Our summer of screen-free Saturdays
This is a tradition that I hope to keep for a long time.
For the past eleven Saturdays, Billy, baby, and I have spent the day without screens of any sort—no phones, laptops, or TV. We started this routine, which we call screen-free Saturday, on somewhat of a whim. Happily, it stuck.
Instead of staring at screens, we go outside. We’ve hiked at local places like Panola Mountain, Murphey Candler Park, and the weird and wonderful Doll’s Head Trail. We’ve visited multiple outdoor markets. We’ve encountered the joys and challenges of dining on restaurant patios with a messy little one.
We spend plenty of screen-free indoor time, too. We’ve read books, caught up on chores, and played countless rounds of peek-a-boo with our daughter. Billy and I have also rediscovered the magic of the afternoon nap. Turns out, when you don’t have a screen to entertain you, it’s easier to fall asleep.
Our screen-free Saturday experiment hasn’t been perfect. One Saturday night, back in the golden days when vaccines were fresh and COVID cases were low, we had friends over and (ironically? fittingly?) watched Bo Burnham’s Inside. Another Saturday morning, I caught Billy scrolling his phone in bed before getting up; he’d forgotten what day it was. And one miserable Saturday, when our entire family was laid low by a brutal case of norovirus, we caved and turned on the TV, hoping to distract ourselves from how miserable we all felt.
There have been a few times on Saturdays when we’ve needed to peek at our phones to check for any important missed calls or texts. (For the most part, there have been very few, but we’ve had a couple of instances where we needed to reply quickly.) And, after a few weekends of truly lovely family outings that went undocumented, we decided to bend the rules a little and allow ourselves to take a few photos of our Saturday adventures.
Overall, though, we’ve done a good job of staying away from screens—something that’s been surprisingly easy to do. By this point, screen-free Saturday is a habit, a household expectation. It’s a routine I hope we continue for a long, long time.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about getting off screens. I’ve read instructive books, like Digital Minimalism, How to Do Nothing, and How to Break Up with Your Phone. I’ve watched eye-opening documentaries, such as The Social Dilemma. And I’ve written about this topic—multiple times.
Each time I read or watched something new, or gave the situation some deep thought, I always came to the same conclusion: I hated the pull my phone had over me, and I especially disliked how I felt after consuming too much news or social media (which, lately, feels more and more like one and the same). Sometimes, I’d follow that thought with action. I’d delete the Twitter app, set a screen-time limit on my phone, or make a promise to ignore Instagram for a week.
Sure enough, though, I’d return to my old habits. I’d access Twitter through my phone’s web browser, ignore my self-imposed boundaries, and grab for my phone more times than I could count.
I convinced myself that I had to be on social media, to stay connected to friends and to share updates about my own life. I needed to promote this newsletter, to share the latest article I’d written, to keep a constant eye out for freelancing opportunities. I believed it was crucial to be within arm’s reach of a potential phone call or text. Setting my phone aside—even for a few hours—didn’t seem like a possibility.
Then I took a break from writing this newsletter. For six weeks, I didn’t have new issues to promote on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. I didn’t need to stay as closely connected to the news, for fear of writing something that was tone-deaf. I now had some time to slow down my pace, an opportunity to think about my habits anew.
I’ve shared this quote before, but it’s one I think about often, a mantra that rang loudly in my head during that six-week break: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Did I really want to spend my days—my life—unable to resist the pull of my phone, missing out on the wide world around me because I was too busy taking in a constant barrage of information on a tiny screen? The answer was a resounding no, but after so many failed stops and starts, I didn’t know how to change my ways.
It was only until recently that I looked up the rest of that Annie Dillard quote. To my surprise, it’s followed by an endorsement for schedule and routine. Dillard writes:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.
This was the piece I had been missing. I’ve long understood the value of a self-imposed schedule: that’s how I write this newsletter week after week, how I stay on top of a myriad of freelancing tasks, how I keep in touch with friends and family on a regular basis. I know that a schedule can be invaluable, a way to ensure that I have time for the things I want and/or need to do.
But I’d never thought about a schedule as a solution to my problem with screens. I knew that I didn’t want to spend my days mindlessly scrolling, but I hadn’t considered the rest of Dillard’s point—a schedule could protect me from wasting my precious time.
I sound like an evangelist, I know, but screen-free Saturday truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
First, there’s the benefit of a full day sans screens. Billy and I have discovered so many great parks and trails, places that I never knew existed despite growing up in Georgia. (Atlanta friends, have you ever been to Deepdene Park? It’s such a gem!) Our Saturdays have given us long, rambling conversations, about a variety of topics, not just the task-focused talks that busy parents tend to have. At some point in the day, after we’ve put our daughter to bed, we’ve even experienced boredom—a feeling that, typically, we would banish by quickly grabbing our phones.
Then, there are the ripple benefits. I find that I sleep better on screen-free nights. All of that walking and reading (and napping!) and, yes, boredom usually leads to creative ideas, which I gladly jot down in my Notes app or a Google Doc the following day. I have been using social media less and less; it’s been more than two months since I’ve logged onto Twitter from my phone, and I’ve only used Instagram once—once!—in the past 11 weeks, to post a proof-of-life update, a moment I wanted to document for posterity. And I’ve turned off text-message and email notifications; now, when I pick up my phone, there are no red dots demanding my attention.
Maybe best of all, I find myself looking forward to Saturday each week. Instead of social media scrolling or online shopping, more and more often, I’ll use my weekday screen time for things like researching trails or planning meals. It’s like a micro version of thinking about vacations: Each week, I get a serotonin boost just by envisioning how I’ll spend my upcoming screen-free time.
Whenever I talk about screen-free Saturday with someone new, I get a similar response: That sounds great, but I could never do it. You might be thinking the same thing right now.
And I get it! I had the same reaction whenever I read those books, watched those documentaries, or tried to imagine my own phone-free time. Spending less time on screens sounded like a lovely idea, but a wholly impractical one.
It took me a while to figure out what made our screen-free Saturdays so effective. Why, after all those previous failed attempts, did this one stick? Part of the success is due to the fact that Billy and I both are on board; this would be much more difficult to do alone. The other secret ingredient is routine. Screen-free Saturday is now part of our family rhythm. It’s not something we’re trying to squeeze in, or do whenever we feel like it. It’s something we do every week, without fail.
As Dillard put it, a schedule can be “a net for catching days.” In some ways, that sounds restrictive—and to some people, the idea of a screen-free day might seem too strict. But I’ve found that when restrictions are set with gentle expectations and positive intentions, there’s room for lots of freedom.
The world often feels heavy, especially lately, but our screen-free Saturdays have been wondrously light. There’s no news to discourage us, no social media to distract us, no reminders of all of the things we can’t control. There’s just us, our daughter, and the freedom of a day spent doing whatever we want.
p.s. Lest it seem like I’m on a high horse, there’s one thing lately that makes it hard to put down my phone. It’s kind of embarrassing and definitely makes me feel old (spoiler alert: it’s not TikTok). I’ll confess my sins—and share how I’m hoping to combat this latest addiction—in Friday’s newsletter, which is for paying subscribers only.
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Big thanks to everyone who shared last week’s newsletter, including Muriel. I hope that this week is already off to a much brighter start.
Please consider sharing My Sweet Dumb Brain on social media, recommending it to a friend, or—if you haven’t yet—becoming a paid subscriber. After all, there are still a few good reasons out there to look at screens!
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who has recently applied a mindfulness similar to Katie’s screen-free Saturdays toward becoming “a person who exercises.” Something that once seemed unattainable is happily now part of life! Photos by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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Thank you for sharing that longer Annie Dillard quote! I too have loved that first line, but never researched where it came from. You (and Annie) inspired me today to write down what an ideal daily routine would look like, and I feel more energetic and clear-minded about this approach already.