How I went 24 hours without tech (and lived to tell about it)

The National Day of Unplugging has come and gone. Did Crave's chief correspondent survive her 24-hour tech detox or buckle under the pressure? Read on to find out.

This is how I unplug. Just kidding. Eric Franklin/CNET

On Friday, March 23, the sun set at 7:25 p.m., and as the giant yellow ball in the sky went down somewhere behind the clouds of San Francisco, so did the power on my electronic devices. The screens of my smartphone, laptop, and TV were as dark as the nighttime sky.

Keeping to my word, I was going 24 hours without tech for the National Day of Unplugging . Created by the nonprofit organization Reboot and now in its third year, the National Day of Unplugging encourages people to take a break from information and technology overload and use the time to reconnect with friends and family, go outside, focus on their health, give back, meditate, or take part in other non-tech-centric activities.

Reboot doesn't define what "unplugging" means; instead, it's up to the individual to decide. For me, it meant turning off the electronics I use most, which are my smartphone, laptop, and TV. Working with and covering tech five days a week, I thought it would be nice respite, but as I hit the power button on my devices Friday night, I was surprised at how anxious I felt about being without my gadgets -- more specifically, my phone -- for 24 hours.

What if my friends changed our dinner plans for Saturday night? What if something came up (like the most horrendous haircut of all time?) and I had to bail? Worst of all, what if there was some kind of emergency?

It's amazing where your imagination can take you if you let it, but I tried to put those fears aside. Plus, my competitive side was determined not to let a puny iPhone or 37-inch TV take me down, and thus, I embarked on my tech detox.

Friday night
Since moving back to San Francisco from New York a few months ago, life's been a whirlwind of settling into my new apartment, meeting up with old friends, revisiting my favorite haunts, and discovering new ones. In short, it's been a long time since I had some "me" time, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to just chill at home. I had a stack of half-finished books and neglected magazine subscriptions that needed some attention.

With so much reading material, I thought it would be easy to get my mind off of tech, but not so. The first thing I grabbed was the April issue of Surfer Magazine, and as I opened it to the first article and read the headline, I blurted out, "You've got to be kidding me." Entitled "Geeking Out," the intro from Surfer editor Brendon Thomas was about how technology is affecting the world of surfing. Surfing -- my true escape from real-world responsibilities and always-on connectedness -- had betrayed me.

I switched issues and eventually got lost in stories and photos of surf trips from around the world and then, my book. I'm not going to lie. The first couple of hours were rough. If it's not music, I usually have my TV on at home and without either, the silence was almost deafening.

Also, the whole night my phone was within eyesight, and every once in a while, I'd find myself trying to justify the cause for powering it on vs. keeping it off. "What if I just turned on my phone and didn't use it? That's not cheating, right?" "Yes, it is. Come on, Bonnie, you're stronger than that." Eventually I must have tired myself out with this internal debate because I fell asleep on the couch.

Saturday
Saturday morning I woke up late and missed my spin class. My phone is my alarm clock, but like so many weekends before, I thought I'd naturally wake up early since my body is trained to do so on the weekdays. Seeing that it was pouring rain out, I wasn't too heartbroken over missing spin class; plus, it gave me an excuse to stay in bed a little longer and continue reading my book.

Eventually, I would have to get up and meet my CNET colleague and friend Eric Franklin. We made plans on Friday to meet at 2 p.m., so he could take a picture of me for this story. I didn't want to, though. The rain was coming down harder; I was warm and cozy at home; and again, I tried to reason with myself, thinking, "I can just take a picture on Monday." However, with no way to get in touch with Eric to cancel plans, I had to stick to my commitment.

I traded in my smartphone and laptop for a paper notebook and a stack of magazines and books. Bonnie Cha/CNET

And of course, we had fun. We geeked out on comic books for a bit and riffed about a new show we could do for Crave. It was a great time that might never have happened had I had my phone on. It was the first time I realized that in this day and age where it's so easy to bail on plans by sending a quick text message, we might be missing out on great opportunities and conversations by relying on this easy-out type of communication.

From there, I trudged through the rain to run a couple of errands before heading home, where I kept myself busy by deep-cleaning my apartment and finally hanging the last pieces of art on my wall. By the time, I was finished, it was time to head out to meet my friends for dinner.

Wanting to save money, I took the bus instead of a cab. I also wanted to test myself because I knew the bus ride would be a challenge. Normally, I always have my headphones and music on to block out the noise, but today I was defenseless.

As luck would have it, I got on a bus where one gentleman was watching some action flick on his smartphone sans headphones, and another was shouting into his phone -- not because he was arguing with the person on the other line, just because. Then there was the young college student telling her friends, "Just drink a glass of water between drinks, and you'll be OK." Ahh, youth.

I tried to ignore it all by staring out the window and thinking of my happy place (somewhere tropical with surf), but I was relieved as each of these passengers got off at a stop prior to mine. Eventually, I reached my stop and headed toward my destination, only to realize that I had left the piece of paper with the restaurant's address at home. I knew the cross streets but just needed the exact street address. Gah!

For a second I thought my 24-hour tech detox was going to come to an early end because of a stupid mistake, but here's the crazy thing. I ducked into a store and asked a real person for directions. Sure, I felt like a dork when the store clerk pointed directly across the street and said, "It's right there" (in my defense, the sign was really obscure and small), but turns out, the old form of communication works just as well as the new.

Dinner was at 7:30, but the sun set on March 24 at 7:26. I was the first to arrive at the restaurant, so I quickly powered up my phone before the rest of the group showed up to see if there were any pressing messages. I was not overwhelmed with a feeling of relief as the screen came back to life. In fact, after seeing that the world didn't come to an end during my 24-hour blackout, I tucked my phone back into my purse and didn't check it the rest of the night.

I have no doubt that I can and want to participate in the National Day of Unplugging again next year because sometimes, connecting with great friends over a wonderful meal is all the only kind of recharging I need.

About the author

Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

 

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