Regular readers (all 6.7 of you) know how I love it when all my blathering is subsequently borne out by actual studies.

A few days ago, it happened again: Unhooking from your digital pacifiers makes you more productive and probably happier. At the very least, you’ll feel less tense and be able to process information better.

panoply of digital devices
Are your digital devices disconnecting you from yourself?

That’s the conclusion of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Michigan, as reported in the NYT (Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime) on Aug. 24, 2010. The bottom line:

“when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”

New ideas like how to find an alternative legal career, maybe? I’m just sayin.

Specifically, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, looked at how rats process information. Scientists there

“found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.”

Other research at the University of Michigan looked at what environments people learn better in. Scientists there found that taking a walk in nature enables better learning afterward than navigating an urban jungle and playing with its toys.

The NYT article says that

“Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

‘People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,’ said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.”

I do find it somewhat disheartening that we are becoming so divorced from our common sense, and our inner wisdom, that we need studies on a topic like this. Seriously, I could have told you all this 10 years ago, when I was working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. One of the tasks during the 12-week program is to go on a media fast.

Ten years ago, Cameron’s media fast meant no reading of anything—no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no emails, no memos. No listening to radio or even to music. No television or movies. Today, that fast would also include no FaceBook, no texting, no blogs, no video games, no interwebs, no Twitter, no YouTube, no Apple gadgets or Crackberries except to carry on a conversation, with your voice, with an actual person. A media fast means really and truly abstaining from all those things that pound at us daily and tell us what to think or fill our minds with useless crap.

The idea is to reconnect with yourself, to hear your own inner thoughts. By not pouring so much dreck, or even high-quality content, into our heads, we give our own valuable thoughts and feelings the space to emerge, breathe and strengthen. And, having that void to fill, you can do things that feed your heart and spirit, rather than simply numb it out so you can slog through another workday.

I did this media fast over a long weekend. It was staggering and illuminating. Make no mistake, it was unbelievably hard. At the time, the no-TV part was the hardest for me. I did cheat and put the Weather Channel on, muted, ostensibly to check the weather because I was going to the stable and needed to know how to dress. Yeah, right. Really, I was so addicted to filling idle moments with TV that not having it on at all was like missing my pinkie finger. It hurt. Otherwise, I made it through, though having coffee on Sunday morning without the paper was disconcerting.

The illuminating thing was how rested my mind felt, after four days of the media fast. I felt so much more relaxed when I went back to work, and I was, actually, more productive for at least the beginning of the week. So the guys (and, sigh, they are guys) at UCSF and UMich are on to something.

Here’s a challenge for you, with Labor Day coming up and the possibility of 3 or 4 days away from the office: Do your own media fast. I know, I can hear the howls of protest:

  • You have to check email, your job depends on it.
  • It’s the only chance you have to read that novel you’ve been trying to get to.You deserve to read a book after the hours you’ve been putting in.
  • If you don’t check FaceBook or read texts, you won’t know where to meet your friends, whom you never otherwise see.
  • Don’t you understand my life? This is impossible.

I don’t know most of you, and true, I may not understand a lot of your life, but I can see from here that your stress level is killing you, body and soul. A media fast is a powerful tool to understand that you have more power than you think over how you experience the world.

Embrace that! Get creative about how you can accomplish a media fast. Let those deep, maybe dark thoughts out to bask in the sunlight just a bit. I promise it will open up a whole new world of possibility and hope, and help you find that alternative career you dream about.

So give it a whirl, and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear all about it.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys to achieve their big, wild dreams of living an authentic life. And she rarely checks email on the weekend, even though she does have an iPhone. Need some help with your media fasting plans? Contact her at jalvey AT for a free tip or two.