Tiffany Shlain completely unplugs from technology one day a week—and week after week, it completely refuels her creative well. Here, she reveals how the rest of us can take our own Tech Shabbat. 

Wheat Field

Tiffany Shlain

FILMMAKER / AUTHOR

2019

24/6 / SHABBAT / WEBBY AWARDS / CREATIVITY / TECHNOLOGY / DIGITAL ADDICTION / FUTURE WEB CONTRACT / TIM BERNERS-LEE / EINSTEIN / STEVE JOBS / REED HASTINGS / NETFLIX

Tiffany Shlain has always seemed like the future.

At 18, she and a Persian pal developed UNITAS—“Uniting Nations in Telecommunications & Software”—which sought to use technology to bring people of different countries together beyond their purported ideological differences playing out in global conflicts.

She was the valedictorian of her class at Berkeley.

A few years later, she became an internet pioneer when she launched the Webby Awards—famous for its five-word acceptance speeches—and soon after she co-founded the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences, and was the internet guru on Good Morning America.

After switching her focus to film, she championed progressive causes and brilliant ideas through her work—and, naturally, continued her innovation streak by exploring cloud-based collaborative filmmaking and other advances.

All of this is to say: It likely comes as a surprise that for someone so future-facing, Shlain’s secret to leading a happy, healthy, balanced life—and her latest project—is deeply rooted in the past.

24/6.” She told me the title at a mutual friend’s place (spoiler: it was Debbie Millman’s house) over the summer, and I was thunderstruck by it. For it’s a perfect moniker for her family’s practice of taking a weekly Tech Shabbat—a single day away from computers, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, smart-anything, really.

Why do they do it?

In this episode, and in her new book, Shlain explains it best. Before you listen, here’s a sneak peek.

By bringing us back to the past, Shlain remains, happily, the future.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

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From 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week:

Revolutions bring upheaval. Though we may not realize it, we’re currently in the middle of our own, and we’re only beginning to understand its impact on our conception of time.

Unfortunately, in some ways, this revolution is turning the clock back to an earlier time. Many of us don’t get weekends off anymore: A recent study found that 63 percent of people say their employers expect them to do some work on most weekends. People have always been busy, but there used to be more downtime. There used to be more structured beginnings and endings to days. You would only read news once or twice a day—a morning or evening newspaper. You could go to bed with a book instead of work emails. You would really go on vacation (without a laptop and cell phone so everyone couldn’t get to you). You would take a walk in the woods without your phone. Now we get input from everywhere, every waking moment.

Meanwhile, research is making it clear that working extra days isn’t just bad for employees, it’s bad for companies. Over time, an employee working 60 hours a week will actually produce less than an employee working just 40 hours. An overworked employee is also upping their risk of heart disease and early death. We’ve retained the Puritans’ Protestant work ethic, but not their commitment to an ironclad day off.

The right to two days off each week has been around for only a hundred years or so, and a lot of people campaigned tirelessly to establish it. We need it. We earned it. So why are we giving it up so easily?

24/7 technology is bad for us and bad for the culture. We rush to fill any unstructured moment we have with work and entertainment, feeds and updates, pulling out devices that distract us from bigger-picture thinking. We’re constantly reacting and responding without reflection. We’ve created a culture where we’ve all but relinquished our free time. We need to reclaim it.

While two days off every weekend is great, even one screenfree day a week can restore our palace in time—the special, designated hours that used to simply be the norm. Only 30 years ago, you couldn’t do your banking after 5. You could watch cartoons only on Saturday morning. You couldn’t order a giant inflatable unicorn at 3 in the morning and probably didn’t realize how much you needed to do that. But now you can watch anything 24 hours a day. You can buy anything, make anything, do almost anything anytime. And because we can do anything anytime, we feel we need to do everything all the time. With so much constantly available and streaming, we’re constantly being sucked in.

During the Industrial Revolution, experts predicted that all the technological advances would make work so efficient that workers would need to work only four hours a day. What happened? Today we have less free time, lower levels of happiness, and more stress. And we’re too busy and distracted to change. We need something different.

That’s exactly what a day of rest, unplugged from the network, offers. Because that’s another part of Shabbat: It evolves. For most of my life I thought a full day off for Shabbat was only for religious Jews, and it had to be done in a very specific way. It didn’t feel accessible to me. But eventually, I realized I could engage with it and make it work for me. And I’m not the first to do this.

The Commandment to keep Shabbat may be carved in stone, but the way people have observed it isn’t. From biblical times to now, every generation has adapted it to suit the age, and even the most traditional observation of the Sabbath is very different than it was 3,000 years ago. Every tradition was once an innovation. Let’s use this modern twist on an ancient idea to make a new one
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman