[Life Back West] October 2010 – “Screenless Sundays”

The impetus to ask my spouse to trade up to the 21st century and get a smartphone that texted came from practicality.

In a world where many of us simply speak a number or name with voice enabled devices to get connected with someone  (FaceTime calling?) I was punching in three sets of phone numbers to get a hold of him. He is a psychiatrist, and turns off his cell phone and landline while in session – sometimes not turning them back on. To get connected quickly was one call to leave a message on his office phone, one call to his pager, and one set of numbers to direct the pager number to display the office number to signal a message on the office phone. He saw few problems with the arrangement; for me it was the sliver that never worked itself out.

Three sets of phone numbers simply to say “Could you please stop and pick up some pasta on the way home.”

Even Thomas Edison – “Watson, come here. I want to see you.” – seemed to have it easy in comparison.

Like many negotiations, the trade-off he proposed came with a literal “off” switch; no screens on Sunday (TV, computer, iPhones for browsing, etc.) and an end-of-day shutdown of digital devices at home after dinner. He’d get a smart phone that I could use to text him wherever (well not wherever exactly; it’s an iPhone with AT&T so coverage only hits parts of San Francisco) I needed to get a hold of him quickly and he’d do the same back rather than trying to call me in the middle of an executive coaching client session or when I was leading a leadership team off-site.

Some things that sound good conceptually (dieting, winning the lottery, etc.) turn out to be scarier in reality. Halloween approaching didn’t help.

For many people (well, many people I know), anything with a screen has become a new appendage. Check the weather? Weather.com. Sports scores? ESPN.com. A few minutes to spare while waiting for pick-up at the end of a play date? Ample time for a few rounds of Downhill Bowling or Homerun Battle 3D. Next to breathing, logging on (and note that I’m not even much of a texter or a Crackberry user) has become as unconscious as breathing.

So we went cold-turkey. And apart from a few lapses (spouse: “I forgot that we were screenless today; I was just showing Traylor the start of the movie I’m returning tomorrow.”) things changed. Markedly.

The research regarding trying to multi-task, and the destructive havoc that the always on call of digital devices play, is pretty damning. A cursory look at articles such as Gigaom’s “Multi-Tasking is Bad For Your Brain. Here’s How to Fix Itor the recent New York Times piece “Your Brain on Computers: Attached to Computers and Paying a Price” provide clear evidence that taking no down time away from the hustle and bustle of digital devices degrades you and your life.

Cut to the chase? No unplugged time means that relationships, work effectiveness, and a host of other things tank.

So what happened (three Sundays and counting) to us?

Sunday days became slower. Instead of waking up to my 10 favorite websites, coffee with people and paper became part of the routine. The newspapers (I know, carbon based – we’ll likely move them over to an iPad once a front facing camera gets added to the device) that had been neglected until the end of the day now became read early – and completely. Without the competition of a screen at hand, the act of lingering while reading returned.

The day also became quieter. While I’m a total sports fan, the truth of the matter is that I really only pay attention to the end of season and subsequent playoff rush. With a carve out for those exceptions, the drone of TV announcers, TED speakers, or YouTube videos in the background became the quiet of our wooded backyard or Traylor practicing by reading the Sunday comics out loud.

Chores also got done. The desk that cried out to straightened up? Done. The dead light bulbs downstairs? Replaced. Gutters? Cleaned. Sunday dinners? Easier and earlier. Turns out all those screens detracted, not added, to good things happening.

Naps (scary thought – long missed since our 8 year-old son Traylor outgrew them) returned. With less go-go going on, we had time to slow down, let fatigue from the week say hello, and crash for a few minutes.

So Screenless Sundays (outside of a few major sporting events) look like they are here to stay. The rewards of unplugging just for one day are many. While we’re not ready to take the plunge like my fellow parent Eve Niquette (no TVs on in the home all days because there are no TVs in the house), taking this one day is refreshing enough – at least at this point.

Who knows. We may start a trend.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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