There’s a running joke in my house: Dad never takes vacation.
And it’s true. During the two decades I lived at home, he very rarely took a break, working long hours for five days a week in order to support his family. I love him for it. But I always felt a little guilty, deep down, for (inadvertently) forcing him to spend so much time on the job. These last few years, however, have been a whole heck of a lot easier on my conscience.
Why? He went to Rome. And California. And he’ll be visiting San Antonio this weekend. It’s like a floodgate opened and those accumulated vacation hours came pouring straight out. On that California trip, however, I noticed something interesting: his brand new smartphone kept beeping every hour of the day. Emails, phone calls, business reminders and more — work followed him to wine country, a constant nag underlying a few weeks of freedom.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? I love technology. But I realize too that there’s something strange happening when even our free minutes – our vacations – are spent dealing with the pull of a rapidly-filling inbox. Shouldn’t we be spending those precious minutes on something more valuable? Something outside the screen, something like life?
Cue the digital sabbatical.
It’s an idea I’ve seen popping up more and more recently as fellow bloggers try to reclaim their weekends. Tammy Strobel of the wonderful Rowdy Kittens wrote about it, listing twenty-one things you can do with your time away from the Internet. Everett Bogue over at Far Beyond the Stars recently completed one too, spending about two weeks in the Wisconsin wilderness with no Internet in sight.
So why the sudden surge in popularity?
Bloggers, of course, are notorious for living and breathing information. Twitter in the morning, email in the afternoon, and WordPress at night — vital tools, all of them, and great ways to stay connected with your audience and other writers during every hour of the day.
They’re also the reason, I suspect, why bloggers like to take a break. And not just writers, either — as social media integrates itself more tightly into the Internet, bloggers and readers alike find themselves spending a whole lot of time with their eyes locked on the screen.
It’s hard not to feel like your life is wasting away in front of a laptop, isn’t it? And sometimes this social media stuff starts to feel like work. It’s enjoyable work, sure, but work nonetheless — it wears you down, day by day, and makes a vacation from the Internet more appealing by the minute.
But here’s the thing: a digital sabbatical is not a vacation.
Not a vacation in the normal sense, at least, when a bleary-eyed worker bee books a flight to the nearest sandy shores. A beach stay can be pretty relaxing, certainly, but I’d argue that it’s damn near impossible to take a true vacation with laptop and Blackberry in tow.
My dad had a blast in California, but the work never left his side, a constant reminder that something was probably going horribly wrong back on the job. He deals with that kind of crisis on a regular basis, so a vacation for him was a chance to step away from the endless stress of normal life. Can you really do that, though, when the technology brings that stress right with you?
A digital sabbatical might just be the solution. Vacations, by definition, are a chance to get away from life. I believe a digital sabbatical, in contrast, is the perfect way to celebrate life.
Think about it. What can you do when the computer is turned off? You can read, write, and generally spend time with yourself, or you can spend your precious time with friends and family. I’m not saying, of course, that you can’t do these things with your laptop on your lap. But isn’t the Internet distracting? How many times per day you do you check your Twitter feed out of pure habit?
Just remember: a sabbatical is not a vacation. You’re not escaping from anything, let alone life, and thus you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to do it. You’re taking time — a weekend, maybe, or just an evening a few times a week — to remember that you have a life outside of the Internet.
Still not convinced? Here are five reasons why a digital sabbatical might be the best thing you can do for yourself this evening:
1. A clean, pure focus. I love a little silence and simplicity in my life, especially when I’m working. Cutting out the distractions — the pop-up notifications in the corner of my screen, for example — helps me devote all of my attention to the things I enjoy.
2. Time with those who matter. Does your husband/wife/pet come home straight from work and immediately open a laptop? I’m guilty of it, and you might be too. But what if we didn’t go straight for the computer? What if we sat down with family, had a full meal, and genuinely discussed the day’s events? What if you went straight to your children and asked them how their day was instead?
3. A chance to exercise and live strong. Why not go for a walk? The Internet won’t explode in the thirty minutes you step out the door and spend on improving your health.
4. A chance to realize the Internet won’t explode without you. This is the hardest for me. Even ignoring my Twitter feed for a day makes me nervous, inviting all sorts of feelings like “Did I miss something? What if something happened?”
Which is fairly ridiculous, of course. Your friends will do just fine without you. Your buddies on Facebook and Twitter might not even notice you’re gone, and if someone has an emergency that they need to discuss with you, what will they do? Email you, letting that frantic email sit in your inbox for a few days, or try and call you?
5. A true opportunity to get away. Who says you can’t combine the sabbatical with a vacation? You’d get the best of both worlds, then: a chance to get away from stress, and the freedom of time and mind to genuinely appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. That’s what Everett Bogue did when he headed into the Wisconsin wilds, and I’d hazard a guess those two weeks were satisfying in a way the Internet would be hard-stressed to match.
So why not give it a shot? Not everyone can afford to ignore their work for an entire weekend, let alone a month, but I think you’ll see a lot of the same benefits just by choosing to spend your time away from the Internet. Your friends and family might appreciate it, at least, when you suddenly have a lot more time for them.
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