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BUZZING

I’m honoring the Sabbath–and fixing my plugged-in brain–by putting down my phone

A man wearing a mask depicting Steve Jobs holds up a cardboard cut-out of Apple's new iPhone 6, as he walks into the Apple Store in Tokyo.
Reuters/Yuya Shino
Put. Down. The. Phone.
This article is more than 2 years old.

My addiction to my phone is real. I try to stop it. I fight the urge to reach into my purse and check it, but I always lose. Sometimes I find myself looking at my phone not even remembering how or when it got into my hand. I’ve tried leaving it at home, but have found that the anxiety of not knowing whether there’s something important waiting in my inbox—there isn’t—drives me insane.

With the Jewish New Year around the corner, the time seemed ripe for a change. Dieters have their cheat days, and now I will do the opposite: I will indulge my phone needs six days a week and abstain for one.

Here’s how my mornings typically go:

The alarm goes off. I snooze (at least three times) and eventually wake up. I immediately check my phone: personal email, work email, Twitter. After walking my dog and getting my coffee, I sit down at my computer, check both emails again and sign into Slack. I start looking for stories. Any big food news break since I last checked (probably around 11pm the night before)? Did something disgusting turn up in a burger perhaps? Have scientists discovered a new food that is both healthy and tastes like bacon? I’ll quickly research it, write it and file it for editing.

After that, I may do thirty minutes of YouTube-led yoga, with Slack open on my phone right next to the mat on the floor. The phone will follow me around through the rest of my morning routine—making breakfast and lunch, taking a shower, getting dressed—and of course it will accompany me on my walk to the office. I’ll listen to the news as I walk, keeping an eye on email, Slack and Twitter to make sure I don’t miss anything major (or even not so major) that does (or, usually, does not) require my immediate attention.

Once I’m at work, I will stare at a computer screen for a solid 7-8 hours, maybe with a break to take a walk outside, but even for that, I will bring my phone and check it incessantly because I am paranoid and worry that my editors will think an empty desk means a slacking (and not Slacking) writer. (I should add that my editors are all very nice and have never once asked about my whereabouts or complained about a slow response.)

My phone’s out in the evenings too, next to me as I watch TV. I’m also on my computer, perusing my various feeds for more amazing! incredible! stories. If I’m out at a bar, I’m swiping while I wait for a drink or a bathroom to free up. Eventually I will go to sleep and start the whole thing over in the morning.

With the exception of the alarm clock and the office hours, my weekend days look pretty much the same: A screen constantly in front of me or in my back pocket as I monitor for something that will probably never come in.

It’s not a good way to live, but that hasn’t stopped me or my fellow Americans. A Feb. 2015 report found we spend nearly five hours a day on our phones. Add to that computer time, television time, laundry time, grocery shopping time, paying bills time, and all the other time I spend doing things I need to do but would honestly rather not, and I am left with precious little actual quality time. I hardly ever read actual books, walk my dog without one eye on my phone, or spend time with people that is entirely focused on them.

But now, with Rosh Hashanah around the corner, I am making a commitment (a real one! really!) to give myself the gift my parents tried to shove down my throat so many years ago. I am going to turn everything off, close everything down, and just be, each week, from Friday night sundown to Saturday sunset. This year, 5776, I am going to observe the Jewish Sabbath, a.k.a., Shabbos.

Keeping Shabbos, or Shabbat if we’re using real Hebrew, is one of Judaism’s most sacred laws. It’s one of the ten commandments, right in between not taking the Lord’s name in vain and honoring your parents. Different interpretations exist as to what keeping Shabbos means in its minutiae, but the general gist is clear: Don’t do work. Don’t make anything. Don’t break anything. Just rest.

As it turns out, my timing couldn’t be better. “Shabbos is closely related to the idea of teshuva (repentance),” Rabbi Akiva Tatz wrote in his book Living Inspired. And teshuva is a big part of the Jewish New Year—making amends for the wrongs you have wrought in the past year is part of the New Year rituals, right there with dipping apples in honey and spending endless hours in synagogue. The Hebrew letters in the word “Shabbat” are the same as in the root word for teshuva, “teshev.” When a person repents for a sin, he comes out purer, “an ascent to a new level of growth, stronger and clearer,” according to Tatz. The same, he explains, happens when we observe Shabbat.

Growing up, I hated Shabbos. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone or turn on lights or get in a car to go anywhere but shul. The days dragged as I tried to sneak a trip to a nearby thrift store or listen to my Discman without my father catching me in the act. (I was never worried about God catching me. Didn’t he have better things to do?)

But now, as an adult, I realize what a gift my religion has given me. A chance to rejuvenate my brain, read something important enough to print on paper, spend time with friends and family and actually listen to what they’re saying. Yes it is a commandment, but I’m not doing it for God. And yes, my Dad did say this was the best news he’d gotten since my niece was born almost two years ago, but I’m not doing it for him either. I’m doing it just for me.

I haven’t figured out exactly what the parameters of my Shabbos will be yet, but I know there will be no phone and no internet. Time with people and time with myself. Books and naps and conversations and walks and learning and meals that don’t end because I need to be somewhere else.

Shabbos won’t be about lazing around, waiting for the day to end. I am hoping it will be why I was waiting for the week to end. A chance to enjoy what I’ve done instead of planning what I will do next.

“It is not simply rest, inactivity,” Rabbi Tatz wrote. “It is the celebration of the work which has been completed.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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