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Digital Sabbaticals Don’t Make Sense


The Digital Sabbatical

The idea of a “digital sabbatical” is relatively recent: the earliest traces I can find date to 2008 (e.g., this dated gem from CNN). Its popularity, however, has skyrocketed since then.

The mechanics of a digital sabbatical are simple: you set aside a period of time — typically on the scale of days — where you refrain from using some subset of your standard digital network tools.

Many reasons are given for these sabbaticals. Some seem contrived, like boosting creativity or losing weight, but most people understand the real appeal of this behavior: their digital lives consume and ultimately exhaust them, and they crave a break.

As Pico Iyer put it: “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole.”

To me, however, this idea never quite made sense.

An Odd Standard

To understand my confusion, try applying the logic of a digital sabbatical to any other behavior that’s addictive and exhausting and drives people to want to escape.

For example…

  • Imagine advising someone who is overweight due to massive overeating of unhealthy food that they need to take a week every year where they eat healthily.
  • Imagine telling someone with a terrible cigarette addiction that the solution to their problem is that they need to give up smoking on Sundays.
  • Imagine telling someone who feels weak and lethargic that once every few years they need to retreat to a hermitage to spend a month exercising.

My point is that for most any other behavior that lures you in with positive attributes, but then takes over your life and drives you to exhaustion, our standard response is that you need to radically and permanently reduce or eliminate that behavior.

The same could and should apply to the world of the digital.

As George Packer quipped in an under-appreciated New Yorker essay: “[Twitter] scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.”

What is it about digital addictions that make us think the occasional break will suffice?

(Photo by Hartwig HKD)


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27 thoughts on “Digital Sabbaticals Don’t Make Sense”

  1. Thanks for the great post Cal. I particularly liked: “My point is that for most any other behavior that lures you in with positive attributes, but then takes over your life and drives you to exhaustion, our standard response is that you need to radically and permanently reduce or eliminate that behavior.”

    While not all addictions are created equal, addictions are addictions and need to be dealt with accordingly.

  2. Digital addictions are like food addictions: We all have to eat, and we (knowledge workers) all have to interact with the digital world in order to get our work done. Continuing that analogy, a digital sabbatical is like fasting. Even someone on a healthy food diet can get some benefit from not eating for a day (or so I’ve heard). Similarly, even someone who isn’t compulsively using digital distractions to avoid the hard work of focusing on a task can get some benefit from occasionally doing their work with a paper and pencil. I think that is the main point of the Fast Company article, to take one example.

    But I agree that someone who is trying to write a book or a computer program while being interrupted every five seconds by an incoming Twitter update is unlikely to get much benefit from going offline every other Friday.

  3. Actually, fasting one day a week is recommended as a weight loss strategy. It reduces the overall intake and maybe it begins to break your addiction – if you can go without one day a week, maybe you can eat less the other days. I think the same would apply for digital overload.

  4. I appreciated this!

    There is another way of looking at digital sabbaticals, though. Not as refraining from a harmful addiction but as a regular rhythm of rest, like the idea of a sabbatical from work or the Sabbath day in Jewish tradition.

    Work can become an addiction, but the activity itself isn’t inherently harmful. Regularly taking a day off per week is just a healthy rhythm that increases well-being and productivity long-term.

    We can think of digital sabbaticals the same way: a regular rhythm of rest from the noise and activity for overall well-being.

    Just wanted to pass along a different perspective! Cheers!

  5. The sabbaticals work for me. However, one reason is I am recovering some injuries so I have a more general “away from the desk and the computers” at least one day a week. Most recently, I was traveling for two weeks in remote areas by horseback and cut back on more extraneous noise and useless input. Marie Kando’s book on Japanese decluttering has an underlying theme of listening to yourself to pick what is right for you and getting rid of the rest. I’ve been applying it to reading email, what I listen to and read, and even browsing things like facebook. And actually here to. I am leaving soon and won’t be reachable for a couple of weeks but if you do what me to expand on this, you can contact me later in September.

  6. I think it does make sense.

    Deleting your Facebook account? Sounds terrifying. I will lose all my friends. Don’t log into Facebook for a week? Sounds manageable. I’ll try that. After a week without Facebook, you can reevaluate, if deleting your account is still so terrifying. If you don’t want to do it, it is fine. Try again in a year. Maybe the Facebook-mania is lower then.

    Essentially, this is trying to use the Slippery Slope Fallacy to trick yourself into healthier habits.

    (Just theory. I don’t do digital sabbaticals myself.)

  7. Thank you.
    I just deleted a few links from my bookmark. I was in an early stage of addiction to those, and it was critical time. This article was helpful for me to decide to delete them.

  8. I must disagree.

    If you take a food analogy, taking a “eating sabbatical” is called “intermittent fasting” and it has had quite positive results for many people.

    In general, it’s hard to either quit a bad habit cold turkey, or to consistently reduce it. An intermittent break often seems easier to effect: today, I’m not logging in, tomorrow I may do as I wish. What I found is that after doing such breaks, I will often take *less* joy from my splurges (food, internet consumption) and I will tend to reduce my consumption.

    If you believe in the power of habit to reinforce positive behaviors, consider these breaks or sabbatical as a way to (temporarily) break bad habits, in order to weaken them in the long run. It’s just a matter of reversing the strategy.

    There is also something to be said for accumulating these small wins. By deliberately boxing the effort that will be required, you make the task much easier, increasing the likelihood to stick with it. Accumulating these wins develops your confidence, and in turn, your motivation.

  9. I actually agree with you, Cal. However, there is a situation or process where I think a digital sabbatical might make sense: when you, instead of radically changing your digital habits, are going for a slow-paced, gradual and incremental change.
    Basically, it’s what people like Leo Babauta from Zen Habits preaches. What do you think about this?

  10. I know of one person that compares these tech breaks to camping. We don’t go camping because we dislike our comfy beds and creature comforts – rather it is nice to “rough it.” This guy says the main reason he takes the tech break is not because he thinks his tech usage is bad but to gain a bigger appreciation of just how wonderful his tech is.

    Like how camping increases your appreciation for your climate-controlled house and soft bed.

    But….I personally feel very grateful for this tech already -> maybe too much.

  11. As someone who is often trying to encourage people away from extreme diets or short term fasts and cleanses, this totally makes sense. And I have noticed that the times I’ve tried to have a “digital fast” one day a week, I tend to cram extra in on the day before. Kinda like a binge/purge cycle. I do think it’s more effective (for me) to have a healthier daily relationship with my use of digital items. Though I’m sure it’s quite different for everyone!

  12. I agree that a digital sabbatical is probably not a constructive end goal.

    I do believe that a digital sabbatical can be a useful intermediate strategy toward a better end goal, especially if that end goal seems too large for us to get to in one step.

    If we turn off our phone, then turn it back on and continue where we left off with no extra thought…yes, that’s rather pointless. If we uninstall all our phone apps and then only install the ones we actually truly need, or otherwise implement a plan to use the short-term experience to improve our long-term experience, it would seem to be worthwhile.

    But then, maybe now we’re not talking about a sabbatical, so your point stands?

  13. I like the analogy. Some people have pointed out that an intermittent break is better than nothing and I agree with that. On the other hand, I agree with Cal that taking a short break from tech doesn’t solve the problem in the long run.

    To use the food analogy, establishing a healthier relationship with food is a more permanent solution than fasting, although both have some benefit. Similarly with tech – we should reshape our relationship to our technology so it is not a source of stress that we need breaks from.

  14. Do you think every sabbatical is pointless? If not, what sabbaticals are acceptable, and how are they distinct from digital sabbaticals?

  15. Off topic:
    “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” -Einstein

    I’d like to know your view on this quote of Einstein.
    I think this is true. One example: At school, during my sixth standard, they taught me HTML. It fascinated me, especially the “marquee” command. I still remember HTML. I didn’t force myself to learn it at school. I just thought it was awesome and a sort of curiosity made me learn it easily. Similarly, I remember several other things that I learned at school but I don’t remember all that I’ve been taught or those that I forced myself to understand.

  16. I think one of the undying issues with digital addiction is simply the speed at which changes wash across us when it comes to everything technology related.

    Humans take a while to adapt to change. We pick up a shinny new thing and like it but then wonder how we make it peacefully coexist with all the other shiny things we’ve collected. The process of assimilation is slow and I think it gets even slower when one new thing suggests we need to toss aside a previously cherished part of our lives.

    20 years from now, provided some sort of settling occurs, we’ll have figured all this out. I just hope I don’t get run over in the interim by someone texting and driving while having a Starbucks.

  17. Oh, I don’t know.
    Taking time off from something that consumes a major portion of your life can be good. If you can live without X (here a digital lifestyle) for an extended period of time, then it’s a good indication that you’re not addicted to it, that it’s simply a tool.
    On the other hand, if you go through the classic symptoms of withdrawal, then it’s a sign that you are addicted and do need to act aggressively.
    From that perspective, a sabbatical can serve as a useful test. And if you have no option but to maintain that digital lifestyle—the situation most of us are in—those breaks can serve as a way to learn self-control without disruption you life like going digital ‘cold turkey’ would.

  18. Great article Cal,

    One thing that I think gets over-looked here is when ‘addictions’ get lumped together.

    One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to technology ‘addiction’, is that a lot of people are probably not as addicted as they think, although many probably are, especially younger kids who have been raised on iPad diets. Cuz you kno, dopamine or something…

    Having said that, one key difference (I thought you were going to mention it at first actually), was that when people decide to take a ‘sabbatical’ from technology, it’s remarkably easy to do. Even more interestingly, when they do, they probably thoroughly enjoy the break.

    Imagine a life-long chain smoker, or compulsive eater commiting to a sabbatical from cigarettes or food? Or an alcoholic committing to a week off the drink? It wouldn’t happen, hence the addiction.

    I’m pretty sure that taking a sabbatical from anything renders it not an addiction, by definition. Yet when people use technology, the instant gratification effects can be difficult to tear away from. I think it still counts as an addiction technically, but a very different kind of addiction than say, smoking or alcoholism, or drugs. Even though it might even involve similar neurochemicals in some cases.

    What I find most baffling is a lot of people would attest to taking a break from technology and feeling thoroughly refreshed. That should be telling people something.

    Are we really addicted to technology, or is it something that runs deeper?

  19. I’ve heard a similar objection to the Catholic practice of giving things up for Lent: if the thing is bad for you, then you should give it up in general, rather than just for 40 days; and if it isn’t bad, then you shouldn’t give it up even for 40 days. That objection is naive: things don’t fall neatly into the categories “bad” and “not bad.” Most things have both good and bad effects. The trick is to keep one’s indulgence in them within proper bounds.

    An occasional fast might not be the best way to accomplish this goal: your point that it would be better to come up with a system for keeping a behavior within proper bounds all the time is well taken. But it’s not always easy to find an appropriate system, and we have so many potential addictions in our lives (soda, sweets, TV, social media, etc.) that it’s easy for one to slip through the cracks. As a result, I think it makes sense to step back occasionally and ask, “what behaviors have too much of a hold on me right now?” For each of those behaviors, if you can come up with a system for keeping it permanently within proper bounds, that’s great. If you can’t, or if you’re not sure that you can stick to whatever system you come up with because you tend to engage in the behavior compulsively, then a short-term fast might do you good.

  20. I really enjoy reading your posts, just like Dave Small, I particular like “My point is that for most any other behavior that lures you in with positive attributes, but then takes over your life and drives you to exhaustion, our standard response is that you need to radically and permanently reduce or eliminate that behavior” as well.

    But I have a quick and simple question: Isn’t it better than nothing? won’t a short step away provoke more thoughts/ideas?

  21. I disagree too with this idea. A sabbatical, or a better word fast, for a short period of time, can be useful.
    Just as is suggested with intermittent fasting of food.

    Reducing the amount of information coming in , can allow for more information going out. You get to be creative more.
    In order to create you often need to look within. You can’t do that if the noise of the world constantly intrudes.

    Maya Angelou is well know for for renting a hotel room in order to write. This was not in the digital age, but the idea of shutting the world out so you can hear what’s going on inside is not old fashioned or nonsense. Indeed it may be a key to getting more work done.

    Each article you read, video you watch means your are not taking action on something else.

    To go on a sabbatical may to a bit extreme, but taking time out, disconnecting, and switching off the devices is necessary for introspection, and creativity.


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