At some point in the last couple years, David Roberts, a staff writer at the environmental website Grist, realized that the constant whirl of the digital world had begun taking a toll on him. A hyperengaged online presence (he’s one of a small number of Twitter users to have hit the app’s little-known daily cap on Tweets), Roberts began feeling constantly twitchy and unproductive, weighed down by an unending torrent of digital pings.
In an article for Outside magazine published online earlier this week, he explains that all this screen time led to an unsustainable cycle of distraction and fake busyness: “I spent most of my daytime hours shoveling digital snow,” he writes. “The core of my job — researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-characters length — I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down. I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.”
To regain a semblance of balance, Roberts decided to do something most people wouldn’t dream of: take a yearlong sabbatical from both work and the internet’s most addictive corners, effective Labor Day of last year. No Facebook. No Twitter. He still used the web, but he stuck steadfastly to a set of rules that marked a radical change for him: “no work, work-related e-mail, or work-related reading,” he writes. “No daily news cycles or social media. Most of all, I would not blog, tweet, share, pin, like, star, favorite, or forward anything. Internet David Roberts would go silent.” (Roberts is upfront about the fact that he could only afford to take the year off because his wife draws a solid salary that his family could live on in the short term.)
After reading Roberts’s piece, Science of Us wanted to know more about how his sabbatical went, so we gave him a call. Here are some of his most interesting observations about what happens when you spend a year away from the cacophonous online circus.
1. It takes a while for your brain to stop thinking in tweets.
“It took a few months. My kids would say something cute and my first thought was what a great tweet it would make. And also, by the time I quit I was thinking in tweets. You know how musicians can identify keys by ear? I was sort of like a tweet musician where ideas would come to me fully formed in 140-character chunks. I would immediately not only want to tweet it, but immediately have the tweet in my head and know without counting that it was right there at the tweet limit. They were coming to me fully formed.
“That happened for a long time after my break. It never completely went away — even toward the end when something really cute would happen I would think about it. It would also happen when I would take walks. I would take these awesome walks with a beautiful vista or something and really, for the first few months, I know it’s not a rational thought — when you express it clearly it sounds ridiculous — but in the back of my head I was sort of like, What good is finding this cool thing if only I see it? Is it even real if it’s my own personal experience in my head? Are things even real if they’re not validated or expressed in some way? It faded after a while, though, and even now that I’m back on Twitter, I don’t constantly have that urge to tweet everything that pops into my head or read everything that happens or have a take on everything. We’ll see how long until all that comes back.”
2. Your brain works better when doing the dishes and going for walks allows you to daydream.
“During the sabbatical, I just let my internal monologue wander around aimlessly and it would end up in really interesting places. I spent most of my time doing what I think of as the opposite of modern white-collar work, information work, whatever you call it. You spend so much time not just wondering how to do something, but wondering whether you ought to be doing it or whether you ought to be doing something else or are you done with it. Is it really done? It’s never clear. Am I finished? Is it time to move on? It’s this constant, low-level anxiety not just about task completion, but about priorities and about time management and all this.
“So, instead, I spent most of my time on my break doing things like washing the dishes. The dishes clearly need to be washed. There’s no ambiguity about whether it’s a necessary task and when you’re washing the dishes, it only takes a tiny portion of your attention — a tiny portion of your mind — and so the rest of your mind just wanders around drifting and stumbling across all sorts of interesting shit. And then when you’re done, it’s clearly done. You say: Yep, moving on to my next task. And honestly, I don’t exactly know how to phrase it, but that was the most pleasant aspect of the whole thing. My day was a series of discrete things that I knew that I wanted to do, and I knew when they were done and none of them were lingering. At night, I had achieved them and they were done and it was all off my plate and there was nothing hanging there for later. It made me nostalgic for manual labor.”
3. “Quality time” with your kids is a myth.
“Modern, professional parents have constructed this story about ‘quality time’ that I think is in part designed to make them feel better about the low quantity of time that they spend with their kids. We took the kids out of after-school care during my year off, so one came home at 3:30 and the other at 4:40. And I don’t know if you remember from when you were a kid, but there are those hours after school but before dinner that are these hazy, dreamy hours where there’s nothing going on and you’re just using your imagination and lazing around.
“It was those hours spent with the kids — not that we were doing anything particularly exciting or noteworthy — but just being around them in these unhurried, unstructured hours, that’s the meat of a relationship: not the special, Kodak moments, but the ordinary moments. I had not really realized that because modern parents these days both work full-time; they leave early and get home at like 6 or 6:30 and they’re rushing to make the kids dinner and rushing to get them in bed and to get homework done and rushing to get them to school tomorrow. It’s all doing goal-directed, regimented stuff. We had forgotten — or at least I had forgotten — the joy of just lolling with the kids. Those were my favorite bits: reading comic books with them or watching Huck make sticks and bows and arrows. Just goofy stuff. Those were, to me, the best bits.”
4. Conservatives have a point when it comes to stay-at-home parents — sort of.
“There’s this kind of Republican conservative nostalgia for households in which only one parent works that has an overlay of misogyny on it. It’s always the woman who’s supposed to say, ‘Hey, I’ll do the domestic tasks!’ But if you can strip that layer of misogyny off it, it really is true that having one parent working and one not is so much fucking easier. It takes so much pressure off everything, you know? So it’s great for my wife, too. Instead of having to come home and sprint until the kids went to bed, she just had a lot more time to prop her feet up and watch the Mariners or read, so she was more relaxed, too. The whole household is more relaxed if there’s a person at home taking care of just the day-to-day domestic shit.”
5. Jumping back onto Twitter is painful.
“I’ve just been kind of sticking a pinky in and jerking it back out. I haven’t really gone all the way back in yet. I gotta tell you, when I go and look at my Twitter feed, on the one hand, I feel that old pull of scroll-scroll-scroll, bit-bit-bit, chomp-chomp-chomp. But on the other hand, I also feel repulsed by it. I just don’t want to go back in there. I don’t want to go back in to this place where every little thing that happens every day is like the biggest deal in the world, where everybody’s gotta comment on everything and people are worried about who’s paying attention, who’s retweeting them. It used to seem like the whole world to me and now it seems like this little pocket of the world. And I just worry that if I go back in, I’m going to lose perspective all over again.”
(Excerpts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.)