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A Writer’s Digital Sabbatical: Beating the connection addiction

7 December, 2010

A digital sabbatical? What does that have to do with writing?

What is it?

Jane Friedman, renowned pulse-taker of the e-media, defines a digital sabbatical as ‘going totally offline or off the grid—no computer, no smart phone, no device that connects to the internet.’

As an ex-academic, I’m familiar with the traditional sabbatical, a 6-12 month period when you extract yourself from the daily work grind to concentrate on a single project. The sabbatical provides uninterrupted time to reflect, investigate and write.

Some respondents to Jane’s FB entry said they do sometimes go digital cold turkey, usually only when holidaying in a remote area where no connection can be found.

But consciously disconnecting from digital temptations—how can that benefit your writing? I found out when I went overseas.

My sabbatical

My digital sabbatical of sorts while I was abroad lasted about two months. I did not to take a netbook. I had a mobile phone, reserved for emergencies.

I planned to make only brief fortnightly visits to Internet cafes. I was never tempted to go more often because they were not where I wanted to spend my free time. Why stare at a computer screen when I could be looking at the Mona Lisa or climbing around the Colosseum? At the cafes, I had to contend with some very strange people, wonky equipment, bad ventilation and lighting, and lots of noise, including in one instance a rock band, only an arm’s length away, grinding out an off-key version of  ‘Gimme Shelter’.  On the French keyboards, my touch-typing slowed to a frustrating crawl as I hunted the new locations of the @, ‘m’, ‘a’ and underscore keys.


As the days passed, I discovered the extent of my connection addiction, my longing for a continuing  fix of email, Facebook and online information.

There were some benefits in trading a screen for traditional pen and paper. I could still write anywhere, from my bed in an overnight train to a bench along the Seine,  but now need not worry about battery life, or some low-life nicking my laptop.

I jotted notes and queries in my hardcopy notebook, with the intention of researching these gems properly when I was reunited with my computer. But when I was back  home, what seemed so important at the time now appeared commonplace or even cryptic. What had I been thinking when I scribbled the phrases ‘gusto & passione’ and ‘Esperanto vs. Klingon vs. Elvish’? I was glad I had not wasted holiday time chasing these on the Web.

A friend who leads tours in France remarked that more of his clients almost miss the famous sights they have travelled halfway around the world to see. They prefer to remain glued to their screens, searching for more info-nuggets about the places they are visiting. I settled into the retro-role of a pre-digital tourist, going with  information I could get easily, usually by skimming through guidebooks and talking to other travellers. In discarding the role of fact-finder to try being more of a laid-back flâneur, I found I could create space for new and unexpected experiences to emerge. These experiences will, I think, percolate into my writing.

What lessons did I learn from my digital sabbatical? It was clear that I need to put writing first, and then control my digital activities so that I free up sufficient time and mental space for my writing, as well as for the other good things in life that lie outside the digital world.

Try mini-sabbaticals

If you think you have a connection addiction that is adversely affecting your writing, try some mini-sabbaticals. E.g.:

  • Set short digital-free periods during the week.
  • Set writing-only times and keep these free of digital distractions.
  • Try digital-free days, following a ‘connect’ day with a ‘no-connect’ day.
  • Try going digital cold turkey for more than one day, perhaps declaring a digital-free weekend.

None of these will be easy and you may experience withdrawal pangs. But if you keep up your mini-sabbaticals for at least a month, you will be better able to assess if and how reducing your digital habit benefits your writing.

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