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ILLUSTRATION BY LUIS MAZON

Neil Pasricha is the bestselling author of five books, including The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Equation, and host of the award-winning podcast 3 Books. His latest book is You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life.

Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, who Newsweek named one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” She lectures worldwide on the relationship between technology and humanity. She is the author of the new book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.

They held their discussion over Google Docs in November.

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Tiffany Shlain:

Yes! We need them all day long. We feel anxious if we can’t find them. We need to wake up to them, go to sleep looking at them. We can’t ever get enough of them. I was a smoker for a brief, regrettable period in my 20s and I got completely addicted to nicotine. I remember that feeling of wanting a cigarette only to realize I already had one in my mouth. That is the way I feel about my smartphone sometimes. Like I am never satiated.

However, I do understand how the word addiction can also be problematic. I personally never like the phrase “digital detox” because it sounds like something you can live without. Dr. Michael Rich from Harvard’s Center on Media and Child Health says a better comparison is binge eating. So it’s more like the need to self-regulate. What do you think?

Neil Pasricha:

The cigarette example made me laugh. What would we call someone who drank a bottle of wine before bed, drank a bottle of wine first thing in the morning and slept with a bottle of wine on their bedside table?

Shlain:

And that sleek object is so much easier to bring … everywhere. The bathroom, the boardroom, the bedroom. No paper bag needed. That’s why I do mini “interventions” throughout the week to keep it from controlling my every move, and then the big one each weekend where my husband and daughters and I turn off screens for 24 hours starting Friday night. We call it our Tech Shabbat and have done it for 10 years. I feel liberated when I turn it off. It gets tucked away. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s our favourite day of the week. I feel freed from the addiction from Friday to Saturday night. Released from its clutches. I have time to think, reflect, connect and just be. A decade of doing that as family has been transformative.

Pasricha:

I love that. What else do you do?

Shlain:

Oh my gosh – so many things. All my notifications are off on the phone. So I choose to use it, instead of it using me. What kind of things do you do?

Pasricha:

I have a concept to help build resilience that I write about in my book You Are Awesome that I call “untouchable days.” What are untouchable days? They are days when I am literally unreachable, by anyone, in any way, at all! All day! No phone, no internet access, nothing. I started planting one untouchable day in my calendar each week after I quit working at Walmart and realized I was getting even less writing done. “So, now that you quit your job, how’s the new book coming?” “Terribly!” It was embarrassing.

Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

Shlain:

What do you do in cases of emergencies? What’s your approach?

Pasricha:

Well, the short answer is that there never really are any. The long answer is that when my wife, Leslie, asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day nobody had cellphones and we were all unreachable at times. Our culture is so oriented to worst-case-scenario worrying that some people can no longer imagine not tracking their children’s cellphone locations or wondering how to reach a spouse if they fall off their bike. I say: Please. People need to chill. This fear-based, worry-oriented, what-if-disaster-strikes culture needs a cold bucket of water splashed on it quick. Our adrenal glands are fritzed out. We’re all on high alert.

But I get that we’re in relationships, so when I started doing this, as a compromise to my wife, I told her that when I had an untouchable day, I’d turn on my phone for an hour at lunchtime. What happened when I did? I came face-to-face with 17 text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding e-mails, endless robo-generated alerts and feeds – and precisely zero emergencies from my wife.

So after a few months, we stopped doing that and I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that, if something happened, as a last resort, she could call the place where I was working or simply drive over and find me.

I’ve pulled off untouchable days for a couple of years now. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and Leslie and I have both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

Shlain:

I agree that people are overly connected these days. We are constantly responding to everything and everyone and we forget how to just respond to ourselves. We need to remember that we existed just fine before the cellphones.

I actually love not being overly reachable one day a week. I wake up from the best sleep of the week on Saturday morning because that phone isn’t near my bed that night. On Saturdays, if people want to call us or if we need to call someone, we have a landline.

We just experienced the California wildfires (we were fortunately safe) but all the power was shut off and the cellphone towers went out, so landlines are really good for those “real emergencies,” too.

In my book, I talk about all the simple ways to prepare for a Tech Shabbat. As you said, it’s mostly about letting others in your life know for one day you need to detach from the network to recharge. I think the real “emergency" is never escaping the internet’s clutches on us. As much as I love technology, we need to remember it has an off switch. And that’s often what turns some of our greatest thinking and connection back “on.”

Pasricha:

It sounds beautiful. So, we agree screens are addictive, we agree cellphones are addictive, we agree we need breaks. You call them Tech Shabbats. I call them untouchable days. We have figured it out! People are probably thinking, “Okay, okay, Tiffany, Neil, I get it, I get it!”

So let’s talk about systems to manage or minimize technology during the rest of the week. What’s one thing you do?

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

Shlain:

The key for me is always replacing looking at the screen with something I enjoy. So it’s not what I don’t get, but what I get back.

After the 2016 election here in the U.S., I was waking up and reading the news on my phone about the latest stressful thing our 45th President had done. That is a long list. My heart would start racing first thing when I woke up and that is never a good way to start the day.

So now, when I wake up, I don’t look at my phone first. Instead, I write in a great notebook called The 5 Minute Journal. It asks me three things I am grateful for and three things that would make today great. And voila. A beautiful start to my day. At the end of the day, I also go to that journal instead of my phone to record what great things happened to me, as well as something I wish I had done differently. It is such a powerful way to start and end my day. A gratitude sandwich.

One more thing: At my film studio in San Francisco, there are no phones sitting on our desks. Our goal is to keep them in our bags so there aren’t these mini distractions bombs ticking, buzzing or beeping on people’s desks while we are in a meeting or trying to focus.

What things do you do?

Pasricha:

That’s uncanny! I start my day with Two-Minute Mornings. I created the practice after I found myself endlessly distracted and feeling low resilience throughout my days. So it’s just a simple anti-screen, mind-strengthening practice in which I fill out three prompts after I wake up but before I get out of bed. The prompts are “I will let go of…” (which helps me crystallize and eject a small anxiety), “I am grateful for…” (which helps my brain practise focusing on the positive) and “I will focus on…” (which helps me carve a short little ‘will do’ list from my endless ‘should do’ list).

Now, question – we both know cellphones aren’t going anywhere. Ever! They may even get smaller and get implanted into our necks or something. So, we’ve railed against the drug. But what’s an app or tool you use on the drug that helps you control your behaviour?

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Shlain:

Screens will become smaller and smaller. While Google Glass failed, it’s only a matter of time before there is some different form of screen in front of our eyes – maybe even augmented contact lenses. So instead of clicking through the stream, we may be blinking through it. Multiple screens of distraction happening at once, pulling you in more ways out of where you are.

That is why I think it will be even more important to integrate a technology from thousands of years ago: a full, complete day of rest. For everyone. In our modern era, that means disconnecting.

I explore in my book how perhaps we need to view rest as a technology. Most people think of a technology as something that makes you faster, more efficient and more productive. A true day of rest does that, too. Simple, free and ancient.

Pasricha:

I love the idea of implementing “a technology from thousands of years ago.” This is why I’m so big on books. Real books! On real pages! There are studies showing that reading 20 pages of fiction a day increases the firing of our mirror neurons. The parts of our brain responsible for empathy, compassion and trust.

Here’s to less screens and less phones and more living.

Shlain:

Long live the ancient technologies of rest, journals and books to maintain our humanity in our screen-filled world!


FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION: MORE FROM GLOBE OPINION

Can we kick bad smartphone habits? Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge

Is conversation a lost art? Sakyong Mipham and N.J. Enfield

What does it mean to be homeless as an Indigenous person? Jesse Thistle and Helen Knott

How does one overcome grief? Julia Samuel and Cathy Rentzenbrink

Should women be angry? Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly


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