It’s a common occurrence: You’re having dinner with family or friends when someone starts talking about a movie they just saw or a book they just read. But what was the name of that actor or author again? You whip out your phone, do a quick Google search, and get your answer. However if it’s Friday night and you’re having dinner with Tiffany Shlain, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, you’ll sit at the table in ignorant bliss.
For the past six years, Shlain and her family have observed Technology Shabbat, a modernized version of the Jewish day of rest. They turn off every screen in sight—phones, laptops, TVs, and yes, even Apple watches—before dinner on Friday night and take 24 hours to reconnect.
But Shlain is hardly a Luddite. In fact, she founded The Webby Awards and now runs The Moxie Institute Film Studio and Lab. “I’ve always loved tech and the way it can connect and empower us,” she says. “But I got to a point where I felt overwhelmed and distracted by it.”
That feeling became even clearer when Shlain’s father was dying of brain cancer. He often had only one good hour each day, so Shlain and her family made a conscious effort to turn off their phones and spend those 60 minutes being completely present with him. That time spent off the grid had a major impact, and she talked with her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at UC Berkeley, about making unplugging a family ritual. That’s when Technology Shabbat was born.
Shlain and her family had taken part in the National Day of Unplugging before, so she knew they were up for the challenge. “The first time we unplugged, it felt like the longest day ever,” she says. “And that was wonderful. I knew then that it was something I wanted to do every week.”
Each Technology Shabbat kicks off with a homemade meal. The family then spends Saturday doing some of their favorite offline activities: exploring nature, playing music, and working on art projects. “It’s all of the things you don’t make the time to do when you have delicious screens in front of you,” Shlain says.
Even though they’ve maintained the tradition for six years, Shlain says it’s still hard to flip the switch from being hyper-connected to totally off the grid. So she’s developed a trick: She leaves out a piece of paper to unload all of the thoughts swirling around in her mind. In the first few hours after she turns off her devices, Shlain jots down notes about calls she needs to make and emails she has to send. But then a curious thing happens: She finds herself forgetting about the paper and finally feeling present. Without the constant buzzing and pinging, Shlain has time to space out and explore her imagination. “It puts my mind into a different mode of thinking,” she says. “It’s supple and allows me to be creative and inspired.”
While the family spends a good portion of their Saturdays on personal projects, Technology Shabbat doesn’t forbid you from being social. In fact, without a screen in the way, you might connect more closely with those around you. The only difference is once you make plans, there won’t be a string of texts saying you’re 10 minutes away, finding parking, or waiting at a red light. “I don’t need a blow-by-blow account when you’re coming to meet me,” Shlain says. And if an emergency does come up, the family has a landline phone that they can use.
The best part of all: When it comes to dinnertime on Saturday, Shlain, her husband, and their two children are psyched to go back online. “It helps us really appreciate the beauty of the Internet,” she says.
Interested in learning more about Technology Shabbat? Check out this video that Shlain made for some tips and tricks:
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