Are we all secretly proud of our capacity to multitask – conversing, texting and walking (or worse, driving!) – all while listening to music? Captivated by the limitless potential of e-connectivity, we convince ourselves that we can effectively juggle multiple media.

Too bad that psychologists have burst our technological bubble – sharing the ugly truth that we’re not as capable in hyperdrive mode as we’d like to think. Multi-tasking, it turns out, is a misnomer: we can’t manage disparate mental functions simultaneously. We can only shift quickly among them.

The longer we dwell in a hyper-distracted mode, the more difficult it becomes to concentrate – even when we consciously try. Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass suggests that focus may be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition: If we don’t routinely concentrate fully on certain tasks, that mental capacity could erode. Our brains, Nass observes, are “plastic but not elastic.”

Subjecting our brains to chronic distractions takes a toll on our work productivity and our health – elevating stress levels, and potentially diminishing both creativity and sound sleep.

The more devices “connect” us, ironically, the more distant we grow from those around us. “Media put us close to people who are far away,” one participant in a Mexican study observed, “but they separate us from the ones who are nearby.” Charlene deGuzman’s poignant film, “I Forgot My Phone,” depicts how frequently now people are more captivated with their screens than with their companions, and more interested in recording the moment than experiencing it.

To help real life take precedence for a day, groups around the country have organized a National Day of Unplugging from sundown March 6 to sundown March 7. First launched five years ago by the Jewish group Reboot, this event is now promoted by many organizations and businesses that see value in helping “hyper-connected people of all backgrounds embrace the ancient ritual of a day of rest.”


The idea of a screen-free day sounded particularly appealing to me after reading MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s humorous and insightful book “Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.” Dana, a pastor with three young children, carved out a Sabbath time each week for a year to spend on rejuvenating activities – park outings, art projects and companionable cooking endeavors. These wholesome and spacious hours proved transformative.

But the downtime wasn’t all bliss and enlightenment. Which is precisely what I found during a recent 24-hour tech sabbath. I’m not tethered to a smartphone, and I’ve been unplugged periodically for days at a time – during power outages and in remote, off-grid settings. So I was surprised at how hard it was to turn away from the all-you-can-eat media buffet. The initial withdrawal period was uncomfortable – not unlike going off habit-forming substances like sugar and caffeine.

Technological toggling has become an ingrained habit. Deprived of the chance to open my inbox or check weather (a routine that has slid perilously close to a compulsion in this storm-filled winter), I succumbed to what Dana terms “twitchiness.” Clearly, I’ve gotten used to getting information instantaneously.

Part of what lies behind our reflexive checking of technological devices is a gnawing social anxiety – what psychologists label a “fear of missing out.” This angst surfaces most among smartphone users immersed in social media. Many people now check for “status updates” upwards of 100 times a day. Nearly two-thirds of cellphone owners in a Pew Research Center study reported checking their phones even when there were no indications of calls or messages. Nearly half of them kept phones by their bedsides in case texts came in during the night.

Over the course of my unplugged day, the initial restlessness and anxiety wore off, replaced by a welcome sense of inner quiet. Time outdoors helped effect that change. By the end of the screen-free day, I was in no rush to check email or surf the Web. I was content to join our dog, sprawled out before the woodstove, taking lessons from him in the simple joy of being.

When I did get back online, I was struck by how little there was of interest. The fear of missing out, it would seem, far exceeds the reality.

Having gone tech-free for a day, it’s easier to imagine powering down the computer every evening – resisting the impulse to answer work emails at 10 p.m. I’ve already adjusted email settings so that messages no longer pop up randomly, fragmenting my focus.

Temporarily unplugging helps temper the technological takeover of our lives. It gives us space and time to remember that true living takes shape in three dimensions.


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