The Power of Unplugging

Ruth Haley Barton

by Ruth Haley Barton

Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.



When I first started practicing sabbath over twenty years ago, the biggest challenge was turning off my computer, staying out of my home office, and truly saying no to my work. Work was the addiction I was most aware of and all my focus was on trying to say no to the hold that work, productivity, and achievement had on me.

I remember processing the challenge this posed to my sabbath-keeping with a spiritual friend, and she suggested that I take the life-size statue of St. Francis I have in my office and move it in front of my office door as a guard and a sentinel to keep me out of my workspace on Sundays!


But today I am aware of struggling with a different issue: my addiction to technology and the difficulty of disconnecting from my phone for any length of time at all, let alone for a whole day. When I first started practicing sabbath, there were no smartphones. We all still had landlines, and that was the primary way families stayed in touch, people were reached in an emergency, and vendors and doctor’s offices confirmed or changed appointments.

All of that is hard to imagine now because it is so far in the rearview mirror. For most of us, the only way to connect with family and friends is on our mobile phones. Scheduling and confirming important appointments happen by automated notification by text. Now most people do not even go to the bathroom, go for a walk, or go to bed without their phone within arm’s reach.

We use our phones to tell time, wake up, check email, get the news, find out the weather, get directions, report on how well we slept or how many steps we took, and keep track of loved ones on social media. And that is not to mention the ever-present temptation to fill every spare moment with podcasts and scrolling social media apps and news feeds.

The problem, of course, is that keeping our phones with us or strapped to our bodies so we don’t miss anything “important” means we are plugged in all the time, open to all manner of interruptions that come any time of the day or night, whether we have asked for them or not.


In some Jewish families it is customary to have a sabbath box that holds items that will not be needed on the sabbath— equipment associated with work and effort (like tools, phones, computers). Of course, some things would be too big and cumbersome to actually put in the box (for instance, a lawnmower), but it might be possible to put something in that would be symbolic of one’s work. We could write on a piece of paper those things that are left undone and may still be weighing on us, along with worries and concerns that we would like to leave behind and/or entrust to God’s care.

I have thought about the sabbath box concept a lot over the years, wishing we could all bravely put at least one thing in there—and that is our smartphones as a sign of our willingness to unplug completely on this day. In addition to any other items that might symbolize work and stimulation for us, placing our phones in a sabbath box, drawer, or some other out-of-the-way place is to extricate ourselves from the hold our technologies have on us and the way our constant connectedness keeps us from getting any real psychic rest.

There are many symptoms and sources of exhaustion these days, but one of the deepest and most pernicious is the constant stimulation that comes from always being plugged in, stirred up, and constantly promoting ourselves.


So, what do you think? Are you up for the challenge of unplugging from technology on the sabbath and experiencing a new level of freedom? If you have not done so already, begin by experimenting with how you handle technology, observing the difference it makes. Notice the difference between:

• going for a walk with your phone or without your phone.
• having your phone with you over a meal with someone or leaving it in the car.
• getting dressed with the TV on or off, driving while listening to the news or a podcast, or not.
• sleeping with your phone by your bed or keeping it in another room.
• having solitude with your phone nearby, in the off mode, or in another room.
• having your phone nearby while writing sermons, prepping for a meeting, or reading, OR leaving it out of sight and sound until you are at a good stopping point.

What do you notice about your energy, your attention span, your presence to God and to others? Be honest. Speak to God about this. How do you respond to the idea of tech shabbat? Don’t rush into anything; just notice how it feels to consider this as a possibility and if you feel any need or desire for this.

Finding ways to embrace rhythms of deep rest is a critical part of finding sustainable and sustaining rhythms of life and work. Work is not better than rest, and rest is not better than work. God did both and the beauty is in the back and forth between the two.



Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors and Christian leaders, and the congregations and organizations they serve.  Ruth is the author of several leadership books, and shares perspectives on transforming leadership through her Beyond Words blog and her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership podcast. Her latest book is entitled Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.

Adapted from Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest by Ruth Haley Barton. ©2022 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.