There’s a heart-wrenching scene in the last book of Harry Potter, when one of the most beloved characters in the series (spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read it) dies: Dobby. They just escaped the clutches of Death Eaters at Malfoy Manor, and as they apparate to Bill and Fleur’s family cottage on the coast, Bellatrix’s knife slices Dobby’s little body.
That part, like everybody else, gutted me; I was a sobbing mess as I turned the pages. But it was the quiet scene right afterwards that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it, and it’s stuck with me for years, oddly enough. It’s not a momentous scene, and I’m not even sure Rowling meant much by it.
After a long stretch of Harry not saying a word after Dobby’s death, he then suddenly says out loud to no one in particular, “I want to do it properly. Not by magic. Have you got a spade?” (It, being Dobby’s grave.) He then digs, and Rowling writes, “He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it.”
After six-and-a-half books of nonstop magic, Harry has matured as a wizard to sense when it’s good to not use magic — when analog, manual work is necessary, right, and proper. I love this scene.
This scene was on my mind as I started my month-long sabbatical. It’s not that the internet, or screens, or the digital world in general is magic, but sometimes it feels like it. Sometimes it gets to the point where it doesn’t feel quite real, or that it’s somehow trying to replace the real world around us in fits and spurts.
I was craving real. I needed dirt, sunrises and sunsets, morning coffee without email or social media, and time marked slowly by minutes and hours, not by news bytes and podcast episode drops.
Jaron Lanier, an early Silicon Valley guy who later started writing about the cultural dangers of technology and social media as they stand, writes, “If I am unhappy with the way digital technology is influencing the world, I think the solution is to double down on being human” (emphasis mine).
Perhaps this is true about the world, but when I read that, I knew it felt true about myself: I wanted to double down on being human. I wanted to feel like a person separate from my work, which, except for my books, all lives online. I wanted to remember what it felt like to just be me, and not a writer, not someone with a Twitter or Instagram account, not a podcaster. I wanted to dig a hole and get dirt in my fingernails.
I created a few systems with Caroline (my assistant) and Andrea (the managing editor here) which would allow me to not only take a full month off of writing and podcasting, but a month off of thinking about these things. It sounds a little silly, I know. But when this work is what literally feeds my family and keeps our lights on, and in almost 12 years of doing this work without a break beyond a few weeks here and there (and even then, I’d be thinking about my work), it sounded too good to be true. But it also sounded necessary, and past due for it.
As you know from my last post, it was better than I could have imagined, and I am so beyond grateful for the opportunity. I spent July doubling down on being human — leaving my phone behind when I went somewhere, not documenting a beautiful moment with a photo just to post somewhere later, not ruminating over my business strategy for the rest of this year.
I benefitted from this month away from the internet, both professionally and personally, because of these simple truths:
• A month really isn’t a long time. Really and truly — I could have gone offline for a month and not said a word, and I bet most people wouldn’t have noticed. It’s not that big of a deal; in fact, because it felt like a big deal was a good sign that I needed a break.
• What’s the worst that could happen? Yes, I hear from readers and listeners the positive impact my work makes in their lives, and I’m so happy to hear that — it’s genuinely what keeps me going. But? It’s not like I’ve got the lever at my desk that keeps the internet on. I’m not keeping people on life support. And I’m certainly not the only writer and podcaster on the internet. There’s far more for me to gain than for myself, or anyone else, to lose.
• It’s necessary. I desperately needed to do this for my health and well-being, for my relationships, and to keep my emotional attachments in check. I wanted to, as Andy Crouch says, put technology back in its proper place in my life. I needed to cut all bonds with things, cold turkey, so that I could then slowly bring back that which is necessary and beneficial. (This is where I’m at right now.)
• This isn’t that unusual. Ultimately, if you think about it, this business of taking longer stints of time off is becoming more and more common — among self-employed types like me, yes, but also among companies adopting this practice for its employees. If I had been working somewhere for a solid 12 years, there’s a decent chance by now I would be allowed four weeks off annually. (In fact, many, many countries around the world have this as common, required practice. It’s normal.)
As I stand here, a few weeks post-sabbatical, I already look back on my month off and sense with conviction that this will now become a regular practice in my work and personal routine. I’d already been taking bits of time here and there offline — most Sundays, holidays, weekend getaways, occasional week-long family trips. But I’ve never taken those moments to truly shut off my work brain, or to not associate moments during those things with anything sharable or useful in my work. To use those times to just …rest and be.
I’d love to possibly start doing my public work within eleven months of the year. The other month, I’ll delete my ways of being connected digitally, and intentionally double down on being human. I’ll remind myself how to function without magic.
• Listen to the podcast episode about this post