A Magical Block of Time: Lessons Learned from my Digital Sabbatical

by Tammy Strobel on September 20, 2010

Do you ever feel like you need a magical block of time to focus on a relationship or a specific project?

At one time, I believed extra time was reserved for retirees and that I’d have to wait until I was 60 to work on projects that I loved. Thanks to a lot of reading and reflection over the past few years I realized that’s not the case. We all have the power to create a magical block of time, whether that moment is for 5 minutes, a week, or a month. And in a world that’s constantly connected and on the go, it’s become increasingly important to take time out to reflect. And for me that meant stepping away from the Internet to write and to focus on relationships.

Below are a few things I learned about myself during my digital sabbatical. I hope my experience will inspire you to try something similar.

1. Remember to reflect.

During the past week, I noticed when my writing projects got difficult or I started to feel insecure I had an urge to check my email or twitter. In some ways I think this behavior is a little like watching TV.

You turn the TV on to distract yourself and to “zone out” and the Internet can be used for a similar purpose. If you constantly distract yourself you’ll never find the time to reflect on what’s important in your life.

Williams Powers talks about this concept in Hamlet’s BlackBerry. Powers argues that it’s impossible to reflect on life or examine difficult problems if the crowd is constantly in the background. You have the power to reconnect with the present moment to evaluate what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.

2. Checking email once a day is sufficient.

After doing a lot of thinking this week, I decided to only check my email once a day. Why? Rather than focusing on creative work, I have a tendency to get sucked into my inbox and procrastinate on creative projects.

I still plan on helping people via email. But it will take me a little longer to respond to requests. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Before hitting the send button, it’s important to be thoughtful when writing a response.

3. Engaging in flow doesn’t require an Internet connection.

Studies show that humans are the happiest when they engage in flow. Flow can occur when you’re engrossed in any type of activity. So how do you know when you’re in the flow?

  • You lose awareness of time.
  • You aren’t thinking about yourself.
  • You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts.
  • You work effortlessly.
  • You are active.
  • And you would like to repeat the experience.

While you go about your daily activities you can use a number of strategies to get into flow. For example, chose activities that can provide you with new feelings, experiences and insights. And remember: pay attention to how you’re feeling and try not to worry about making a mistake.

4. Focusing on relationships is the key to happiness.

Focusing on building strong relationships is one of the key elements to living a happy life. Humans are social beings and without a strong social network, we become very unhappy.

The Internet is an amazing way to meet new people and a way to develop strong relationships. But I think many of us (including myself) underestimate the power of face-time. Taking a break from the Internet gave me the opportunity to focus on spending quality time with my parents and Logan and that made me incredibly happy.

5. The future you imagine won’t be what you expect.

Humans are the only animal that can think about the future and imagine what our future selves will like or dislike. Daniel Gilbert, a leading happiness researcher, calls this affective forecasting. Affective forecasting allows us to imagine our future selves and what we think may or may not bring us increased happiness.

Over the past week, I’ve thought a lot about my prior affective forecasting failures. For example, in college I decided to major in Economics because I enjoyed the subject, found it incredibly challenging, and thought it might give me the opportunity to work on public policy. However, it turned out my affective forecasts were wrong. I ended up in the investment management industry; it wasn’t until years later that I ended up working on policy issues. I also wound up deep in debt because of student loans. The future I was living wasn’t the same kind of future I had dreamed up for myself.

While the frontal lobe of our brain allows us to imagine the future, I think it’s important to take a step back and engage in the present moment. Thinking about your future self and writing down goals is a healthy exercise. It’s essential to remember the future you imagine won’t be what you expect.

6. Happiness is in the small details.

Sometimes I get so caught up in rushing from activity to activity, I forget to look around and observe my surroundings. And more importantly, I forget that happiness can be found in the small, quiet details of life. For example, slowing down to savor a cup of coffee or taking the time to read a book. Over that past week, I had a lot of time to slow down and savor life’s small details.

7. Practice mindfulness on the Internet.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole world revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking a break from the Internet gave me the opportunity to think about practicing mindfulness online. I don’t know about you, but I tend to click around a lot on the Internet and get very distracted. So one of my goals over the next few months is to be more mindful and thoughtful when I engage online, whether that’s reading an article, leaving a comment, or posting a tweet.

And it turns out practicing mindfulness will make you very happy.

In “The How of Happiness,” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky points out that “those who are prone to be mindfully attentive to the here and know are keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing and positive mental health.” And relative to the average person, they are more likely to be happy, optimistic and satisfied with their lives.

Less is more, even on the Internet.

***

Ohhh and before I forget…

My friend Dee recently launched her awesome little book, Go House Go!

This little book “focuses on how to connect a tiny house to a trailer, and how to keep the walls and roof from twisting, leaning or buckling. We’ve also included information about moisture control and a common list of building materials.”

 

 

1 Srinivas Rao September 20, 2010

Hi Tammy,

I’ve found the checking email once a day to be the most challenging, but also the most useful of time management tips. I’ve even said nothing that important is going on in your inbox. In fact one day I decided to do check email once at 3pm and I got through everything in 20 mins. I think it’s just conditioning from so many years in the corporate world where the amount of real work vs time passing work (i.e. checking email) is kind of sad. When I don’t mess with my inbox I can do so much in the first 3 hours of the day that I rarely need to do more.

2 Frugal Vegan Mom September 20, 2010

Thanks for posting this and encouraging people to unplug! I think all the constant, in most cases superficial electronic communication really messes with the brain. Whenever I procrastinate on the internet I end up getting dizzy, there’s just too much information and it’s so much more peaceful to turn it all off and do something simple like walk outside or have a conversation with someone.

3 Mollie September 20, 2010

Tammy, I’m glad you got the chance to disconnect, unwind, and enjoy life. I too, think people are to disconnected from what’s important to them because we are always chasing after the next big thing be it a new car, house or job. Thanks for all the great tips.

4 Marla Young September 20, 2010

Good advice and so simple. Just got back from my own little digital sabbatical. Camping with a friend in a yurt and fossil hunting near Bend, Oregon. Discussed your blog, book and lifestyle choice while we were sitting around the campfire. Thanks for your thoughts.

5 Tammy September 22, 2010

Ahhh thanks Marla. The Bend area is so beautiful! I’d love to see photos of the yurt. :)

6 Lori September 20, 2010

not only do you need significant blocks of unstructured time to work on those important projects, you need time to figure out what they are.

7 Sue September 20, 2010

Hi Tammy,

It sounds as though you had a wonderful week disconnected from the internet. Face to face time with our loved ones is so important and even though Skype might be almost as good as the person being in the same room, it still doesn’t substitute for 3-D in person time. (Mind you, thanks to technologies like Skype, my “What’s Your Tree” circle was able to connect with one our members who is currently travelling through Europe.) Likewise, while it’s possible to meet some great people and develop a fabulous online community (or communities), I believe that now more than ever we need to connect with people where we live to inspire and support each other in community engagement activities.

I, too, use the internet and checking emails as a favourite form of distraction and procrastination when I should be working on something else…. Awareness of our “vices” is the first step to changing them.

Okay, I need to gently turn my attention back to finishing the next post for my blog.

Have a wonderful week and a great day.

8 James M September 20, 2010

I wrote on my blog about people taking digital sabbaticals and the results they had. I haven’t taken the leap myself, but I have been much more aware of my actions on the internet. Like your suggestion of only checking email once a day, I have only been skimming through my blog subscriptions once every other day (apart from reading the news folder), and have been unsubscribing to a lot of blogs that were publishing content too quickly for me to consume. By eliminating that process of reading, I’ve spent more time writing and walking, focusing on myself and my ideas, other than other’s ideas.

9 Mona September 20, 2010

Wonderful insights Tammy! Kind of goes along with what Staats and I are studing, Grace Walk from Steve McVey Keep it simple! Back to all that is truly important!
When in Honduras, I’m fortunate to get on line twice a week! Ha, ha!!!

10 Trey Hall September 20, 2010

Welcome back Tammy! This was an awesome post. Your content forces me to stop and notice that of which true memories are made with my wife and kids. Thank you so much for great content!

11 Rob September 20, 2010

Awesome. And e-mail isn’t even the worst of it. Just last week, another (!) unpleasant interaction with a “friend of a friend” on FB pushed me over the edge and I’ve abandoned FB. And along with it twitter. It feels great. My big decision now is whether to take a laptop on a month long trip to NZ this January. Part of me wants to just disconnect, and part of me wants to have the tool for finding the next interesting thing to do/bus schedules/etc.. I suppose the key will be not to check e-mail while I’m using the web for other purposes. It’s a little disturbing how traveling in Europe 25 years ago required exactly no batteries (other than in the film camera) and now it’s hard to even think about going anywhere in the western world without a computer, a phone and a digital camera, along with the chargers for each of them. Perhaps that’s why travel is less satisfying now than it was then.

12 Walter September 21, 2010

There are many things we can learn once we are in full possession of ourselves. Since the present time is full of obligatory distractions, we have forgotten what its like to be free from the grip of time. :-)

13 Jean at The Delightful Repast September 21, 2010

Tammy, excellent post! My work (freelance writing) calls for my checking my email more than once a day, as I often interview sources via email and need to incorporate those sources into the articles I’m working on. But I don’t allow myself to get distracted by other sorts of email at those times. I’m on Twitter but not on Facebook or other social networking sites. Don’t see the need, don’t have the desire. I think this 24-hour connectedness has become an addiction in our society. Personally, I’m not so important that the world can’t keep on spinning if I’m unreachable and out of touch for a while!

14 Molly Gordon, Self-Employment Coach September 21, 2010

Too often we fall into the belief that we must remain wired all the time in order to make our businesses work. Not so. The person you are, the person you really are when you take the time to reflect and nourish yourself, is the person your tribe wants to be with.

Unplugging can actually be the best way to show up in the world.

15 rob September 21, 2010

Jean et al: I think “addictive” is exactly the correct word for the social networking phenomenon. Removing myself from Facebook and Twitter was (and since it’s only been 5 days) still is a little difficult. We (I, at least) *like* stimulation and when there are 100+ people you know posting stuff, some of it’s going to be interesting. But it’s also massively distracting. Rather like a TV in that aspect. I had a TV epiphany 6 months ago and cut off the cable and sold the TV over the next week. It was hard at first not to have that beast in the house to give me the distraction fix whenever I was bored, but in not too long I noticed the pile of unread books going down and I was calmer.

I too work “online” but I am more an more inclined to turn things off when I’m not working. Not being constantly stimulated can become addicting, too! :)

16 Jean at The Delightful Repast September 21, 2010

Yes, Rob, I definitely shut down the computer when I’m not working! I make a point to set some reasonable work hours and then that’s it! We have a TV (no cable) for watching the occasional video; I have no idea about any of the TV shows. It makes for a nice, quiet home.

17 Tammy September 22, 2010

Thank you all for leaving such awesome comments! All of you rock. :)

18 Ryan Popovic September 22, 2010

Tammy,

This is a great post. If you want to be effective online, whether your an Internet marketer, blogger, or just an average person looking up sports scores or using Facebook; it is important to be aware and focused. One of our biggest problems today is getting too distracted and going down the rabbit hole, only to find 30 mins or 3 hrs later we never accomplished what we set out to do. I think it is great advice to limit the number of times that we check e-mail and our social media contacts as well.

Ryan

19 Katey Kanuche September 22, 2010

Before investing in a laptop & internet service for interactive distance learning; library wish list requesting; specific news source access ; and , job opportunities– I determined that my computer would be another “appliance”–to be used at specific times to accomplish specific goals–just like my convection/microwave, blender,food dehydrator, electric teakettle–and not for anything else–except for correspondence with dear but faraway friends in eccentric time zones. It has to earn its keep by conserving energy, gasoline not consumed, paper not wasted, precious time for savoring life’s experiences not wasted. Life is

Sweet! (Now I’m going outside to watch the parade of wild turkeys & deer & sip some raspberry tea.)

20 Janelle September 22, 2010

This is so cool! A digitial sabbatical is actually a part of my Daily Essentials. :) Every evening I shut down and every weekend. The internet is full of so much noise, noise, noise. Even if it’s “good” noise, it is still a distraction to our own inner voice. I really like your blog, I am adding it to my blogroll! Have a wonderful evening and enjoy the journey (looks like you do, immensely, I am inspired!) Janelle

21 Lee H. September 24, 2010

Tammy, THANK YOU for the terrific advice! As a small biz owner, it’s tough to walk away from all that technology when I can do just one more thing and ship one more order to make someone happy ASAP.
Lee

22 BB September 30, 2010

A Digital Sabbatical. Gosh! What a sign of the times. We seem to live more and more in an age of instant gratification, instant connection, instant update and communication. What can possibly be constructive about checking your e-mail more than once a day? Do we really need to speak to someone on the mobile, whilst standing in the supermarket, when we are going to dine together in a few hours time? Just how accurate a view of our own importance do we have that we think it is imperative to communicate right now, this very second?

The world functioned quite well when the telephone was screwed to the kitchen wall, and we received mail once a day in our post box. Don’t get me wrong I love the convenience of my mobile and the wide horizons the web gives me. I realise that the internet has given so many people a wonderful opportunity to live a more flexible lifestyle and adapt their work habits more readily. However, these electric devices are our tools. I wouldn’t let a slide-rule or a washing machine rule my life, so why have people become slaves to the very things that they are supposed to use to their advantage? Staring at a screen may be informative and entertaining and certainly has it’s place, but, it is not living.

I make a conscious effort to limit my on-line time each day. The same way I limit my work hours and the time spent in front of the ‘idiot-box’. It means I really appreciate that time as it is finite. We have to be master of our digital appliances, otherwise they insidiously steal our precious time, our ‘me’ time, our ‘down’ time, our ‘thinking’ time and the time we should spend experiencing life.

23 Rachel September 30, 2010

Tammy, this is a great post! Bookmarked and excited to try a digital sabbatical this weekend.
My husband works from home and I currently stay at home with our son. While we don’t have cable television the internet seems to be our time waster when unmotivated. Your ideas for limiting it are great – thank you.

24 Gin October 1, 2010

Great post! My husband and I take a Media Free Week every month, and have been doing it for the past 7 years. It’s amazing how much time I get back, along with feeling a greater sense of presence in my life. I actually just told my story locally at http://www.ignitebaltimore.com, and was really amazed by how many people told me they want to try this themselves. This is becoming a really popular idea – in the best possible way.

25 แจกรหัสpb June 14, 2011

Thanks a lot for sharing this with us a great post.

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