Why You Should Take a Tech Sabbatical Every Week

As a developer born after 1985, I had a really late start. My family bought our first computer when I was a teenager. A few years later, I received my first cell phone, a shiny grey clamshell with a grainy first-generation camera. The technology  of the early 2000s was slower, less feature packed and generally less personal. There were no social media apps or Angry Birds games to occupy my thumbs during downtime. SMS messages were still being billed per message (15-25c or so) so we didn’t send texts often. On any typical day, I spent more time offline than I did online. I think that’s pretty typical for my generation.

During my early twenties things changed.  I was working on building a business and starting my professional life. I tend to be intense with my interests. I find something that grabs me and I dig in with everything I’ve got, obsessing over it until something else comes along. My intense focus coupled with a mountain of potential work lead to me spending nearly every waking moment in front of the computer. It wasn’t intentional, but gradually it happened. As my business grew, so too did the pressure of extended productivity. If I wasn’t working on my business, networking, or refining my skillset, I was wasting time, losing money, and losing my chance at success.

I have always heard that you need to give yourself a long time to unplug when you do a sabbatical. I unplugged so fast I was a little concerned that I was losing brain capacity.John Ortberg

The tech industry as a whole is fairly brutal on work-life balance. Startup culture has created a community of workload fetishists: 80 hour work weeks and rigorous self education on ‘bleeding edge’ programming topics are the norm. If you’re not grinding out code during bathroom breaks and running a polyphasic sleep cycle, you’re not trying hard enough.

Luckily, I discovered meditation and mindfulness in my mid twenties. After a few months of self exploration I began to realize the impact of my focus on productivity and technology.

While waiting in line at the grocery store I’d pull out my phone for a quick glance at my notifications. I’d do the same while walking the 20 steps from the car to my front door. If a friend left to use the restroom while at dinner I’d have my phone in my hand by the time they were even out of their seat. I was cramming in screen time at every opportunity. I had forgotten how to be alone with myself.

And it’s not just me. In 2015, the average American is expected to consume 15.5 hours of media per day (source). And it’s going to keep going up.

I recalled seeing something about a ‘tech sabbatical’ online. After searching, I started to keep a log of the scientific evidence supporting small, frequent breaks from work & technology. Everything from creativity to sleep quality seemed to be enhanced by rebooting the brain with some time off. I figured I’d give it a shot for a few weeks and I set out to make some changes. I came up with 2 quick rules that would encourage mindfulness and provide more ‘me’ time.

  • I would stop working every day at 5:00 pm sharp. I would tend to a few things and then begin my meditation session at 5:05 pm.
  • I would take one day per week (Sunday) off entirely. No computer, no iPad, no iPhone. (I do watch HBO shows on Sunday night with my S/O).

As with any addiction, quitting wasn’t very pleasant. Remember when I said I had forgotten how to live? I wasn’t kidding. I went from spending 16+ hours a day with my mind occupied and everything scheduled out to a blank slate. I didn’t know what to do with myself and all the new free time.

As anyone who begins a meditation practice will tell you, being alone with your thoughts can be overwhelming.  And boring. It takes some time and experience to be able to be alone with your thoughts (or lack of) without focusing on something else. Maybe technology is to blame — with every new quantum leap in computing technology I feel like we lose a little of the ability to be alone and unstimulated. Instant gratification can be a hell of a drug.

Aside from the relaxation and creative benefits, I found my new abundance of downtime to be highly enjoyable, but not right away. Enjoying downtime is more of an art than a science. If you’re not working on being mindful and present, and you’re a social media butterfly you may find yourself to be experiencing the fear of missing out. The important thing to remember is that you’re not losing anything. Everything you’re waiting for and missing out on will still be there, waiting for you when you come back the next day.

Tips for Success

  • Turn off inputs. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re receiving notifications every 15 minutes from Facebook and Gmail. Set your phone to ‘do not disturb’ or turn off push notifications for these services.
  • Schedule social time. Going for a walk, meeting up for coffee or taking a small road trip are all good ways to spend some time.
  • Keep at it. So you only were able to do it for 8 hours – don’t sweat it. Any change at all will have positive effects on other areas of your life.

The logical next step to this is allowing yourself less screen time during the other 6 days of the week as well. I call this living intentionally, and wrote about it here.