Weekends "Offline"

Draft created: 3 August 2013
Last updated: 2 September 2014
Status: Second draft

Subject: Offline

I’m spending this weekend offline. If you need to reach me before Monday, you can call/text 510-847-9935.

Thanks, Jeremy

On Saturday, July 14, 2012, I logged into my personal email account, and set the message above as my “vacation response.” I wasn’t going on vacation, but I needed a break. In the past two weeks, I’d moved out of the apartment I had shared with my girlfriend; moved into a tiny studio on the fourth floor of an elevator-less building in a noisy neighborhood; assembled a futon, kitchen block, and bookshelves I’d bought at IKEA; and clumsily tried drilling into my wall in search of studs, getting miniature plaster craters, and nothing more, in return.

During those lonely, exhausting weeks, I’d become a compulsive inbox-refresher. My personal and work email accounts were two sides of a psychologically toxic coin, two opposite games of chance. I refreshed my personal account in hopes of discovering an invitation to dinner, or drinks, or a day trip up the Hudson. I refreshed my work account in fear of receiving an urgent assignment I was too tired to much as one might press the trigger in Russian Roulette: bracing for the impact of an urgent assignment, a rush of calm when it didn’t arrive.

This compulsion, I sensed, was crippling me. Every so often, I abstain from caffeine for day or two, just to prove to myself that I haven’t developed an addiction. I wanted to do the same for email. Two days seemed just long enough to feel the benefits — whatever they might be — without frustrating friends or coworkers.

So that Saturday morning, I logged off. I posted my “vacation” messages on my personal and work email accounts, unplugged my internet router, and disabled my phone’s data connection.

The first few hours were too self-aware to be either revealing or relaxing. But as I gradually forgot about the experiment, I began catching myself lapse into old habits. I reached for my phone, entirely subconciously, several times an hour. I touched it in moments of unimaginative boredom, hoping for an excitement-injecting email that would spare me devising plans myself. I reached for it in moments of social and/or electromagnetic transition: leaving a restaurant, exiting the subway, entering my apartment.

At the beginning of the weekend, I felt ashamed by these reflexes. By the end, I was congratulating myself for resisting them. Come Sunday evening, I felt more relaxed than I had in months. I could read for a full hour (!) without reaching for my phone. Short trips — from the subway to my apartment, from my apartment to the grocery store — became times not for inbox-refreshing but for reflection and daydreaming.

As I logged into my email accounts Monday morning, I braced for the possibility my auto-responder hadn’t worked properly, that I’d missed a crucial message; work neglected, an impromptu party unattended.

I’d missed very little. Newsletters, mostly, and a few non-urgent emails from friends. Seeing an entire weekend’s worth of messages at once lent a bird’s-eye perspective I’d lost years ago. So I decided to continue the experiment the next weekend. And the next and the next and the next.

For more than two years now, I’ve spent nearly every weekend “offline.” *Nearly because I’ve made a few necessary exceptions for work. And I’ve draped “offline” in quotation marks because I’m rarely truly offline. Mostly, I just don’t check email or Twitter or Facebook. I still rely on Google Maps for transit directions and the internet for finding museum hours and restaurant reviews.

My general principle: If I feel psychologically dependent on a service, I don’t use it on the weekend. I like that this definition is fluid. It adapts to new technologies, and to new ways of using them. In the time since I began my experiment, for instance, I’ve joined Snapchat. It’s never made me feel angsty or anxious, so I don’t mind it sending me notifications on weekends.

Not checking email on the weekends has contributed more to my happiness, well-being, and creativity than any other habit I’ve adopted. (I’d even wager that it’s been a boon to my work-week productivity.) Every Friday, I look forward to the moment when I activate my vacation message, typically as I’m leaving work. I’ve been slowly refining it, trying to maximize clarity and minimize holier-than-thou undertones. Lately, I’ve settled on this:

Subject: Mostly offline this weekend

I don’t actively check email on weekends. To get in touch, please call or text: 510-847-9935. Thanks, Jeremy.