At least that's the philosophy of a new breed of retreat that wants to separate you from your screen—for your own good.
One Saturday last spring, seven strangers and I plopped down on leather couches in the great room of Masseria della Zingara, a beautifully restored 18th-century farmhouse in Puglia, in southern Italy. Everyone looked a little nervous. It was the first day of Time to Log Off, a new weeklong retreat that asks guests to unplug from their devices while participating in a battery of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises. Tanya Goodin, the retreat’s founder, dramatically passed around a basket, asking guests to surrender their phones and declare their intention for the week.
“I really need to catch up on sleep and just chill the hell out,” said an oil-and-gas executive.
“I’m desperate to feel less frantic, less like I need to always be sharing to promote my work,” said a novelist.
When it was my turn, I talked about how I’d been neglecting my wife and kids in favor of texting and posting. “My addiction to technology is nasty,” I confessed. “I’m in need of a total reset.”
Goodin, the founder of the London-based digital marketing agency Tamar and a sought-after speaker on responsible Internet use, wants to help people like me. The idea for Time to Log Off came last year during a visit to Silicon Valley, where she learned that companies like Google encourage employees to take digital sabbaticals. “People there could see the problem—the amount of time we waste mindlessly scrolling and browsing.” Goodin, who worked in tech for 20 years, felt her own attention span had diminished. That insight was backed up by a Microsoft study last year, which found that since 2000 the average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds to eight—shorter, the researchers claimed, than the attention span of a gold fish. A growing body of research from organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health links heavy social-media use to depression.
There’s nothing new about restorative travel, from spa vacations to meditation retreats. But programs designed to help us step away from our digital lives are something of a growth industry. In addition to Time to Log Off, there’s San Francisco–based Digital Detox, which hosts Camp Grounded, a four-day boot camp in locations around the U.S. for people looking to break the digital habit. Hotels have also started helping guests unplug. At Villa Stéphanie, a wellness retreat in Baden-Baden, Germany, for example, bedroom walls have been embedded with copper plates and coated in special paint to block all Wi-Fi signals and electricity.
Goodin also organizes retreats in Cornwall, England, and on Oahu’s North Shore. “We structure the retreats around activities that will force guests to focus and be mindful. If you disconnect from your digital devices for a week, we will help you reconnect with yourself,” she says.
The symptoms of withdrawal were clear the first night. Over a vegetarian, alcohol-free dinner of wild-asparagus lasagna, salad, and apricot tart, the conversation went from the presidential election and the looming Brexit vote to favored Instagram accounts and clever Internet memes. Afterward, I headed to my bleached-white hut, steps from the swimming pool. I climbed into bed with a Donna Tartt novel, unsure of what the coming week would hold.
The days that followed were long and languorous. They kicked off at 8 a.m. with a brisk, silent group walk through the cherry, olive, and almond orchards that surround the farm. The point was to stop thinking so much and just be there, but in the first days, my mind caromed from my family to my career to the NBA playoffs. Goodin told me the “monkey brain” would improve as the week progressed.
After the walks came two hours of yoga led by Caroline Dollar, a management consultant who also teaches in London. She explained that she would rely on a range of styles to help us “break the unconscious drive to reach for the screen.” I knew what she was talking about: the urge to scroll through Instagram in the middle of a chess game with my son or to check e-mail while working on watercolors with my daughter. If I couldn’t shake it here, was there any hope?
After breakfast, most of the day was ours to do with as we pleased. I settled into the rhythm of the place. I swam in the pool and lounged in the sun with my book. I worked in the garden, gathering greens for the evening meal. I learned how to curl dough for fresh orecchiette. There were group trips, like a ramble along the craggy coast followed by a picnic at the beach and a dip in the cool waters of the Adriatic.
At 5 p.m. each day, we had 90 minutes of unwinding yoga and meditation. By the middle of the week, I found myself outside of class thinking about the questions Dollar would ask: Is the breath you’re breathing right now a long breath or a short one? Can you direct your breath into the bottom rib? While pacing the grounds, I tried centering myself. The world became vivid: birds of paradise in the garden; butterflies flickering above a field of fennel; a hummingbird buzzing around the flowers that climbed the porch latticework; bees loitering around the lavender; diaphanous sea clouds. One night I sat staring up at the stars, trying to figure out the most distant thing I could hear. There was a faint volley of barking. Mindfulness achieved.
Corny as it sounds, when the retreat was over, I felt cleansed. I didn’t crave the meat and alcohol I’d forgone. I hadn’t checked the news but I didn’t fear that the world had fallen apart. I felt recharged, not anxious about the work I’d missed. And I had a plan for sustaining those feelings: No phone in the bedroom. No work e-mails on weekends or after hours when my family is in the house. Digital-free meals and bathroom breaks. Occasional digital detoxes. Just before I left for the airport, Goodin handed me back my phone. For a second, I was tempted to tell her to keep it.