We love Tiffany Shlain. An author, Mom, tech maven, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker—as well as the creator of the Webby Awards—Tiffany has the enviable ability to balance, art, motherhood, and life in general, and thrive in all three. In this Rosebud Woman interview, we talk with Tiffany about her new book: 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week. Tiffany presents worldwide on subjects embracing technology and humanity. Her new live “Spoken Cinema” performance— Dear Human, based on 24/6— recently premiered New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
RW: Your new book is called 24/6 The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. Can you briefly unpack it for our Rosebud Woman audience?
Tiffany: My career has been steeped in technology. I founded the Webby Awards, and I obviously love technology, I just don't love it 24/7—and I feel like the way we're living, where we're online and staring at screens all the time, isn't healthy, and doesn't feel good on a million levels. So about 10 years ago, my family and I started turning off all screens, from Friday night to Saturday night, for what we call our “tech Shabbat.”
I should add that I'm Jewish, but I'm not religious in any way. So for me, it was really about rethinking the very ancient practice of Shabbat: a true day of rest for our modern era. I think a day of rest today means, turning off the screens.
Doing it one day a week for over a decade with my husband and our daughters has changed my life, in so many wonderful ways. So I felt I had to write a book and share this free, ancient, amazing practice, updated for the modern era.
RW: Was there a specific incident that inspired you to write the book?
Tiffany: Yes. In May of 2009 I lost my father, and my daughter was born. That really made me take stock, and think about the way I was living. We only have a short amount of time on this earth; how do we want to live? I don't think the way we're living now — having to be available to everyone and everything at every moment—should be an inevitable gone conclusion. I know Rosebud Woman is very much about being back in touch with our bodies, and I feel like we've just forgotten our bodies. We're living online, and our screens dictate where we go, and what we do. I don't think that’s a good way to live—at least not all the time.
RW: Does neurological research support your campaign for a day of tech rest?
Tiffany: Absolutely. My father was a surgeon who wrote about and operated on the brain. I have made many films about the brain. There's a lot of neuroscience research in the book, as well as psychology and history. There's a lot of research suggesting that when you let your mind daydream and work with what's already in there—instead of giving it so much new input all the time—you're going to come up with creative ideas. Because you're going to make connections that are already in your brain.
I also feel more productive, because I have a true day of rest. Our phones and devices are such a conduit to work and leisure and stress that we never get a true day off anymore. The weekly ritual of one complete day off, every week, is the most profound shift I've ever felt in my life.
RW: When you had this brainstorm for a tech Shabbat, what wells of tradition were you drawing from?
Tiffany: I'm drawing from the 3,000 year Jewish tradition of Shabbat: a full day of rest from Friday night until Saturday night. If you're religious, this means you don't drive and you don't use fire [or electric devices]. For me and my family—we are culturally Jewish, with great respect for wisdom—it means no screens...and it still means a lovely shabbat meal with family and friends every Friday night (no screens of course).
RW: You have two daughters: One is almost 17, the other is almost 11. Are they on board with this tech Shabbat program as well?
Tiffany: They love it. My older daughter's in her most stressful year of high school. She's grateful to get a break from homework and being expected to respond to everyone or on social media. Kids just can't not be online. It's surrounding them all the time. But once a week she's grateful to turn it all off. I think we've all just forgotten what that feels like.
RW: What's the best single argument for unplugging?
Tiffany: That it's the single best thing I've ever done in my life. And I'm almost 50, and I've done a lot of things! The single most significant thing I've done to live a good life is to turn off all screens one day a week. I feel like I get my soul back every week in such a profound way. It's just astonishing to me how much I need it, and how much I crave it. I don't know what else I could say that is more convincing than that.
RW: Are you getting any pushback from your colleagues in tech for accentuating the harm done by these devices?
Tiffany: No. I think I'm putting into words what everyone's feeling: a kind of deep emptiness from the Internet. It's ironic, because I love the web. I love connecting ideas and people in new ways. I just never imagined that the offshoot of all this connecting would be disconnection. There is an author, Cal Newport, who said so brilliantly, "Social media makes you feel connected and lonely all at the same time." We are more connected than ever, but connecting broadly is meaningless unless you connect deeply. We're spending a lot of time available to everything and everyone, every second, but we're not really available to ourselves or to the people we love, who are right in front of us.
RW: Being online is definitely, at least for now, an out-of-body experience.
Tiffany: What I've noticed is that when I'm online, I'm in a constant state of wanting to be somewhere I'm not. Between FOMO, seeing more stressful news headlines, another email, or seeing a picture that someone just posted, I'm wanting so much that I’m never satiated. But when I turn the screens off, that want immediately goes away, and I'm grateful for what I have. I feel so much happier. I’m in my body, making eye contact with the people in front of me.
RW: For you personally, as a mom and a working artist, what is the hardest part about unplugging for one day a week?
Tiffany: Absolutely no hard part. One thing I've noticed, after doing this for a decade, is that I have my best ideas on Saturdays. There's no interference for my ideas to happen.
The other thing is that I feel like I can contribute so much better the other six days of the week. There's nothing that is hard for me about turning off the screens each week. It is something I run towards every week. And I don't miss anything. I think people forgot that we existed before the iPhone!!
RW: Do you think that, gender-wise, this addiction to screen time affects women in particular?
Tiffany: Well, not in terms of addiction but in terms of creation. I don't think women would have created a technology that takes away eye contact. Because the single most important tool a mother has is eye contact—and now so many kids are staring at screens all the time. Many mothers manage the screen time in the house for their kids...so many screen time rules come down to the mother. It’s a lot of reminding and negotiating around screen use during the week. which is no fun. But on Saturdays, there's no discussion. It's just not on the table, and it's so refreshing. No screens to discuss. You're just together.
RW: Do you think that the addiction to tech in general, smartphones in particular, is impacting parent-child relationships?
Tiffany: Yes, I do, I've been on a book tour for five months. At all the events I haven’t met one parent who isn't struggling with this issue. But again, even kids will say “my parents are on the phone too much.”
Parenting is modeling behavior, and it's really hard to tell your kids to go off when you're on all the time. So what's so great about this 24/6 practice is that it's a family thing. We're all doing something together for a day.
A lot of people talk about taking away screens as if it's a punishment—but it should really be presented as a reward. Have everyone in the family list what they had wished they had more time to do. Everyone's got that list—and tech Shabbat becomes the most fun day of week.
So it's really important how you present it. It's not a punishment. You're modeling a way to live well in this modern era, and that's super important.
RW: Tech has become such a pervasive part of our lives. We've got Alexa and other AIs, and the internet of things is approaching like a tidal wave. Do you sometimes wonder if you're fighting an unwinnable battle?
Tiffany: No, because I ultimately believe in humanity. And in the tradition of the Sabbath as a day of rest. We are at a Frankenstein moment, for sure. How do we live a good life as technology is surrounding everything? What's important? We should be asking these questions, and looking at the way we're living.
My husband's a professor of AI, and we talk about this a lot. There's going to be even more invisible ways that people are going to be connected—so even more we’ll need to rise up and say, “I need a day where I'm not plugged into the network, and I am just listening to my own self and the people I love, right in front of me.” I think that'll become more important.
RW: And, of course, it doesn't have to be a Saturday or Sunday.
Tiffany: No it doesn't. You can do it any day of the week. And if you can make it screen-free, you're going to feel rejuvenated, recharged, creative, and happy, in ways that you can't even remember—because it's been so long.
RW: Is there a question you've been asking yourself during your five month tour?
Tiffany: Why are people afraid to be by themselves? There are a lot of things you can't hear about yourself unless you quiet the noise— and we've got so much input, and we're so over-stimulated every second. But all the power is not in that phone. There's power in just being with yourself, We have to think, “I need to value who I am.” Being with your own thoughts, and letting everything that's come at you all week just settle. I think that's a really important thing to value.
* * *