A 24-Hour Challenge

In 2008, shortly after we moved from Los Angeles to Denver with our two-year old son, I adopted a weekly ritual in honor of the Jewish sabbath: to shut down my computer for twenty-four hours. This was before the era of smartphones and before I was pouring my energy into my online business daily, but even back then it was a weekly challenge to rip myself from the seductive distraction of the computer and literally shut it down. Now, with my increasing business demands and feeling chained to a second computer (my phone), it’s even more challenging to divest myself of the opportunity to check, scroll, write, text, and search but, with the exception of a few Saturdays a year when I start a new round of a course, I shut down from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. And, without fail, every time I shut down I feel a weight release from my soul, as if my inner Self knows that it’s being given a chance to come out from under the rock of technology and sing its own song.

When I’m working with a client who is having trouble connecting with his or her inner Self, one of the first suggestions I make is to take a phone fast. Can you shut down your technology for a 24 hours period each week? My clients will inevitably hem and haw and make all kinds of excuses for why that would be impossible: What if someone needs to reach me? (Get a landline and let me people know ahead of time that you’re shutting down your phone.) What if I need directions? (Use a map. A what? Or ask an actual person; see video below). What if someone makes a big announcement on social media? (You’ll survive learning about it the next day.) What if…? What if…? What if…? It’s astonishing to me how compelling – aka addictive – these devices can be. And it’s astonishing how quickly they’ve taken over our lives. In just a few short years we’ve gone from a world populated by people who knew how to use maps and send actual letters, a world where people considered “talking” the actual act of talking (as opposed to texting), and a world where time and space moved a bit more slowly, to a world completely and utterly dependent on phones.

I can’t tell how many times a week my clients tell me about the time they waste staring at their phones. Whether it’s social media, becoming sucked into a wild goose chase of click-and-bait, texting, or binging on Netflix, minutes easily turn to hours when we lose ourselves inside our phones. What are we looking for inside these tiny, and admittedly miraculous, devices? In a word, we’re looking for meaning. (I was going to write we’re looking for God but I know that would off-putting to many people; the search for meaning is really the same thing). We’re looking for something that will fill us up, a moment of connection, a thrill, a sense of adventure, an escape from the stream of uncomfortable feelings that pipe up through our souls like the notes of a water flute. We’re looking for an antidote to the disconnection and emptiness that pervade modern life. It’s profoundly ironic that in this age of global connectivity, when we can communicate with a friend on the other side of the world within seconds, we’re more disconnected than ever.

Hours lost. Time wasted. Falling into the cultural mindset that our well-being is anywhere other than inside of the miraculous computers of our own minds and the tender, full-bodied terrain of our own hearts with a soul inside waiting for expression.

What paintings might you create if you gave yourself twenty-four hours a week to create them? What poems might alight on the sill of your soul if you opened the windows long enough for them to enter? What dances might surprise you in your kitchen when, instead of checking your phone while making dinner, you put on music and let your body move? What conversations would you have with real people? How much more present might you feel with your partner, your friends, your children, yourself? Or perhaps you’ll join my son and I for one of our favorite nightly summer shows: the starry sky. No wi-fi necessary.

It’s not only creativity that is awaiting expression, it’s also the labyrinthian worlds of your emotional life. Most of us were raised in a culture that told us that crying is weak and so we learned to soldier on and “be strong”. We also learned to push away any uncomfortable feeling. When we make the choice to separate from the phone, we have to be willing to feel what arises in the empty spaces, the spaces that we obsessively fill with the phone. We have to be willing to feel boredom, loneliness, grief, frustration, disappointment, longing. Many times when we reach for our phones we’re pushing away the fundamental sadness, boredom and loneliness of being human.

Louis C.K. nails it with this video. I’m sorry if some of it is offensive to you; try to listen to the underlying message, where he describes what happens when we resist the urge to reach for the phone and instead allow ourselves to feel our sadness directly.

Most media is soul candy: an overly saturated, sensationalized, multi-sensory overload that desensitizes our ability to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of real, every life. Just like eating donuts daily desensitizes our tastebuds rendering them incapable of appreciating the sweetness and simplicity of an apple, so mainstream media desensitizes our psyches so that they cease to appreciate the sometimes boring, quiet, lonely reality of regular life. When we train our minds to need the overstimulation of a virtual world – where every moment of your favorite show is jam-packed with high-interest storylines and ends with a cliffhanger so that you’ll watch the next episode (and the next and the next and the next…) – what happens to your ability to sit and watch the rain falling outside your window or the bees collecting pollen in the flowers in your yard?

Just like we can retrain our bodies to appreciate and ultimately crave natural, whole, unprocessed foods, so we can retrain our minds to crave real life in real time. Let me be clear that I love many aspects of technology just as much as the next person and know that it can be used toward profoundly creative, innovative, and mind-expansive ends. This isn’t about restricting media altogether any more then it’s about eliminating ice cream forever. Rather, it’s about finding a balance and noticing how we use media to avoid the uncomfortable aspects of being human. Like everything, our intention determines the result: are we using screens to avoid, anesthetize and distract or to nourish, create and inform?

It’s not screens or sugar or money or food or any of our other temptations that are the problem. These potential vices are placed here as part of our human journey of growth and consciousness and offer us daily opportunities to help us hone, access, and test one of our most fundamental gifts: free will. We choose how we spend our time. We choose what we feed our minds and our bodies. And without temptation, we would have nothing to push up against.

What I’ve found personally is that if my phone is within arm’s reach I’ll grab it in a moment of boredom or loneliness, but if it’s turned off or far away I’ll meet the empty moment directly and invariably find that something much richer occurs than would have happened if I had turned to my phone. It’s heartening to me to know that our capacity for interiority isn’t completely lost; it’s just hidden behind the compulsion to avoid ourselves which our phones make so easy. It’s a lot easier to avoid cookies if you don’t keep them in the house ?.

So I pose a challenge for you, my readers: turn off all of your devices for twenty-four hours and come back to tell us about it. What did you notice? Was it easy or hard? What did you feel? What memories arose? What creative expressions emerged? I’d love to know.

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On the topic of the addictive nature of screens, if you ever text and drive, please watch this documentary. It’s very painful to watch, and hopefully it will prevent you from ever texting and driving again:

 

35 comments to A 24-Hour Challenge

  • ann

    wow this speaks to me so much. I love your comments as well as Louis CKs about feeling alone, empty, sad or bored. One those feelings occur to me I always immediately grab my computer or phone. I feel its like alcohol in a way, it doesn’t solve the problem rather numbs it temporarily. What we need to do is feel the pain and emptiness. What louis CK spoke of when he cried on the side of the road really spoke to me – I remember hearing a quote once that feelings were like a wave, we get a wave of sadness and let out a big cry (like a wave crashing down) it lets in room for happiness (the wave receding) But if we suppress those lonely sad feelings, we dont really feel happy — we end up not feeling anything at all.

  • ann

    I also remember a quote about social media that spoke to me, “social media brings you closer to those who are far away, but at the same time brings you farther away from people that you are closest to”

  • Frances

    What an absolutely wonderful – much needed – post. My partner and I just came on holiday with my family and we both decided not to bring our laptops after he got really upset one night over how ‘brain-dead’ he felt due to too much laptop time. Today I coloured in a fun 70s themed colouring book and read quite a bit of a new book. He’s sat next to me right now, furiously scribbling creative ideas into a notebook. It’s lovely. I loved Louis CK’s comments and felt very moved by how articulate, yet relatable his way of explaining was. Interesting also how everyone found his delivery so funny, yet the underlying message was so meaningful and insightful and important.

    On a slight side-note…I am learning how to be an Intuitive Eater and trying to reverse disordered eating habits, which, at this stage, means eating precisely what I want in order to make peace with food. This includes a lot of sugar and fat (I’m fighting with not feeling bad about this). Gentle nutrition does come in, but very much later, once restrictive and self-abusive eating patterns and ‘rules’ have been abandoned fully. I often feel guilty about this as I know that you believe the physical realm to be the place to look, first and foremost, when it comes to anxiety. I’m in agreement with you here, but I also need to address my negativity and anxiety around food/weight/body image. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on this (Intuitive Eating, disordered eating, health at every size, ‘diet-mentality’ etc.)? I guess a part of me is looking for the Sheryl ‘green light’ haha…

    Gorgeous post, thank you. X

    • I love the Intuitive Eating model, but mostly I love that it’s working for you. Trusting yourself is much more important than getting a green light from anyone else ;). x

  • Jackie

    Shabbat shalom! Ive been keeping shabbat for a few years now. Shabbat is a blessing and a gift!

  • Jackie

    I really like that analogy – processed candy; fruit as technology life/time/entertainment; real life. It’s true. Although I keep shabbat, when it’s not shabbat is it challenging at times not to make myself busy with the phone

  • Ashley

    You said everything I think about all the time Sheryl! I went away with my husband on a babymoon and kept my phone off except for a few pictures I took and keeping it for emergencies. I came back feeling so refreshed and feeling less anxious. I wished my husband could have done the same! This post inspired me to make a more conscious weekly effort. Thank you!

  • Britney

    Incredibly thoughtful and well rounded post not just about how disconnected we can all become through technology, but also how connected we as humans will always be. How valuable it is to be in touch with ourselves and others. The woman who lost her father forgave and befriended the man who killed her father while texting and driving. For me, that really heightened the sadness and despair aspect, but also illustrated how incredibly powerful the human connection is…. how we take this for granted.

  • olivia

    Last year i followed Your trust yourself course. The month off facebook was so good then, it lasted 3 months then!
    Facebook takes way to room in my life (and let me feeling sad, unsecure and down most of the time). Your article gave me the motivation to pause again 🙂 So since yesterday both facebook/messenger and instagram are off. It felt and feels reeeeally good!
    Thank you for challenging us With such compassion and lovely words.

  • Sarah

    Beautiful post. Thank you. My husband and I try and do a weekly fast, we call it techno shabbat, it is not 24 hours but starts in the evening until the following morning. It opens up space for reading stories together, listening to music properly, playing a boardgame. It makes room for joy and boredom alike. I also try and make an effort to leave my phone at home regularly, when I go grocery shopping or go to yoga. And I echo what some others have said on here: I got rid of Instagram a month or so ago, and after an initial jonesing, it feels freeing. It feels so good not to spend minutes or hours scrolling through other people’s lives, checking in for new posts at random times during the day. Blessings to all 🙂

    • Exactly! From what I hear (I’ve never joined), Instagram is one of the worst because it sets you up to feel like your life isn’t real unless it’s being photographed and seen. And yes, leaving the phone at home is so liberating.

  • J

    I don’t know of any empirical research into the matter, but I am absolutely convinced that the internet, and Google in particular, exacerbates OCD symptoms to a massive extent. One of my battles is the constant urge to seek ever more esoteric information. I end up totally disengaged from the actual world around me, including my partner. This is a helpful post, thanks.

  • Angela

    I love this blog so much, Louis C K, is a smart guy, who dosent like smart phones lol for kids. These mobile phones are necessary but not 24/7. For me its like my best friend not because im texting all the time, but because its an only means of communicating with you Sheryl and that for me is an important distraction, as this blog reminds me of feeling sad, angry, frustrated, happy, excited. I enjoy my quietness and i say hi to my feelings, how am i feeling right now.. say helo to myself is important and vital for me now more than ever, before i met you Sheryl. I love healing on a daily basis. I know its a lifetime commitment because I am worth it. My relationship with my husband is worth it.

  • Angela

    Im up for the challenge of disconnecting from my phone, lets see how i go.,, good luck all xx

  • B

    I love this SO much and am kind of amazed at the synchronicity of events this weekend. Yesterday before reading this I removed all social media apps from my phone for this reason, I reach for them too much and want to feel the boredom when I need to. We are missing so much going on in front of us by being attached to these devices. Not only that, it leads to comparison and spirals me into doubt and anxiety more often than I’d like it to. Ten thumbs up for referencing Louis CK. One of my favorite comics. Auld Lang Syne is my car crying song ?

  • Kerrie

    I cant access the video for some reason. It just shows a black box. Has anyone else had a problem?? 🙁

  • Anna

    I just finished the 24 hour phone fast. It was interesting! I thought I’d be restless about missing messages etc but I wasn’t. I did notice that because I am studying for my final exams, I’m quite anxious and I would automatically pick up my phone to sistract me. Now I couldn’t run from the nervousness and I just had to accept it.

    • YES! This is exactly what it means to sit with those moments of discomfort until they pass. When we re-wire those micro-moments we start to create new and healthier habits. Good work.

      • Anna

        Yes, that’s what it felt like! I think I’ll practice with this regularly now.
        Thank you for the good advice in this post!

  • Sheryl, you always seem to have this gift of publishing almost exactly what I’ve been thinking at the time!

    When I was in the pit of anxiety and desperately reaching for natural remedies, my social media addiction was one of the things I decided to change. I didn’t delete them, but moved Facebook and Instagram to the last “pages” on my iPhone, so I wouldn’t see when I had notifications and wouldn’t be tempted to open the app. I limited myself to going on once per day, and though it was hard as first, it definitely helped with my anxiety! This was months ago, and since then I’ve gotten back into the bad habits of checking the apps multiple times a day when i get the bell of boredom; you’ve inspired me to get back into the social media fast. After I type this comment, my phone will be moved out of arms reach.

    When I’m at my boyfriend’s parents’ lakehouse on weekends, they don’t connect the wifi until they’ve moved in permanently for the summer. So on weekends before and after this period, we have absolutely no cell service and no internet. I end up leaving my phone in our bedroom the entire weekend, and I can’t even begin to explain how liberating and freeing it feels! However, I notice that once the wifi is hooked up, I’m connected again and bring my phone with me everywhere I go, even on the kayaks! Such interesting patterns we notice about ourselves when we really take a step back and look. I now have a great starting point, thank you Sheryl!

    • This is fantastic to read, Alyssa. It’s amazing to watch what happens when there’s no wifi, and then how quickly we revert to the habit as soon as wifi is available. We can actually survive without it!

  • Lindi

    Hi Sheryl! I am working through the relationship anxiety course and I found a piece in the dark night of the soul section that spiked my anxiety. Can you perhaps explain more? ” recognizing the times when your unconscious speaks most clearly (first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night),”. It feels to me like these are the times when my relationship anxiety peaks! Now im anxious about that sentence

    • Yes, that’s often when anxiety peaks, but the fatal flaw of relationship anxiety and all intrusive thoughts is taking it at face value. In other words, you may feel anxious about your relationship during those liminal zones but that’s because it’s time for you to turn inward and discover the messages and gems inside the anxiety.