A few weeks ago I tried a little experiment: I unplugged for the Sabbath.
I'm Jewish, but not overly religious, and have certainly never formally observed the Fourth Commandment, other than via the tradition of wearing white on Friday nights at summer camp, which never seemed to dovetail with the fact that Fridays were also the night for grape juice. However, my good friend and MWM subject Dan Rollman had co-founded a movement called The Sabbath Manifesto which encouraged a "Day of Unplugging," so I thought I'd give it a shot.
There are 10 principles that guide the Sabbath Manifesto, rooted in the Biblical tradition of the Sabbath but encouraging its secular application through activities meant to nourish and engage mind and spirit. The first one is "Avoid Technology," so immediately I was in trouble. I not only work online through my various projects, but I am an avid user of online technologies to connect and engage with friends as well. Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Gchat — these are all the tools with which I stay in touch with my friends and family (and occasionally the old-fashioned telephone, for Mom & Dad). The second principle of The Sabbath Manifesto is "Connect With Loved Ones," so if I adhered strictly to the principles as set out, the first would cancel out the second.
My compromise: No Blackberry, but I could use the phone to call my parents and sister; no computer, but I could leave Tweetdeck on and scrolling as a sort of digital Sabbath Goy; no Hulu, but I could watch TV (weekends are essential for catching up on the DVR); and in exchange, even though it doesn't have much to do with unplugging, no cabs (so I could honor the "Get Outside" and "Nurture Your Health" categories).
I went sundown to sundown, Friday to Saturday night, and went for the full 25 hours (I don't kid around.) So how did I do? Let's leave "avoid technology" for the end because it's the crux here. Connect with loved ones, nurture health, get outside -- check check check. I read a book (American Subversive by David Goodwillie -- excellent) and walked around in the sunshine with it, just like I usually do with my Blackberry. I avoided commerce (a good way to get a friend to pick up the tab for drinks!), drank wine (see previous), and ate bread (I'm Jewish; when it's not Passover, it's what we do). "Light Candles" is nice in theory, but in a tiny papertrap apartment on the Lower East Side, it is prudent to go for a mood-bulb; "Find Silence" -- well, when you can't use your Blackberry to make plans with anyone that's pretty much a given! As for "Give Back" -- well, I do most of my donating online, but I did use the time to do a thorough closet sort-through, resulting in about five or six bags of clothes to donate.
But to what end? Yes, it was 24 hours and it didn't kill me -- but it also didn't help me, either. I was happy to read a book but it's not like I don't ever read books (that's what you do on planes when your laptop runs out of juice!). My weekends are oases of time and space, where I am able to draw a breath and dive into the stuff I couldn't get to that week -- the great article I bookmarked, the friend whose emails I kept dropping, the blog post I'd meant to write on a subject that wasn't timely but was still important. I love weekends for giving me the chance to get stuff, and taking the pressure off during the week.
Put simply, the weekends are already my Sabbath. Adding a Sabbath into it actually created more work, based on what I was not able to get to during that 24 hour period of being off the grid. To you, that may sound crazy -- but then again, maybe you have a house and family, spouse and kids, and weekends really do represent crucial time to spend together. God bless you for putting down the blackberry and taking a moment to enjoy the now. But for me, being a Blackberry orphan means feeling orphaned without my Blackberry -- and what it can do to make my life better.
What does that say about me? I find the term "workaholic" to be distasteful, because it reminds me of the harried-looking lawyers I recall chained to their desks through nights and weekends during my lawyer days years ago. It becomes a different story when your work and life overlap and blend, when you get excited about tackling projects and don't want to let an opportunity slip by. And yes, I get that I'm putting a positive spin there — that for those around me, it can be annoying to see me disappear into my Berry or laptop for whatever calls to me from within. But the difference, to me, is that it's calling to me from within — with few exceptions, I'm not doing this on the weekend because I have to, but because I choose to. And if I can do so while drinking wine, so much the better.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story called "Why relaxing is hard work," on just this theme. It draws a distinction between "the Hard Worker" and "the Workaholic," using the example of the "Hard Worker dreaming of a vacation while he works, while the Workaholic dreams of work while on vacation. This example is missing a key element: engagement. If the Hard Worker is not engaged in his work, then of course he'd rather be elsewhere — daydreaming of the next vacation got me through many a law-firm all-nighter. But if the so-called Workaholic is engaged, that engagement doesn't just end because you have dinner reservations in 20 minutes or it's Tuesday and you're supposed to be somewhere. In that case, you get to dinner and talk about it, or send an email en route to the airport letting your team know you'll be checking in later. Why would we drop the things we're excited about? Why would we let them drop? If we really care about something, then we'll care no matter what else we've got on the schedule. That goes double for events offline — I can't tell you how many trips, dinners, and events I've been able to attend because I didn't have to sit by a computer waiting for comments or updates. The freedom to not run every hour to check your email, or tote your laptop around hoping to catch a stray wireless signal? Worth the price of a quickie Berry check, every time.
So I think the term "Workaholic" is an unfair one (perhaps because my score on the WSJ quiz on the matter put me so firmly in that camp). I think Workaholics do exist, but somewhere between the unengaged Hard Worker and the uber-obsessed Workaholic, there exists the happy medium of the "Workahol-ish" — one who works hard at something meaningful to them, and relishes the chance to do it.
"Workahol-ish" will probably not catch on, but that's okay — if the idea catches on, and those of us who consider our Blackberries a freedom and not a curse can stop having to defend ourselves against their use, maybe we can all relax a little bit more. And get a little bit more done. If we want to. Ideally outside, with family, over some bread and wine.
p.s. That beautiful vacation photo above? I took that, last weekend, in Miami with my sister ... and my Blackberry. I'm pleased to report that the three of us had a wonderful time.