Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

How a Digital Fast Works

If you’ve been reading the posts in this space for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about digital fasts.

This isn’t a new concept. I learned about it several years ago by reading the blogs and books of Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta. But the idea is a simple one: cut yourself off from all forms of electronic communication for a period of time. That period can be a few hours or a few days.

Why do it? The same reason you take a break from work: to relax and refresh. To give your mind and your body a break. Or, in the words of retired musician Bill Bruford:

… the net effect of a decade of jigging about at the keyboard has had the unintended consequence of heightening my belief in – and desire for – the real, tangible, immediate, and authentic. I thirst for almost anything the computer cannot provide, and funnily enough that’s quite a bit.

I used to believe that I needed to be tuned in at all times. But that was a few years ago. Now, I gladly partake in digital fasts each weekend.

You can do it too. Curious? Then read on.

Start Slowly

Don’t try too much too quickly. Like jumping into a cold pool or lake, the shock will hit you hard. Made a conscious decision to do something simple. Like what? How about turning your phone off at the end of each work day. If anyone needs you, they can leave a message; get back to them the next morning. Try this for a few weeks and let it bleed into the weekends: turn off your phone from Friday at about 9:00 p.m. until Sunday morning. Then, do it for the entire weekend.

From there, experiment with checking your emails at fixed interval during the day. Some people advocate checking email three times a day — in the morning, at noon, and at the end of the day. Find the interval that works for you and stick with it.

What will the result be? Chances are, you’ll be a bit more productive, and maybe a little less stressed. You won’t feel the need to try to keep up with everything that arrives in you inbox, and responding as if your life depends on it. Your life doesn’t depend on responding to those messages.

Build Up

The next logical step is not checking emails on the weekends. That is definitely a harder step. That means not having an email client running or not being logged into web-based email. Again, do that slowly. Start by not checking emails on Sunday. Then, when you become comfortable with that, try doing it on Saturday and Sunday.

Finally, start trying not to turn on a computer or a tablet one day each weekend. If you do turn on your tablet, say to read ebooks or articles saved to Instapaper or Pocket, make sure that wifi is turned off. Do that for several weeks to form the habit, then expand to both days of the weekend. It’ll take some time, but eventually you’ll be able to cut the cord (so to speak).

But I’m Missing Out!

Ask yourself what you’re really missing. A life-changing text message or tweet? An email that can’t wait? An urgent phone message that turns out not to be urgent? More likely, it’s a frivolous message from a friend, a tweet or Facebook message that can wait (or which will go stale in a few hours), or something like that.

If you take some time to look at this closely, you’ll see that you aren’t missing out on anything. I admit that there are jobs that require you to be on call. If you work one of those jobs, just make sure that there is another way people can get in touch with you. Landline, anyone?

Making It Work. And Stick

Making a digital fast work, and making it stick, involves forming a habit. And there are two keys to successfully doing that.

The first is discipline. You have to be able to stop yourself from turning on that phone after the day ends. You have to be able resist the urge to not check that email once you see the notification. You have to walk away from your computer or put down that mobile device and do something else. If necessary, turn off your wireless router. That’s drastic, I know. But it does work.

The second key is to realize that you’re going to backslide. You’re human, not a robot. Temptation is a constant threat. You’ll succumb to it. I still do. Don’t agonize about backsliding. Just try to a little harder to stick to your habit.

Doing a digital fast isn’t easy, but it can be done. You’ll have more time to do other things and to spend with those you love (or even just like). And you’ll come back to your work with a clearer, fresher mind.

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