Zibby Owens: Tiffany Shlain is the author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. An Emmy-nominated filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards, she has won more than eighty awards and distinctions herself. Four of her films have premiered at Sundance. Her original series, The Future Starts Here, has received over forty million views. Newsweek even called her “one of the women shaping the twentieth century.” Not bad. She currently lives with her husband and two daughters.
Welcome, Tiffany. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Tiffany Shlain: I'm happy to be here.
Zibby: Good. 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, tell listeners what this is about and how you came to write this book.
Tiffany: I have a career steeped in technology. Obviously, I had so many hopes for the web in the early days of all the amazing things it would allow us to do and connect, and creativity, and connect ideas and people. I never imagined it would make everyone staring down addicted and distracted all the time. That was never part of the original hopes for the web. After running the Webby Awards -- I sold that twelve years ago, or maybe thirteen years ago. I run a film studio in San Francisco. When the iPhone came out in 2007, I, like everyone else, got totally addicted. I never felt very present, distracted. Then I had this moment in my life that I'm sure your listeners -- you know those moments where you feel life is grabbing you by the shoulders and having you reprioritize? My father, who was I incredibly close to, was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was given nine months to live. Then that same couple days, I found out I was pregnant after five miscarriages. I was thinking a lot about life and death. When I would visit my dad, I would turn off my phone, of course. I started really thinking about turning off my phone, how much more present I felt. Then my father did pass away. My daughter was born a couple days later.
Then we were invited to be part of something called the National Day of Unplugging by this organization, Reboot, that I'm a part of. It was a ceremonial day. Let's turn off the screens for one day a year. My husband and I and our two daughters did it. I had just had a baby. It felt so good. I was like, this is what I need. We've never stopped doing it. It’s been ten years. I should say, I'm Jewish. I didn't grow up with Shabbat. I'm not a religious Jew. I'm a cultural Jew. My husband did Shabbat dinners. To have a full day of no screens is the modern version of a day of rest in my mind. It’s been the most incredible practice of my life. I feel like the longer we do it, the better it gets. I never thought this would be my first book. I have another book I've been wanting to write. I felt like, oh, my gosh, I have so much to share.
Our daughters love it. It’s our favorite day of the week. I feel more creative, more productive. I'm happier on those days. I laugh more. It’s this secret sauce. It’s this ancient tradition that has so much wisdom in it. I'm so excited to get these ideas out. It’s not something I tried for a couple years or a couple months or digital detox. It’s not that. It’s a whole different way to live, to have a real structure around your week and have a true day of rest and a true day where we have a big Shabbat meal -- we have a big meal every Friday night with family and friends. No one brings their screen. It’s very different to be with people without their phones. Then the next day is the most delicious day of my week that I look forward to all week.
Zibby: It’s really hard to believe that having to say “We had dinner without our phones” is a thing.
Tiffany: It’s mashugana. It’s crazy. I have a list at the back of book, fun things to do without screens by age. I do it all the way up to sixty-five-plus because everyone feels addicted. Everyone's forgotten how to live beforehand. Wait, let's remember our humanity. We enjoyed so many things without this distraction device. The web can bring so many wonderful, joyful things. It can connect us in so many ways, but not 24/7 and not the way we’re living with them right now and not the way it’s causing mental health issues, data and privacy issues, issues with our democracy and our election. There's a lot of stuff going on because the business model around the phone is all to keep you glued all the time.
Zibby: They do a good job.
Tiffany: They do a great job.
Zibby: Hats off, then. [laughs]
Tiffany: How can you compete with thousands of engineers and behavioral scientists that are focused on addicting you to staring at that screen?
Zibby: I have not been able to. In fact, I was just saying earlier, I read your book and you make such a compelling argument. I totally bought it. I just feel like I'm not ready. [laughs] It’s like an intervention.
Zibby: I don't know. I said to my husband, “I think I’ll try it. Why don't we all try it?” He's like, “Okay, but you're going to be like, ‘Just one thing,’ or ‘Let's figure out how to get here faster than there.’”
Tiffany: You know what? That's kind of fun. How old are your kids?
Zibby: I have twins that are twelve, six and almost five.
Tiffany: That's a great time for you to start doing this. Bake it in early. My sixteen-year-old daughter says all the time, she's so glad she has this day. She's a junior. It’s so stressful in high school. It’s a wall of protection for one day to regroup.
Zibby: I feel like if I had done your technology Shabbat for a month, I would've written about it. You waited ten years to write about this concept.
Tiffany: I know because I wasn't doing it to write something. That's interesting. You do often see those books, “I did this for a year. Here's my...” That was so not my journey. It was like, gosh, this feels great. This keeps feeling better and better. It’s giving me all these new insights on technology and society and daydreaming. What is life? It gives you this day to really think big-picture thoughts about a lot of this stuff. When you say that you don't think you could do it, I actually think all the mini-attempts during the week -- I also have a lot of strategies in the book about that. I think it’s harder when it’s around. It’s your phone. It’s your alarm clock. That's your map. It’s getting your car, all this stuff. To have a clear boundary is actually wonderful. I put it away on Friday night. It’s in this part of the kitchen I don't get to. I don't see it.
Then I feel liberated. It’s so liberating. I think people don't realize how much you feel tethered. I was talking to somebody earlier. I was like, “I take my dog off leash.” It’s like taking yourself off leash. You get to be free in a way I think we've forgotten. We’re just too available to everything and everyone. You don't realize how much you're being influenced. You're a mom. Obviously, you're always there for your kids, but we’re there for everyone. We’re there for all the news and everyone's vacation shots and everyone's other drama. It’s just too much for a human. Be comfortable with not reaching for that device every second that you have downtime.
Zibby: One of the most powerful things -- there were a lot of powerful reasons to take your break from the phone. When you said we have thirty thousand days, basically, on average, how do we want to live ours? You realized this so much with your dad’s passing away. The time is so finite.
Tiffany: It’s so short.
Zibby: Do you really want to spend the equivalent of ten thousand days on your phone looking down?
Tiffany: We’re working on a movie. We’re releasing five short two-minute films that go with the book and this global day I do called Character Day. One’s called Dear Parent, which we’re releasing tomorrow. One’s called Dear Student for teens. One’s called Dear CEO for tech CEOs. One’s Dear Legislature for all these laws that should be thought of. And then Dear Fellow Human. We were working on the films. One day this summer, I brought in my ten-year-old because she film-interns at my film studio. [laughs] She sits around and says interesting things to us. We were working on the film and she goes, “No one’s going to be at the end of their life saying, ‘I wish I was on the screens more.’” I was like, did she just drop some serious wisdom?
Zibby: You're like, my job is done.
Tiffany: Blooma, did you just say that? Of course, she hasn’t seen that life insurance ad that we all saw fifteen years ago that said, “No one’s ever going to look back on their life and say, ‘I wish I worked longer.’” That ad always stopped me in my tracks. It’s the same thing with screens. For a family, it’s whole-family commitment. You have to go all in. Ken is our Shabbos goy if we really need to look something up or we’re lost or we are in an urgent situation. That happens rarely. He's the one that looks it up and puts it right back. I don't want to even look at it. I don't want to touch it. I don't want to be near it. This is my day off from all of that. It’s a full-family thing. The thing that I would say to people is first of all, don't go to your family, “We’re going to turn off screens one day a week.” That's the worst approach. They will cry.
Zibby: Okay, I won't do it that way.
Tiffany: If you say to every member of your family, “What do you wish you had more time to do?” everyone has that list. Everyone wrote down three things they wished they had more time to do. Then you fill the day with that. It becomes everyone's favorite day. It could be reading, playing soccer, doing some art, learning how to play the ukulele, making cookies, napping, whatever it is.
Tiffany: Life without screens, unplugged.
Zibby: I really love the ritual behind it. There's meaning. You tied it to something with a history. I read your interview with Beth Ricanati, who I also had on the podcast.
Tiffany: She's so great. We had so much fun doing that.
Zibby: It sounded like it. I was sad I wasn't there to listen. Her ritual is baking the challah. You both have been doing this for ten years, you with the screens. You have a challah recipe.
Tiffany: First, we were going to do the interview while we were making challah over Skype. It didn't work out.
Zibby: Investing it with that tradition somehow makes it more worthy of doing or something, and connects you to everybody else in a way where the phones usually do.
Tiffany: I love knowing that people are doing Shabbat all over the world. Again, I'm not observing it in a religious way. Religious, observant, Orthodox Jews, they don't write. They don't drive. They don't use money. I have great respect for that. That's not my way into it. I do love that everyone all over the world is doing it on the same night. That connects you to something larger than yourself. The challah is very much a part of it because my whole journey starts on Friday morning making the challah with my youngest, hands in the dough -- it’s very meditative -- not on a phone. It’s in challah dough. It’s very wonderful. You have to let it rise all day just to remind you some things need to rise all day. We always have people over. We make the exact same meal every Friday night. It’s not a complicated thing. At this point, we've got it down, ten years of making this --
Zibby: -- It sounded delicious. I was reading your book late at night. I was sitting at my desk really hungry. I can smell the roast chicken and the onions.
Tiffany: You have to come if you're ever in San Francisco.
Zibby: Thank you. We do a modified Shabbat. I can't even call it Shabbat dinner. At this point, we light two candles and rip a challah apart. Sometimes I forget. They’ll be taking a shower. I’ll be like, “Start singing! Baruch atah!” [laughs]
Tiffany: Most of the Jews in my life are cultural Jews. There's a handful that are more religious. If they do a Shabbat, it’s usually maybe occasionally light the candles. For me, this was what was so exciting, is the power came in the full day. I got that. I always associated it with the Shabbat meal. It’s about the full day of rest. It’s the fourth commandment above “Do not murder.” That’s pretty big. To me, Judaism, I much more identify it as a practice in ethics and a way of thinking and wrestling with ideas. That's my in. A full day of rest. What does a full day of rest mean today? It means turning off the screens to us. There's no TV. We don't have anything on because it’s a conduit to so much else. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel calls it a palace in time, not in space. You're not going to a temple. You're creating a palace in time in a day, which I really loved too, that idea.
Zibby: It’s particularly impressive that you are doing this. From reading your bio and watching all of your -- you've done so much stuff. You're in it. You're making films.
Tiffany: I love it all. I'm not anti.
Zibby: You're not sitting around like, “I'm going to take the day off from Pilates to not be on my phone.” You are so busy. Yet you were saying that you're even more productive as a result of this.
Tiffany: I feel like that. When I was starting the Webbys, I worked all the time.
Zibby: Wait, tell me for two seconds about starting the Webbys. Was it your idea?
Tiffany: I was super into computers when I was in middle school and high school. This was before the Mac. I'm forty-nine, just to place us in the eighties before the web.
Zibby: I remember. I was there. [laughs]
Tiffany: I got a Mac. I thought that was miraculous. I had a modem that I could connect with that crazy sound, connect to the library. In high school before the web, this other student and I wrote this proposal called Uniting Nations in Telecommunications and Software about the power of personal computers to connect students all of the world. That wasn't there yet. This was what we saw as the potential. From this one-page proposal, who I sent to Congresswoman Barbara Boxer at the time, I then got invited to be a student ambassador to the Soviet Union to talk about the power of personal computers at eighteen before I went to college, before I went to Cal. I was so ready for this to happen, but it wasn't there yet. Then I was making movies. I would pay for my movies by working in technology. I worked in CD-ROMs to pay for my films. I was working on a CD-ROM about Sting. Somebody said, “Tiffany, you have to see this thing called the web. There's a website. People all over the world are talking about how much they love Sting’s music on a website.”
I was like, it’s here. I moved back to San Francisco. I wasn't there at the time. I started working for The Web magazine, which was a magazine way ahead of its time. This is the late nineties. They were like, “We own the Webby Award trademark. We have no budget for it.” I had just created this website for them. “Do you think you can do something with it?” Can I do something with it? First of all, I'm an independent filmmaker. I know how to do something with no money. This is my great passion, the web. I got free reign. The Webbys became so big. The Web magazine, actually they folded the magazine. They spun out the Webby Awards. It was like driving a rocket ship. I worked with this incredible woman, Maya Draisin, who lives in New York. She's my best friend. We went through so much. Then after almost a decade, I had my first child. I didn't want to work like -- this was the great struggle. Every working woman can relate to this. I was working my ass off on the Webby Awards. I just had a child.
How do I do this? How do I be a good mother and contribute to the world? That's when I knew -- I had made a film for Planned Parenthood while I was running the Webby Awards. It got into Sundance. I went back to my original dream, which was filmmaking combined with everything I'd learned from the web to make social change. Shortly after that, I sold the Webby Awards, started a film studio in San Francisco. I've made a lot of documentaries about women's rights, technology, Jewish stuff. What does it mean to be human in the twenty-first century? If you were to look at all my thirty films and the Webbys and my book, they're all connected. They're neuroscience, psychology and philosophy about what does it mean to be human in the age of technology? When does it amplify who we are? When does it amputate who we are? That is always my question. Right now, this book, it’s amputating a lot of experiences. We need to reclaim, when is it important to turn the phone off?
Zibby: Your book was so well-written. I thought it was going to be very -- I just didn't know. There was a lot of memoir to it. There was much more about your life, not that I even knew you before, but I love hearing about people's life stories. You wove in so much of that with your dad and having your baby. It was part memoir. It made your arguments that much more powerful because I understood where you were coming from.
Tiffany: I appreciate that, getting that right balance. I enjoyed writing so much. I did one other book. I wouldn't even count it a book. It was a booklet. It was for the TED conference. I had made a film about a child’s developing brain. They asked me to make a book from it. It was thirty pages. It was more of a multimedia book. This was my first book. Everyone was like, “Are there going to be images in it?” I make so many images for my movies. I was like, “No.” I loved the creative constraint of it. I loved writing.
Zibby: You're such a good writer.
Tiffany: Thank you.
Zibby: No, seriously. It was great. How did you do it? Did you just sit down, you're like, “I'm going to just write my first book”?
Tiffany: No. A couple things I would say is that I've thought about a lot of these ideas, have been in my films. I've made a lot of short films. Actually, on my website, 24sixlife.com, I link to all these short films that have explored a lot of these issues. I've thought about that a lot. I was in a book club with a whole bunch of women. Two of my best friends were in it. They're writers. I knew I wanted to write this book. We peeled off and started a writer’s group. We met once a month, three of us, called The Investigative Poets. We met once a month. We each turned in nine pages a month. We did that for the last two years. If anyone listening wants to write a book, I highly recommend whoever -- it just takes three people to hold each other accountable. That was a big part of it.
This was the big part of it too, I started going to bed at nine PM and getting up at five, and writing from five to seven before my kids got up. It felt like I found two hours. It was amazing. It takes real discipline to go to bed that early, which I only do four days a week. I'm not doing that on the weekends. To have from five to seven to write, my mind is the most clear then. No emails are coming in. I did that really religiously. I got up at five and wrote most days of the week. I would go to the public library. I loved it. I felt like there was nothing else I was supposed to be doing when I was writing. I had great editors, Karyn Marcus at Gallery Books and Jenny Trey [sp] who was my developmental editor who's worked on a lot of my movies. It is collaborative in a very different way than making a film. A film involves a lot of people. A book is so much fun.
Zibby: Do you have a five-word piece of advice to aspiring authors in the style of your Webbys? I'm putting you on the spot here.
Tiffany: Get up at five. Write. [laughter] I am telling you, anyone that I've told -- if you can really try to do it just four days a week, you've found two hours you didn't have.
Zibby: I'm already up with my kids at that time.
Tiffany: They get up at five? You have the young.
Zibby: I'm lucky if they get to six, the little guy.
Tiffany: It’s only been in the last four years that I could've done that. Mine are ten and sixteen. Now they're starting to sleep in. I also think going to the library. A library’s a beautiful place to write. First of all, it’s so inspiring because there's so many books. It’s very quiet. It’s a great place. What I really recommend is create a ritual, I guess is what I'm saying, that is your time to write. Don't try to squeeze it in. Say, “I am going to take this seriously. I'm going to either get up at five,” if you can't do that, “While my kids are at school, for two hours, I'm going to go to the library.” Make that a really focused boundary. What I'm taking about a lot with the book and with this is creating some boundaries. Our lives become -- there's no boundaries with anything. We’re writing. We’re mothering. We’re all on the phone. We’re tweeting. We’re notifying. We’re not anywhere, really, because we’re trying to be everywhere. Then that makes it so you can't really be present for anything.
Zibby: Are there things that you feel you just don't have time for? You're doing all these things. You can get up early and write. You can do your films. Did you have to cut anything out?
Tiffany: I didn't make a film for the last two years. We were just making these short films. I missed it. It feels like my other lover.
Zibby: I feel like short films count. That counts as making films.
Tiffany: Oh, yeah. My short films, I go through a lot with my short -- I think they're hard. I've made a feature. That was hard and great, but hard and a long journey. Short films, they're a great creative challenge because you have to squeeze in everything. Actually, you said thirty thousand days spoke to you. I made a ten-minute film called Thirty Thousand Days. It’s all about that subject.
Zibby: I wanted to watch your film, it was called Making of a Mensch.
Tiffany: Making of a Mensch, that's ten minutes. It’s hard to squeeze thousands of years of ideas about being a mensch or about living a good life into ten minutes. It’s the ultimate creative challenge.
Zibby: My husband’s a producer. He's working on a film called The Mensch, by the way. You guys should talk.
Tiffany: Oh, my gosh. We should talk. You'll connect us.
Zibby: I’ll connect you. That's awesome. Any parting words of advice on people who have decided they're going to take the plunge?
Tiffany: Yes, I do.
Zibby: Give me a pep talk, and all the people.
Tiffany: First of all, when is this airing?
Zibby: This is airing on probably October 17th.
Tiffany: The nonprofit that I have in San Francisco is called Let it Ripple. We do a global event called Character Day, which happens in schools and companies and homes around the country and world. This year, the focus is going to be your character, who you are in relationship to screen use. When does being on screens amplify who you are? When does it diminish it? Qualities like empathy, gratitude, courage, social responsibility, all those things. This year, it actually happens in September. We’re guiding people through three weeks of mini challenges, like wake up and don't look at your phone for fifteen to thirty minutes. Do something else. Replace it with something else you love doing. Don't have it at meals, all these mini challenges. Then this week is we’re inviting everyone to do a tech Shabbat with us for four weekends in a row. That’s how you build a habit.
Even though your listeners are listening to this after that's happened, this is the first time we’re going to leave everything up. Whenever you hear this, you can go to the site. You can go to 24sixlife.com -- it’s 24 the number, S-I-X, life.com -- and say, “I want to try this.” We will walk you through an eight-week program for free with inspiring short films and research and articles that will make you want to do it, and approaches to get your family on board, and all this kind of stuff to walk you through the process. Of course in the book, as you said, it’s memoir, but there's a lot of, how do I really bring this into my life? What are some bigger ideas around this? The book has got everything in it. Then if you really want to try it, we’ll guide you through.
Zibby: Great. Thank you so much for sharing all of this and coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Tiffany: Great to be here. Thank you.