Taking a Digital Sabbatical - Why and How

Digital light

What is a digital sabbatical? It’s taking time off and disconnecting from the internet and its apps—online browsing, email, and social media.

To me the word sabbatical is associated with taking a long leave of absence to rest or explore. This used to be the case in the physical world but now I feel the need to extend it to our virtual world as well.

Why am I taking time off from the internet?

Before I go into the reasons, let me share with you my observations about what I’m doing right now.

I’m doing it excessively. The first thing I do when I wake up is click on the little icons on the iPod to check my email and twitter. I don’t take any action but I feel I have to know what’s going on. I repeat this process throughout the day with countless rounds of aimless browsing and searching.

I’m doing it mindlessly, most of the time. I can move from one site to another online for an hour or more without anything to show for it and without a specific purpose, clicking away like there is no tomorrow.

It’s becoming a compulsion. It’s very easy to form the habit of clicking, browsing and checking. And from my experience I can tell you the easiest habits to form are the most non-supportive of our wellbeing—and the hardest to break. I feel itchy when my internet connection is down—seriously! :)

Can you relate to any (or all) of the above? From these observations, I came up with the following reasons.

The main reasons to take a digital sabbatical

1. Have a mind cleanse. We can use time away from the online world to become more mindful of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

2. Reclaim your time. Taking a break will restore your sense of time, instead of it slipping away from you when online.

3. Break the online dependency. Being away and not relying on the internet will allow you to stop feeding the urge to be connected.

4. Create space to do what matters. Instead of wandering online without a purpose and nothing to show for it, you can spend time doing something of value to you.

5. Face the fear of disconnecting. For me this is something I realized recently. Taking a break will make me challenge the fear of missing out or being left behind in the virtual world.

Mental preparation

Preparing, mentally and emotionally, before taking on a new challenge is important. Preparation will reduce your resistance and ease you into the change. Here are the steps I worked out so far. Feel free to add to them.

Figure out why you want to take a break. This is something only you can determine. Think of what you’d like to add or reduce from your daily activities and the benefits you’ll gain from a break. Your motivation has to be strong enough for you to take action.

Determine what activities you want to stop. The biggest ones are: email, twitter, facebook, online browsing, online reading (magazines, blogs, news), videos and shopping.

Come up with things to do when the impulse to be online is triggered. You need to come up with alternatives to replace the behavior you’re trying to stop (checking facebook for example). I’ll explain this more with examples below.

What are the things that you want to do with the extra time you have? It can be pursuing a hobby, writing, spending time with family, starting an exercise program. This is your biggest motivator.

Establish a timeframe for your break. Set your intention and book the time like you’re going on a vacation. Do this at least a week in advance to prepare for the inner adventure.

My mental preparation example

Why? All of the reasons mentioned above.

Activities I want to stop. Email, mindless online browsing (including video), reading blogs, twitter and facebook. I will check email once a week for work only.

Note: I will continue to write and publish blog posts. I’ll use an offline blogging client, and automate publishing to social media. I’ll allow myself 25% online research time for work and writing projects.

How I’m going to handle my impulses. Usually I start clicking away when I feel stuck, mentally tired or bored. I will make a point of moving from the computer, even for a few seconds. Here are some of my alternatives so far.

  • Go up and down the stairs a few times. Or walk on a mini stepper.
  • Check a couple of old papers. And see if I can shred them or if I need to deal with them and do that.
  • Do a simple gratitude meditation. Close my eyes and think of the things I’m grateful for at that moment—no more than a minute.
  • Make a cup of tea or get water.

Things I want to do. The main things I want to do are:

  • Write a small report/eBook. I’ve been meaning to do this for a very long time. Now is the time to do it.
  • Set up and use a digital audio workstation. I will create my little music recording system and learn how to use it. I got the hardware, software and the training tools more than a year ago but haven’t done much with them. This is a big motivation for me.
  • Do more of “the sort of” established routines. For example, I meditate in the morning but in the evening, it’s a hit and miss. I want to do it more consistently.

When I want to do it. I’ll start on July 1 and continue to the end of the month. This is my intention and I hope I can stick with it. The thought of disconnecting for a whole month scares and excites me at the same time.

What if you don’t know what to do with the free time

We all can use more time. I haven’t heard of anyone saying I have too much time. It’s usually the opposite. It’s important to look at where you are, and explore the things you want to do.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. De-clutter part of your home, your car, your office, or your computer files.
  2. Start learning something new, like cooking, programming or playing a musical instrument.
  3. Spend time on a hobby you enjoy.
  4. Practice stillness–just being one with your thoughts and breath.
  5. Take your time doing something without rushing.
  6. Exercise, even for a few minutes. If you can’t do something extensive, just march in place. You’ll be amazed how a few minutes of just marching in place can get your heart pumping.
  7. Read books and watch inspiring movies.

Physical preparation

After you go through the mental process, you need to get ready, physically, for the journey.

Make it harder to be online. Remove shortcuts, twitter/facebook apps from your digital devices or computer. Consider using a blocker like freedom.

Get all the tools you need to do other activities. If you’re going to write, make sure you have an offline program like Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer. Dust off your treadmill, or get your running shoes ready. Make a list of the books you want to read.

My physical preparation example

Here is what I’m going to do.

Making it harder to be online

  • Delete all the shortcut keys I made to the internet browsers on my computer.
  • Change my start page. I currently have a page with the sites I visit frequently.
  • Uninstall TweetDeck from my computer. It’s the app I use most to access twitter and facebook.
  • Remove all social apps from my iPad. I’ll move the browser and all the news & video apps to the last page.

The tools I need for my activities

  • Music software, midi controller, headphones and training video are all set up and ready to go.
  • I’ll use Word for the first draft of the eBook. For blogging I will continue to use Live Writer.
  • I’ll get all the eBooks I want to read on the iPad in a PDF reader, iBooks or Kindle. And I’ll have the paper books ready in the order I want to read them.

What I’m hoping to accomplish (what you can expect)

More freedom—I want to experience the freedom of not caring about what’s going on online and not following my impulses.

A renewed sense of my truth outside of the virtual collective—feeling more grounded, more in touch with what brings me joy and makes me come alive.

More awareness of my own behavior and the reasons for the choices I make.

More creative expression—be it a book, or a tiny musical experiment.

Becoming more mindful when I’m online, and appreciating the experience.

Final thoughts

This article has run longer than I anticipated. But before I let you go, I want to share with you my thoughts and attitude towards this experiment.

There is no failure. I’m committing to one full month—a bit radical—but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do it. If I cheat or do it for less, so be it. I will do my best for the duration of the month. Whatever the outcome, it will serve the main purpose of awakening and breaking the cycle.

Start with what you’re comfortable with. If you don’t want to do a full month, take a break for a few hours each day (or some days) and move to the entire weekend. Try it and see what happens.

Tracking progress—during the entire experience, I’ll journal about how I felt and reflect on my experience every day. Writing things down brings more awareness to the process.

Keeping it light and flexible–I’ll do my best not to be harsh or judgmental of myself. I won’t take this experience too seriously. Instead, I’ll try to make it as fun as possible. And if I cheat, I’ll acknowledge it and keep going.

If you’re up for it, join the challenge, even if it’s only for a few hours.

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