The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

My digital sabbath — Michael's essay

Michael Enright was becoming increasingly concerned that his addiction to screens was shrinking his attention span. So he disconnected for 24 hours. It was harder than he thought it would be. Here's an excerpt: "I walked. I went for a bicycle ride, read every newspaper in the house. Twice. I was beginning to fear I wouldn't make it to sundown."
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Back in early March, I wrote about something called Digital Detox.

Based on the idea that we North Americans are hopelessly, helplessly addicted to our screens, it set out a path to electronic rehab.

The addiction is epidemic. On buses, in taxis, in theatres and restaurants, on the subway, even in bathrooms, people are locked into staring at their tablets or smartphones.

From Apple to Android, smartphones are ubiquitous. Reuters photographer Stefan Wermuth spent time documenting Londoners' public yet intimate relationships with their phones. (Reuters)

Some nerd person has calculated that we spend about 22 days a year looking at screens.

From dawn's early light to the enveloping gloom, we are constantly checking our screens.

Some people are fighting the tide. Some are outfitting their daily life with something called a Shultz Hour.

Named after its inventor, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, the Shultz Hour means no phone calls or interruptions of any kind for one hour a week. Just an hour of silence, with perhaps a pen and pad nearby, should inspiration strike.

I've been worried about my own potential Jones with electronics. I have been increasingly concerned about my evaporating attention span; it was clearly getting shorter and shorter. I've been having trouble reading for more than 40 minutes at a time.

It reaffirmed my belief in French philosopher Blaise Pascal's argument that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." - Michael Enright

I needed to disconnect.

So I decided on a digital sabbath, picking a day on the weekend, sundown to sundown, with no digital or screen connections.

No Netflix, no email, no voicemail, no Fitbit, Facebook, Youtube, pads or pods.

The Friday night was not bad except for a terrible bout of painful music withdrawal. I settled in with a book.

Saturday morning was difficult. I do a daily Times crossword competition with two friends online. It was hard to pass up.

Late morning, I went to a Starbucks for a second cup of coffee and again I had no screens with which to pass the time.

I spent most of it watching a two-year-old running between tables, her mother's smartphone locked to her ear.

With seven or eight hours into the experiment, I began to get twitchy. What if there were a family emergency? How would anyone get in touch with me?

In this Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, photo, Brett Broviak, a manager of respiratory and sleep services at IU Health North Hospital, shows off his Fitbit fitness tracker for the camera on the hospital's campus in Carmel, Ind. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) (AJ Mast/Associated Press)

What about my exercise? Without the Fitbit strapped to my wrist, I couldn't tell if I walked 200 steps or 2,000.

I found myself reaching for the non-existent phone in my back pocket. It was almost like an autonomic reflex. There is a danger of checking email inadvertently.

I walked. I went for a bicycle ride, read every newspaper in the house. Twice.

I was beginning to fear I wouldn't make it to sundown. 

I was faltering when I read the story of Emma Morano of Verbania, Italy.

Ms. Morano died painlessly while sitting up in her favorite chair. She was 117 years old.

What struck me about the world's oldest person was the simplicity of her life. Two-room apartment, no electronics, no massive inventory of household goods. In other words, no stuff. 

Simplicity is an important element in disconnecting. Unplugging, even for a few hours, is a conscious attempt to simplify our lives temporarily.

Doing without sound or screen for 24 hours was not as difficult as I thought it would be. Time dragged a bit, but not uncomfortably.

I didn't come away a changed person by any means, but I did learn a tiny bit about the importance of disconnecting from the world.

It reaffirmed my belief in French philosopher Blaise Pascal's argument that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." I will do it again.

Finally, a household hint. If you are trying a digital sabbath, don't leave your iPad or smartphone lying around in plain sight; put them away.

Otherwise you become like a dieter, staring helplessly at a plate of Oreos.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. 

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