The Digital Sabbath: Finding balance online and offline

July 13, 2013

Photo by Timothy Akimoff
Maniniowali Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

The writer, comedian and most-connected-man-in-the-world, Baratunde Thurston, took a 25 day sabbatical from his digital existence a few months ago.

He documents it here, and in fact, the world did not come to an end.

I am no Baratunde Thurston. In fact, in the digital realm, in the media universe, I’m but a speck of spacedust to his quasar. I’m a digital editor, known to most in the newsrooms I’ve occupied as “the digital guy,” “web guy,” “tech guy” or “social media guru.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I hate the last title, so lets get something straight here right off the bat. A guru, while technically, by definition, a decent description of someone who teaches others, has become synonymous with the image of a long-bearded, white-haired old man atop a mountain dispensing deep spiritual wisdom to others.

The other definitions are that of a cult leader preying on the naivete of others or a snarky, know-it-all, self-promotional tech evangelist.

I am just a journalist who took an early interest in digital technology and the way in which it could be utilized to tell stories better and to distribute those stories to as many people as possible.

I’m on all the social networks, though I’m not active on all of them all of the time.

And I’m a manager of a web department at a large Chicago radio station, so I spend a lot of time on email, in meetings, using Google Docs and monitoring social media, among other duties. I do teach others how to improve their use of social media. I do teach people how to shoot and edit video on their phones and tablets, and I do try to model good social media use for others around me.

But a guru these do not make me.

I use a MacBook Air at work, because it makes web production twice as fast as on my PC. But I’m realistic enough to know that this is just my personal preference from having used Macs for a long, long time. My colleagues seem to do very well with their PCs. I have an iPad so I can edit, return emails or do research on my train commute to and from the Southwest suburbs of Chicago and from meetings.

The center of my digital universe is my iPhone. I also carry a Nexus 7 tablet with me for reading and making sure I’m up-to-date on Android’s mobile platform.

My workflow centers around email, which is probably the biggest time-suck in my day. I cannot afford to do a 25-day sabbatical from anything digital, so I recently instituted a very personal weekend email sabbath to help me achieve a better work/life balance.

I do not check my email from Saturday night until Monday morning. I’ve instructed those who depend on me to call me or text me in an emergency, at which point I can turn my attention to email if necessary.

These are my personal rules for email management:

  • I try to reply as soon as possible, if I’m able to. For these very quick responses, I often try to re-program my staff or colleagues to send me a message in Google Chat instead of using email.
  • I clean out my inbox every Friday. I cannot stand to have leftover emails in there from the week before. And I try never to let my in-box get over 100 emails deep before I delete unnecessary ones. This cuts down on my stress levels a lot.
  • I keep a miscellaneous file in Outlook to dump emails I want to hold on to, and then I go through and clean that out or redistribute those emails each month.
  • If I have to write a sternly worded email, of if I’m responding to something with emotional overtones, I try to stop and walk away from the email for an hour before re-reading it and then sending it.
  • Emails are a good indication of your professionalism. I try to remember this when I’m tempted to shorthand an answer or get something off quick without copy editing it.

On the Road: When Cold Turkey Doesn’t Cut it

I recently took a two-week vacation. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. My wife and I, along with our three kids, took a road trip to Oregon so I could teach at a writing workshop at a university in our home town of Salem, while they spent time with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmas and grandpas.

I mistakenly thought this would be a good opportunity to take a digital sabbatical. I took an old iPhone 4 and loaded it up with songs from Spotify, and I plugged my own phone into a suction cup on my windshield to use as a navigational device.

For the next 32 hours, I would be disconnected from my world. And it would be good. 

Just an hour down Interstate 80, I saw the first email notification come across featured on a small info bar at the top of my phone’s screen. Then came a Facebook notification and some retweets on Twitter.

I forgot to turn my notifications off.

I told myself I would go dark tomorrow, and at the first gas stop, I had my head angled down staring at my screen and furiously trying to reply to the questions from work, while my wife smiled that knowing smile she has reserved for when my promises go slightly astray.

I managed to turn off a few updates the next day, and my phone was quiet as it plotted the miles we would drive through Nebraska, Wyoming and to Utah, where we would spend the night.

But when I went to my phone’s browser to look for a good place for lunch in Cheyenne, I happened to notice the little red number above my Facebook app said 10.

This little red number is like crack. No matter how hard I try, I cannot ignore it. If it does not go away, I will remove that app from my home screen, which is why all my bill-paying apps are on the second screen of my phone.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the home of my in-laws, where there is no Wi-Fi, and where even getting a signal some days makes it impossible to refresh any social media that loads pictures, that I was finally able to unplug for a while.

Teaching at the workshop also helped me unplug.

The rest of the vacation became a concentrated effort to do something I’ve been trying to do for a long time.

When I met with people, I did not put my phone on the table in front of me, as I would in most work meetings. I turned it to silent, and I only looked at it if I received a text message, and then only after apologizing to the person I was talking to.

Because I did not take out my phone, I assume others did not take their phones out. When you announce to someone that this device takes precedence over them by putting it on the table in front of you with the screen up, they will often do the same thing. And soon you have invited your work and social lives into the conversation as well.

On the way home, I tried to be better about stopping to take pictures instead of trying to snap them through the sunroof of our car.

And I even left the phone dark instead of using the GPS features on our way home, because, well, I already knew the way, and who really wants to get home from vacation any faster, right?

The Kids Aren’t Alright: When Technology Replaces Game Night

Several years ago I was laid off from a newspaper in Montana and forced to look for work out of state. The problem was that our kids, unbeknownst to us, had put down roots in the little mountain berg of Missoula.

When it came time to tell them that dad got a job at a television station in Alaska, they nearly staged a revolt.

To ease the pain of separation, I bought them each an iPod Touch, and we weren’t on the road for two hours before I got a request to stop at a rest stop with Wi-Fi so they could Facetime their friends.

These little devices certainly helped them overcome their separation anxiety by providing a conduit to their friends as well as a source of entertainment for the driving and flying parts of our move.

But they also ushered in a new age for us where our kids became expert digital consumers. They were quickly sucked into the trap, requesting Facebook accounts and adding me on Twitter and Instagram.

Initially we used their new dependence on technology as a powerful behavioral modification tool. If they misbehaved, they were grounded from digital technology for a weekend and sometimes as long as a week.

In the past year I’ve realized that the behavior I model at home is what they view as acceptable. Never mind that my job requires me to be on Facebook and Twitter often.

But rather than just impose a smartphone-free zone in the house, I decided to try and take a strategic stab at managing it.

My kids are like a Buzzfeed for YouTube videos. They consume hours of YouTube every week, in fact it’s quickly replacing cartoons as the favorite form of entertainment on Saturday mornings.

Instead of banning YouTube in the house, we have co-opted it into our lives as the new family game night.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We like to set up the Apple TV, and each person lines up their favorite new funny videos, Ted Talks or music videos. This works alright until about the third Taylor Swift video on my daughter’s iPod Touch. But we’re working on finding balance there too.

We also like to play a game at the dinner table that requires the kids, as well as my wife and I, to attempt to answer questions without resorting to Google on our devices. This exercises our memories a little, and it stirs good conversation.

It’s when the kids go to bed that the real trouble starts. This time is often the only time in my day where I can go check in on my own Facebook friends or write up a personal blog post.

I haven’t achieved much balance in this part of my day yet, much to my wife’s chagrin.

But on Friday date nights, I’m learning to be in the moment more, so I’m trying to leave my phone in my pocket and jogging my memory to find great discussion items from the past week instead of playing show & tell with our phones.

But in a screen-dominated world, it might not always be your smartphone screen keeping you from engaging with others. In fact, I’m this close to asking to be seated in a different part of our favorite martini bar, away from the television screens blasting Chicago sports 24/7. Now that the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup, of course.

How do you balance your digital life?


is the Digital Content Editor at WBEZ. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons