'24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week' (Book Review)

©. K Martinko

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain explains how going offline for a full day each week can change your brain, body, and soul.

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a book called 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain. My brother gave it to me because he has seen me reading a lot of books on this topic, but for that same reason I didn't feel keen to jump into it; lately I've been feeling like unplugging and going offline are trendy topics, and everyone's trying to get on the publishing bandwagon.

But when I did start reading 24/6, I was immediately hooked. I realized it was different from the other books I'd read, and better suited to my own life as a busy working mother of three young kids. Instead of assuming that I should be able to go without technology for a prolonged period of time, or weed it out of my life completely, Shlain's approach is refreshingly manageable: Implement a once-weekly 'Tech Shabbat', or technology-free day, when the entire household goes offline. (Shlain is Jewish, and thus inspired by the traditional model of the Sabbath, but you could do yours any day of the week.)

In the ten years since Shlain started doing this with her husband and two daughters, their weekly technology fast, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, has become a highlight for all of them. It is the source of their greatest family memories – because they do things together – and it sets them up for the success during the rest of the week:

"Our Tech Shabbat is a force field of protection that gives us the strength, resilience, perspective, and energy for the other six days. It lets us achieve the balance we need to live in both the online world and real life. It is our favorite day, and we look forward to it all week."

24/6 describes Shlain's family's Tech Shabbat routine in detail, from the meal that is shared with guests on Friday night, to the deep sleep they all enjoy, to the lazy Saturday morning filled with journalling and listening to full albums on the record player, to the family activities such as biking or crafting or swimming at a pool. They use a landline, print out the day's schedule and phone numbers in advance if needed, and look at a paper map when going somewhere new.

But the book contains a lot more than that. It delves into the problem of how tech addiction is eroding the fabric of society; people don't know how to converse anymore and have trouble making eye contact, which is having an impact on babies' development, and even pets whose owners rarely look at them. Shlain talks about the challenges of parenting in a social media-driven era, when teens are pressured by FOMO and 'likes' and Snapstreaks. She encourages parents to delay giving kids smartphones until at least age 14, and then create a detailed contract for healthy use.

This is followed by a section on the benefits of unplugging and how it boosts creativity: "The science is clear: letting our minds idle can lead to big ideas and big breakthroughs... [but] when we succumb to our screens too often, we're just spinning our wheels when we could be going somewhere." Shlain writes about the value of stillness and silence, of practicing gratitude to make oneself happier, of spending time outside, and even improving our brain function:

"Taking a day off from all screens every week actually does affect memory in many positive ways. Neuroscientists tell us that by resting and relaxing and slowing down the input of new information, we're giving our brains a chance to recover and sort. The result is improved memory and better recall. It's sort of like we're cleaning out our mental file cabinets every week."

And perhaps even more interesting is new evidence that we remember things better when we don't use screens to document them: "Creating a hard copy of an experience through media leaves only a diminished copy in our own heads."

I finished the book feeling inspired and confident that I can do this with my family. Shlain is not asking us to disengage from the loud outside world altogether, but simply to carve out a space where the outside noise is not invited, at least for a bit. But what really got me was this beautiful, almost haunting quote:

"Time is the ultimate form of human wealth on this earth. Without time, all other forms of wealth are meaningless. It is this insight about time – patently obvious but frequently forgotten – that makes keeping a Sabbath day both spiritually profound and politically radical. To reclaim time is to be rich."