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A Day a Week, A Week a Year

We are a family that is surrounded by digital technologies. Each of us has our own Kindle, devices that have already more than paid for themselves in all we’ve saved buying ebooks in place of printed books. My two oldest kids each have an iPod Touch, one they earned and purchased themselves with their paper route money. Of course I’ve got a cell phone and have recently transitioned to preaching from an iPad. And so on. It’s ridiculous, really. But I don’t think we are much different than most families today, surrounded by generations of devices.

There is an obvious financial cost to being a wired family, but there is also a more subtle cost—the cost of distraction. As much as I love and appreciate these devices, they are distracting. Sometimes they distract by beeping and flashing and vibrating, and other times they distract just by their ease, their fun, their availability. Paul Graham says, “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” Ain’t that the truth. It’s like these devices are constantly beckoning to us, calling us away from what we are doing and toward what they think we ought to be doing. You would almost think they were made to be distracting.

When I sit and read a book, I have to battle against running to a computer to check email; when I am talking with the family, I have to battle against reaching for my phone to see why it just vibrated; when my children are bored, their instinct is to grab their iPod and lose themselves in a mindless game. Those devices are always so close by and so compelling.

I am glad to have access to these devices but want to ensure that we are using them well, that we own them instead of allowing them to own us. It is important for the children, but equally important for me and for Aileen. The only real remedy I’ve been able to find is carving out times that are deliberately digital-free. I now take one day a week and one week a year away from the digital buzz. And then I fight the daily battle.

One Week a Year

Over the past few summers I’ve been exploring the idea of deliberately carving out times that are digital-free, away from the Internet and all digital devices. I addressed the first attempt in my book The Next Story:

Just before writing this chapter, in the summer of 2010, I went away on a week’s vacation. This was the first time I had chosen to escape not just my home but also my media — to escape both my geographical and digital worlds. I drove with my family some 650 miles south to a state park in the middle of Virginia and stayed there for a week with no e-mail, no cell phone signal, no Facebook or Twitter or television or computer games. 

And there were no beeps.

Immediately, I noticed that the loss of my digital technologies had slowed the pace of my life. No longer were these devices beckoning to me, demanding that I respond to them, calling me to answer e-mails and respond to messages . For a full week, I left behind the harried world of modern digital life. It actually took me several days to respond to this new pace of life and grow comfortable moving at this slower pace. Unfortunately, upon my return it took only a few hours to turn things on once again and increase the speed.

I have had at least two summers since then and our tradition has continued. We visited a second Virginia state park last year and did the same thing. This summer we are heading for a cabin in the wilds of Quebec and will once again leave our devices at home. The one caveat is that we allow Kindles (though not for surfing or email) since that is how we do the bulk of our reading today. Though this may generate a little bit of grumbling, it is easier and more rewarding than we tend to think. I really believe in doing this and highly recommend that you try it as well. The more difficult that sounds, the more you need it!

One Day a Week

I also now take one day a week away from digital devices, though I’ve found that I need to qualify this a little bit. It’s actually a day away from email, social media and anything resembling a game. After all, if I’m going to preach from an iPad, I can’t be entirely digital-free. On Saturday evening I shut things down and don’t use them again until late Sunday evening at the earliest. I thought it would be difficult, but it’s actually been very easy and very satisfying. At this point I don’t expect this of the rest of the family, but at some point I may ask them to try it as well. (If you are wondering, I write Sunday’s blog post on Saturday and queue it up to post automatically.) This is my weekly “digital sabbath” and I’ve come to love it.

The Daily Battle

And then there is the daily battle, where I’ve seen both success and failure. This is where I experience the greatest struggle and am too often choosing device over family. Unless I am very deliberate and very self-controlled, it is always a temptation to lose myself in something digital rather than to relate to the family. When I am at my best I leave my phone out of my pocket and leave my iPad in its case. When I am at my best I plan what I intend to do with the family and make these times fun and relational. It lasts like this for a while—a couple of weeks or even a month. But eventually the self-control fades and soon I’m back to old habits, checking email through the evening, catching up with blog posts, mindlessly looking for something to entertain me.

I’d be interested in knowing what you do, and how (if) you maintain the daily discipline so that first things come first.