Diary of a 24-Hour Tech Sabbath

December 11, 2012 | By | Comments (5)

The unplugged house

When writer Janelle Brown was assigned to profile a family who has banned technology from their home for Sunset’s January 2013 issue, she realized how dependent her own family is on their devices. 

Inspired, she challenged herself to take the ultimate test: Twenty-four hours without a smartphone. This is her story. 

I turn off my phone at noon mid-week, after much internal debate about which 24 hours are the best to be without it (none). Before shutting down, I fire off an email to a few critical friends, warning that I’ll be out of contact and that if they need me, they can’t text me. Then I power down, and stick the phone in a drawer.

Immediately I feel like I’ve erased myself from existence. I’m almost physically uncomfortable, the messages I’m missing like an itch I can’t scratch – I’m clearly hooked on the dopamine blast I get every time I see that I have a message, an email, a text, a Facebook update, a Twitter mention. Without my phone, I won’t know if something fascinating has happened somewhere else, or (narcissistically) if someone has thought about me. I have grown so used to perpetual accessibility that the idea of disappearing for a few hours makes me a little panicky. It’s as if, without the phone that links me, I have no evidence that I am real to the greater world: I am online, therefore I am.

I find myself still reaching for my phone out of habit.

I had anticipated an immediate feeling of untethered freedom, but life without a smartphone is a mild hassle. My daughter can’t understand why I’m not playing music for her in the car; why, instead, we have to listen to warmed-over radio pop (I haven’t kept CDs in my car in years). I lose track of time (my phone replaced my watch back in the ’90s), and almost get a parking ticket. I get lost without GPS to navigate me (and I no longer have paper maps to back me up). Clearly, I’m far too dependent on this one gadget; and yet it also clarifies how much detritus (maps, CDs, address books, etc.) one small cube of circuitry has eliminated from our lives over the last five years. There’s a good reason why we love our smartphones so much.

And yet there’s an upside to going without. When my daughter and I go to the farmers market and eat ice cream, I’m not distracted by my phone’s presence.  Knowing that the phone is back at home allows me to stop trying to be in two places (real and virtual) at once. Things are happening elsewhere – and I still idly wonder what they are – but I’m not restlessly checking my phone every 5 minutes to find out, or zoning out on my email. I’m 100-percent in the moment with her, something that doesn’t happen as frequently as it should. And later that day, my work is more focused without the phone constantly vibrating beside me. Clearly, this is good for me: I find myself wondering how hard it would be to have a regular Tech Sabbath.

Even stranger, when I turn the phone back on, 24 hours later, it turns out I’ve been missing nothing at all. No texts. No phone calls.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard after all.

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without your smartphone? Check out the full Sunset story, then test your own tolerance for a day unplugged.  Share your experiences in the comments below. 


  1. Kristi Young

    Janelle, I appreciated the original article in the magazine, and this is a good follow up.
    I am a mom of 4 girls ages 18, 15, 13, and 10, and as of Christmas, everyone in the family has a smart phone except the youngest.
    I do like the ease of many of the things you mention about smart phones, but I don’t love the trap of technology and remember fondly the days before owning a cellphone.
    Last night, I read your article to the family and asked for responses. We had a great discussion.
    My oldest said that kind of lack of technology seemed Amish, but we talked about boundaries and courtesies and decided that we are comfortable with how our family uses technology.
    I love hearing what others do to manage virtual life, and think that being conscious about our consumption is so important.
    I will continue to emphasize in our family the priority of the real person in the room over the virtual one on the other end of the device.
    Thank you!

    January 1, 2013 at 12:41 pm
  2. Jenny

    I love the fact that they left the original phone number for the rotary phone on the photo in there. I’m sure Greg Thomas Heating and Air Conditioning in Fortville, Indiana (the current owner of that phone number) love having their business phone number in the magazine.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:06 am
  3. Jane Y

    How sad for today’s children and spouses. I look @ my phone when i need to check on tome. I look at email when i have the time. I use it for entertainment in the car. But when someone is with me, it’s in my pocket. My parents would not allow the tv on if people were over visiting. I still live by that rule with ALL electronics. Moderation in all things

    December 29, 2012 at 8:01 am
  4. Janice

    Seriously? Did you read what you wrote? Are you really writing that you are not present with your child every day? How sad for you and everyone else. PLEASE PUT AWAY YOUR PHONES! The children actually need their parents. Make it your New Year’s resolution.

    December 24, 2012 at 7:31 pm
  5. wm and lee greene

    great test kid… more people shud do it.
    My wife has a rotarty dial on her cell, she is not tech savy…of course we r both in our 80’s
    Hv a good Christmas and New Yr.l
    lee and bill greene

    December 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm

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