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 onpurpose.
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.
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.
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.