with short reflections and observations. Long after Twitter has been replaced by new social media technology, I'll have those journals--and the memories of pleasant days free from the drone of technology.