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The Longest Day of My Life

kitten and computer

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Matt Madeiro. Matt writes regularly at Three New Leaves and is the author of Simpler.

***

My friend caught me making faces at a stand of purple yams.

“You know you can buy them, right? They have a price tag and everything.”

“Shh,” I said, gaze unwavering. “I’m thinking.”

And I was. I’d been searching for this particular variety of yam for six straight months (don’t ask!). I hadn’t expected to find them at the farmer’s market that sunny morning, and the surprise joy of the discovery had left me flailing about for words to fill the perfect tweet.

Purple potatoes discovered. Purple(r) prose incoming.

Something like that. My first instinct was to inform Twitter of my success, and I dug around for my phone until I realized my pockets were missing the familiar weight. My heart skipped a beat, but the feeling passed pretty quickly as I came to my senses. See, I knew something these gleaming purple potatoes didn’t: I’d left my phone at home on purpose.

Call it an experiment. Call it a digital sabbatical, moreover, or call it my personal favorite way to style it: one of the longest days of my life. I mean that, of course, in the best way imaginable.

Going tech-lite for a day isn’t a new idea. Tammy has spent her weekends away from the laptop for over six months, now, and written extensively about the benefits of doing so. Taking a small vacation from the Internet had been something I’d toyed with halfheartedly, closing the laptop for a few hours at a time, but I’d decided that very morning to go all in and give it a serious attempt.

The experience, frankly, was an eye-opener.

What I Missed

 

That sense of connection. There’s the literal side of it, given how our phones let us tap into the Internet every hour of the day, but also the less tangible — that sense of being involved in my own digital world.

My friends were tweeting without me. I was out of the loop.

That’s a strange feeling, but a common one in a world that has come to rely on a constant line into its virtual counterpart. We’ve grown accustomed to constant feedback, to constant interaction, and to constant overload — every tweet, every update, every single thought from every single one of our digital circles.

It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. But it’s something we rely on, and it’s something I felt pangs of regret for every hour that I passed without. The first half of that day became an exercise in distraction, a stream of activities — farmer’s market included! — meant to keep my mind off every exciting event I was missing in the virtual world.

But something changed. I can’t pinpoint the cause, but something happened right around the halfway point of my internet exile: I changed. I let go of the digital line, bit by byte, and started connecting on an entirely different level.

Different, yes. Better, too.

What I Gained

That sense of connection. Not the same one as before, of course — a new connection, this time with something different, something smaller, and something breathtakingly real.

Life.

I connected with life. That’s cheesy, dramatic, and a little too new age-y for my own tastes, but here’s the counter: it’s true. Every hour I spent away from the computer — every hour spent writing, walking, or struggling to get the seeds out of a big, stupid pomegranate — became an hour to live wholly, fully, and simply, mindful and happy to be so absorbed in the moment.

Maybe that’s the great big appeal of a digital sabbatical. It’s a chance to peek into a world every bit as colorful as the virtual one, but also one infinitely more manageable. I’m limited to what my eyes, ears, and nose can experience, but that’s a limitation in the best possible sense of the word.

When I focus on those three alone, I’m left with one thing: life. I’m left with the real world, the richness all around me, and I’m left with an experience that I can really, truly ground myself in. There’s no overload. There’s nothing to overwhelm, here, when I break it down to the basics: the chair I’m perched in, the cup of coffee breathing steam beside me, that girl in the corner grooving in her seat like nobody’s business.

Online, I’d know what she was thinking. I’d know what kind of mood she was in, what sort of music she was listening to, and I’d probably know a thousand more facts about her that I didn’t even care to know.

Offline, I know one thing: she’s having a hell of a time. I can fill in the rest of the blanks myself, but here’s the twist: I don’t have to. I can easily switch gaze over to someone else, if I want, or even start my own coffee shop solo act. I can think about what I’m seeing, ponder what I’m not, and generally just be where I am: a quirky little coffee shop on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

It’s a smaller perspective, and it’s a simpler one too. It’s easier to navigate, easier to enjoy, and so much more fulfilling when I take the time to give it every ounce of my attention. We forget, now, that the real world is every bit as fascinating as the virtual one, but on a scale that we can actually manage — that we can actually embrace.

And when we do? When you close the laptop, in other words, and keep your eyes off the screen?

We create the things that life is made of: experiences. Memories. Friendships.

Don’t get me wrong — being online doesn’t automatically preclude any of those. My twenty-four hours offline drove home, though, how much more vivid those things can be when you take deliberate steps to unplug, step away from the screen, and fully immerse yourself in the big, bold and bizarre world beyond.

Those offline hours proved, too, that a digital sabbatical doesn’t have to act like a light switch: off or on, with no state in between. The next day saw me back at my usual routine, eyes squinted at a glowing screen, but with one question kicking around my skull: can we see the benefits of a digital sabbatical — the sense of connection on such a richer, smaller scale — without having to unplug the router for hours at a time? Can we immerse ourselves in the real when we have to keep our phones handy for every minute of the day?

Can I relive another sunny hour at the farmer’s market, in other words, even when an average day keeps me chained to my desk?

I think we can. Here are a few ideas how.

1. Leave your phone in your pocket.

Leave it at home, even, the next time you step out. Whatever you do, make a conscious effort to keep the phone in your pocket — not in your hand, and not glued to your eyeballs whenever you need an easy convenience to kill a few free minutes.

My adventure at the farmer’s market left me little room for distraction. With my phone missing, I found myself carrying an unusual focus on the world all around me: staggered rows of colorful produce, the scent of freshly-baked bread, and the sweet music of some hippy chick rocking out on a flute nearby. When I stood in line, I just stood in line — standing, thinking, and listening, making conversation with my friends and eavesdropping just a teensy bit on the heated conversation behind me.

Compare that to my usual routine: I check Twitter. I dig out my phone, stare at the little screen, and shuffle forward in line without really thinking, looking up only to make my purchase.

Which one sounds better? Which one sounds more lively?

Try it. Keep your phone in your pocket the next time you strike up a conversation with someone, even, or when you’re riding in a car. We live in a strange world, I think, when two people at a restaurant — phones out, heads bowed — can hold a conversation without even looking at each other.

2. Unplug. For however long you need, and in whatever way you can.

It’s easy to say “turn off the Internet,” but anyone with a steady job knows that powering down the router is anything but simple. The modern office job demands daily interaction with a computer screen, making any opportunity to escape your laptop a rare one indeed.

The trick, then, is to take full control of the free hours that you do have at your disposal, cultivating a mindfulness for how you spend them. Here’s my recommendation: go tech-free. Maybe not every day, and maybe not after every stressful, mind-numbing meeting, but make a solid attempt at least a few times a week to come home from work and keep the TV shut off.

Don’t settle for easy entertainment. Don’t resort to flipping mindlessly through the channels, and don’t resort to spending hours each evening in the company of social media.

Do seek the kind of quality interaction that the real world can so easily offer, and make sure — above all else! — that you’re having fun as you do it. Read a book! Take a walk! Cook a long meal with your family, play a board game or two, or have a long talk with a loved one — just keep your attention in the moment, your mind on what you’re doing, and relish the life you’ve been given outside of the TV screen.

3. Establish a screen-free zone at home.

Want to make the point above even easier?

Take the TV out of your bedroom. You’ll sleep better, for one, but you’ll find another perk too: a sudden surplus of minutes to use as you see fit. Hold a conversation with your significant other, if you like, but do just one thing: focus. Focus on what you’re doing, on every texture it brings, and remember to appreciate it as best you can.

You can do the same for any room in your house, really, and see the same benefits. The core idea is simple: by removing digital distractions, you’ll give yourself some small breathing room from the cloud, and anything done in that screen-free zone will automatically seem so much fuller as a result. Why?

You won’t be distracted. Your attention won’t be pulled a hundred different directions, and I think you’ll like what you find as a result: a small slice of life. Sure, it’s the kind  you’ve enjoyed before, but it’s also the kind that’s otherwise so easy to ignore — funny, then, that taking a break from Facebook can paint it in much brighter colors than ever before.

Try this: cook, eat, and clean up an entire meal without watching TV. Do it with your family, if you can, and maybe outlaw phones at the table. It’ll feel strange, at first, but the feeling will pass. You’ll be left with a true family dinner, the kind that is nearly extinct and a better appreciation, I bet, for spending time outside the distraction of screens.

4. Single-task.

Here’s a recommendation you don’t often see in modern times: single-task. If nothing else, don’t be afraid to.

Multi-tasking has become the norm in the modern era. Computers, by their nature, extend our capabilities in a thousand different directions, empowering us to juggle a hundred different things at any given time. That sounds pretty swell for productivity, but it glosses over the immense benefits — and the immense rewards — of giving your full attention to just one thing at a time.

If you’re reading, read. If you’re cooking, cook. Make a concentrated effort every so often to be fully aware of what you’re doing and take whatever steps necessary to do just that. That sounds archaic, I bet, especially in modern times, but there’s a lot of value, I think, in giving everything we can — our attention, our care, our seconds — to the things that genuinely deserve it.

Why not give it a shot? You might not feel as productive, but single-tasking still helps cultivate an awareness of what you’re doing and an honest appreciation for each and every aspect of it.

5. Take time to think.

Even if you only have thirty odd minutes to yourself during the workday, try a little experiment in solitude: go sit outside in the sun. Steal a chair in the corner of a coffee shop if you have enough time to reach one. Whatever you do, take yourself out of your usual environment and find a comfortable place to perch for however many minutes you can manage.

And when you do? Don’t do anything fancy. Silence your phone, leave your laptop in your bag, and just think. Observe your surroundings, study the people around you, and take time to reflect on your life. Reflect on how far you’ve come, on how far you still have to go, and try and savor every little wrinkle in the world around you: the rich smell of coffee, the touch of a breeze, and every little detail that is otherwise too easy to miss.

Take these few minutes outside the virtual world to remind yourself what it feels like to live in the real one. And don’t discount the long-lost art of thinking, either, in a culture that encourages constant action.

There’s a trend, here, that I’m sure you can see: mindfulness. Awareness. A single-minded focus on what really matters, an involved decision to take time away from Facebook and Twitter and put it where it really belongs: you. Your time, your life, your family and friends, every relationship and memory you hold near and dear to your heart.

It’s a matter of refocusing. A digital sabbatical tosses you in the deep end, immersing you in the real world for hours at a time, but you can still see a lot of those benefits, I think, when life and work force you to keep your feet in the shallow end of the pool.

No matter how you spin it, the goal is the same: take those mindless minutes from the laptop and give them, one by one, to the crazy, colorful world outside. Realize how much it has to offer, and realize just how much you can gain by taking active steps to immerse yourself in it. That connection you carry to the virtual world? You don’t have to cut it. Just remember to build an even stronger one with the world all around you, and don’t let it then fall by the wayside whenever the easy distraction of your cellphone comes calling.

And when you do? I think you’ll be surprised by what you can find: a stand of purple potatoes, maybe, and the chance to savor every sight, smell, and taste that they bring. Maybe you’ll find yourself grooving in your chair at some small coffee shop, or maybe you’ll find yourself just sitting and doing what so many people forget to do: stop and reflect on the richness we all carry within.

That’s what I found, at least, on the longest day of my life, and that’s what I’m hoping to find on every glorious one that comes next.

***

Editor’s Note:

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • SillySimple March 2, 2011, 6:42 am

    Great commentary, thank you! I think that it is so easy to forget that technology is a tool to enhance real life, it isn’t real life in and of itself.

  • Lan March 2, 2011, 6:51 am

    Good idea, but I check Tammy’s website on a daily basis to give me inspiration. Now, I don’t check every site, just Tammy’s and a few others, that’s it! big improvement from the past, and I unplug my TV lately (been a month now!) yeah!!! big milestone as I’d been a TV potato all my life, I am finally able to let that go 🙂

    I will show my sis this website very soon like sometime this week, because I need her to think logically, and my advise has not proven to work effectively yet, so I need her to see this site for herself. . ..:-)

    • Tammy March 2, 2011, 7:32 am

      @Lan – WOW, I’m honored that you check out my site everyday. Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support! 🙂

  • Arron March 2, 2011, 7:27 am

    I love this post. I regularly “forget” my phone at home and it is so liberating. I can go to the grocery store without having to hear that “beep” that I’ve gotten a text. I long for the days when I didn’t have a cell phone, really. I don’t use my land line for anything but internet (oh how I wish America would kick it in the butt and finally get free wifi nationwide – why should we have to pay to access the web?) so I never get calls at home. Disconnecting is good for the mind. It’s hard to appreciate a beautiful sunset when you’re scrambling to find your phone to Tweet about it or take a photo of it.

    “Men have become the tools of their tools.” – Henry David Thoreau

    No truer words have been written, Mr. Thoreau.

  • MelD March 2, 2011, 8:17 am

    I just found your sitenand am enjoying reading around in it – thanks for all the effort you put into it!
    I never cease to be amazed at what “normal” Americans lives must be like if what you and your commentors talk about is so unusual – the mind boggles.
    Here is a case in point with this post: here in central Europe folk are as trendy and cool as anywhere but apart from teens glued to their cell phones sending silly messages to one another, I don’t think it is anything like so crazy as the US (I don’t know but it seems that way). As a woman in my 40s I have a cell phone and appreciate the freedom it can give me if used sensibly – but I usually have the sound off and choose if I want/need to call someone back at my convenience rather than being constantly hooked up. And if I leave my phone at home, so what. I know a lot of people my age who refuse to even have or use a cell phone.
    I enjoy having internet and surfing and connecting by email as much as anyone, but surely there is that word “enough” – it doesn’t stop me writing cards now and again, or letters to relatives who aren’t online, or keeping my computer hours down to similar to what I may have spent on correspondence, consulting reference books or even shopping for some items pre-internet. I think it is about using these marvels of technology sensibly, even frugally, and with responsibility so that they can be a enrichment to our lives rather than dominating them – I don’t really understand how so many can be so tyranised by stress, over-busy lives and technology, is the human not built to understand limits?

  • Timaree (freebird) March 2, 2011, 8:34 am

    I use the internet a lot when at home as I live rurally and it is my line to the world. When I visit my grandkids in California I quit turning on my computer all the time and only use it for classes or email I need to keep up with. All my blog surfing and looking around, keeping up with what is in my reader are put away for the duration. I only did this after one of the grandkids complained that Grandma and Grandpa weren’t fun anymore since they got computers! That was all I needed to put mine away.

  • Luinae March 2, 2011, 10:03 am

    WOW, this is amazing. I also recommend picking up hobbies that don’t have anything to do with being “connected.” I read alone, just reading. I dance alone, just me and the dance.

    Anyway, I’m off to go for a walk now and enjoy the fresh snowfall!

  • Brenda March 2, 2011, 11:01 am

    Two situations really brought home the problem with smartphones and social media. In the first one, I was standing outside a grocery store with a friend who had come to visit for the weekend. We were waiting for my boyfriend and as awkward as one-on-one situations are for me, I tried to make conversation with this friend to kill time. Unfortunately, I didn’t get far because he was hunched over is smartphone, concentrating on his text messages and Facebook page. Had not it been for that, we would have probably ended up having a pleasant conversation.
    The other situation was when my boyfriend and I were among the first guests at a party where we did not know the people very well. We tried to make conversation and get to know the other early arrivals but when those awkward silences came, people dug out their iPhones to check their Facebook feeds. Information technology/social media can be great (I’ve been able to reconnect with relatives whom I haven’t seen in years thanks to FB), but when people use it to avoid real-life interaction or when it affects real-life interaction happening in the moment, it’s not good.
    I’m far from immune…Whenever I am tempted to get a smartphone, I think about those two situations to help me dissuade myself from getting one. I also discovered that a large number of my friends are on Twitter so for the past few days, I’ve been temped to get an account. But your post has gotten me to step back and ask myself if it’s really worth it. Thanks!

  • Mark Robertson March 2, 2011, 11:37 am

    Fav line: Focus on what you’re doing, on every texture it brings, and remember to appreciate it as best you can” (I also like the personification of coffee…it lives!)

    YOu post makes me reflect–from a historical perspective==about the hedonic treadmill made by the Screen. And how MMXI (and beyond) may replace the Man with Screen as its primary enemy.

    Your internal struggles remind me of my internal struggle to quit smoking. “Reaching for the pocket”and then distracting yourself with life…this is an almost archetypal battle of the Hero. We cling to things, when the finest flavors are just beyond touch.

    Regards,
    Mark

  • Kirstie March 2, 2011, 12:45 pm

    Great post! I deactivated my Facebook account over 6 months ago, and I love it. Sure, I miss the ease of keeping in touch with friends far away and from long ago, but I still have email and the phone for that, and I feel like I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost. I’ve gained a more genuine connection with people I do stay in touch with, not to mention many minutes throughout the day to live in the present. I’ve never had a Twitter account, and ditching Facebook has reinforced for me the feeling that Twitter wouldn’t really add anything to my quality of life. I also canceled my texting feature on my phone a couple of months ago. It may be a slight inconvenience at times, but nothing I can’t deal with, and I enjoy being free from the daily barrage of one-sided “communication.” I may be behind the times, but I can *definitely* live with that in light of the ways in which my life has improved with these eliminations.

    • Meredith March 3, 2011, 11:17 am

      That’s inspiring, Kristie! 🙂 I recently got rid of texting, too, and don’t miss it. I’ve tried getting rid of Facebook but can’t shake that addiction, yet. It’s helpful knowing, though, that there are plenty of people out there who have meaningful connections without digital connections.

      Thanks! 🙂

  • Gena March 2, 2011, 1:27 pm

    Could not have said this better! “There’s a trend, here, that I’m sure you can see: mindfulness. Awareness. A single-minded focus on what really matters, an involved decision to take time away from Facebook and Twitter and put it where it really belongs: you. Your time, your life, your family and friends, every relationship and memory you hold near and dear to your heart.” I don’t usually quote posts that much in my comments but you are two for two today Matt, great observations and truth! Tammy jump started our committment to digital sabbatical, you’ve given us further impetus! 🙂 Mahalo!!

  • Merissa K March 2, 2011, 4:37 pm

    Just finished the book The Winter of Our Disconnect. Amazing story of a mother that un-plugged herself and her three teenage kids 🙂

  • Michelle @ Organized Eating March 2, 2011, 5:50 pm

    I love this post! You are awesome! I totally agree with you on mindfulness approach to life. I am currently reading the book “Happy Yoga”…it’s all about being mindful and present. I definitely recommend reading it.
    Cheers, MIchelle

  • Jennifer March 2, 2011, 5:58 pm

    A few weeks ago in the large town near the small one I live in, a lady at the mall was so busy sending texts on her phone, that she walked into the sunken fountain. And now she’s trying to sue the mall for having the fountain they put in like 30 yrs ago long before texts were ever even dreamed of. Go figure. Talk about needing a digital sabbatical.

    • rob March 2, 2011, 8:56 pm

      Actually, she’s suing the mall because mall security posted the video on youtube and embarrassed her.

      But she was still a moron for walking into the fountain because she was so absorbed in her phone.

      • Jennifer March 3, 2011, 3:55 pm

        I apologize for my misinformed comment. When our news station played the story, it sounded like she was at a local mall and the reason for suing wasn’t made clear either. I researched it more after I posted my comment and found that it wasn’t local to our area after all. I should have done better research first.

  • Heather March 2, 2011, 10:08 pm

    Wonderful! I’ve been disconnecting during the day when I have a few moments to myself and just sit and think. It recharges me, I love it and I am happier forr it. It certainly got me thinking about being “connected” ALL THE TIME. It’s dangerous to do while driving, while walking incase you fall into water fountains (lol) and then what if someone is following you to harm you? How would you know? Someday I’ll buy the app that won’t allow you to play with your device while it feels motion. lol And if someone makes this happen from my words here you BETTER let me and my family have it for free.

  • Brenda March 2, 2011, 11:08 pm

    Great post! Cooking dinner and playing board games are two of my favorite activities. I did that tonight for four hours and had the best time. You don’t have to wait till the weekend to have a great time. Have friends over for impromptu dinner, wine and board games and see what happens.

    On another note. It’s taken months, but I think my husband is finally coming around to go T.V.-less! I could not be happier.

    Thank you Tammy for reminding us that we can enrich our lives everyday simply by unplugging for a few hours a day.

  • Anne March 3, 2011, 7:37 am

    This was a fantastic post – thank you, Matt and Tammy too. I have always believed in digital sabbaticals, as I think the truest moments of life are those lived face to face and in appreciation of the real – and not the cyber – world. Thank you for writing about that so beautifully.

  • Anon March 3, 2011, 11:55 am

    Great post! We dumped our internet connection about a year ago and hardly ever miss it – the library (and many other sources these days) has free wifi and is just a 15 minute bike ride away if we REALLY need it.
    Internet started to be as intrusive and annoying as television and we dumped that 15 years ago 🙂
    We’ve replaced both with time spent in the great outdoors and if we regret anything, it’s that we didn’t do this from the start 🙂

  • Maria March 3, 2011, 2:12 pm

    Another European perspective here (Iceland) – I don’t think the situation’s gotten quite as bad here (yet?). We do have like 93% of households with internet access, and people spend a LOT of time on their laptops at home, but the smartphone issue isn’t nearly as bad here. You never really see people waiting in line and on their phone – and most people still take weekend vacations in the country (no internet access) without going through any withdrawals 🙂

    After reading this and other similar descriptions I am left wondering whether the situation in the US really is like this – is the majority of the population really buried in their phones out in public? The comment above about people at parties for example – just strikes me as extremely rude. It’s annoying enough if you’re out with someone and they’re also texting – let alone using FB/twitter.

    It’ll definately be interesting to watch the development here – maybe we’re just 5 years behind or something – but I hope not.

  • Holli March 3, 2011, 3:59 pm

    This post is worth sharing far and wide. It will be a great opener to a conversation I want to have with my Honey. We both got smart-not iphones- a few months ago, and it bothers me that he checks it at the dinner table. It doesn’t help that he relies on it for work as he sometimes puts out digital fires. I have to be present in order to manage a four and two year old, and so it is easier for me to NOT get sucked into the habit of always checking my phone.
    We both do agree to not have cable TV, or have it on during any meal times, so it’s not like he’s a slouch in anyway.
    Thanks for the excellent post!

  • Tanja March 4, 2011, 6:11 pm

    Lovely Matt, and my big burning question is, “What kind of yam is purple?” Not the point of your post at all (I know!!!) but my curiosity has been piqued. Now I’ve got to figure out how to find some. (I’m a bit of a foodie when it comes to new fruits and veggies.)

    Awesome post. I feel kind of lucky at times that I never bought a cell phone. My honey’s still convinced they might cause brain cancer 🙂 and we just… didn’t ever get one. I’m already digitally connected enough at home that I can’t imagine taking it in my pocket into the “real world” too. I see people texting and tweeting and blue-toothing everywhere and it’s a strange phenomenon for sure.

  • Caitlin Kelly March 5, 2011, 11:50 pm

    A great book on this subject is “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson.

    I hate cellphones with a passion and would be much happier without one, but need one for work (self-employed writers can’t afford to be unreachable.) I’ve been traveling for 3 weeks and it’s been an interesting and unplanned break from television; I watched the Oscars and that’s it. When I am alone in a hotel room, I’d rather read or blog or read blogs or email. It’s been great to read books and take photos and go for walks.

  • marianney | A Life Set Free March 7, 2011, 8:14 am

    this is really great and so timely for me! I only just noticed my own addiction to electronic distraction last week. i have made a conscious effort to be more mindful of the time i spend watching a screen, whether it be my phone, computer, or tv. i find myself fidgeting and anxious and bored all at the same time, but i believe that with practice, it will become a wonderful respite that is much needed in our overloaded lives. thanks for the tips, they were great and really useful!

  • Luis March 28, 2011, 10:38 am

    I came across this link earlier today… Fear Of Missing Out is a big thing indeed. v healthy going “offline” every now and then.

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