A Guest Post by Amber Nozzi Rethinking Habit: Intentional Practices as Embodied Humans in a Digital World
It’s 6:30am on a Monday morning and you’re woken up by the sound of your alarm ringing. You’re tired and groggy, but you reach for your phone to turn off its alarm and notice a text from your friend that was sent to you late last night. You respond, then take a trip over to Instagram and like the posts of your friends, check your email, and respond to the messages your coworkers sent over the weekend. You check the time again and you’ve already spent 20 minutes on your phone since you’ve woken up.
You may resonate with this narrative. I certainly have mornings like this, when I feel inundated by the pressures of being in a connected world. I used to treat my phone like a first cup of coffee, preparing myself for the day ahead and getting me out of my sluggish state. Like in a to-do list, I had emails to read, Instagram posts to like, stories to watch, and red notification bubbles to eliminate from my iPhone apps. I wasn’t even aware of my unhealthy dependence on digital technology in the midst of a fast-paced life that pushed me further into patterns of hurriedness and worry.
Last semester at Westmont, I took Dr. Felicia Song’s Internet and Society class, which transformed my relationship with the Internet and social media. My favorite part of the class was the Freedom Project, which consisted of several intentional practices like taking a digital fast and changing some of my daily routines. Through these exercises, I came to recognize my misoriented relationship with digital technologies; but most importantly, I began to see an alternative reality for myself to live into.
I saw how my habits (my repeated practices, or what James K. A. Smith refers to as “liturgies”) were shaping what I loved and creating a vision of flourishing that was not calibrated to the Kingdom of God. I also discovered new habits that allowed me to better embrace being an embodied human serving God and my community. Here are a few of the practices I found the most transformative.
1. Take a digital fast
A digital fast is a great first step to recognizing patterns in which we turn our digital devices throughout the day. I took a 24-hour digital fast as the start of the Freedom Project; however, a digital fast can be any amount of time. During my fast, I learned just how often I used my phone as a time-filler, turning to it whenever I had a moment to spare. Even with an extroverted personality, I relied heavily on my phone to meet up with my friends.
I also learned how habits of resistance can be habits of presence too. By saying no to social media, I had the opportunity to invest my time in other activities, like spending time with friends or being in nature. My focus shifted from dwelling on what I couldn’t do without digital technology to realizing what I can now do better.
2. Change your morning and evening routine
For many of us, our days begin and end with our phones. Phones are accessible, reliable and give you what you want when you want it. We check our email or text messages one last time before bed to see if anyone is trying to reach us. Using social media in the morning and in the evening was definitely one of my strongest habits. So as my counter-liturgy, instead of turning to my phone in the morning, I would read Scripture for 5-10 minutes In the evening I wrote down five things I was grateful for from my day—things like dancing, hugs and fresh fruit, to name a few.
Over the course of my experiment, I was in awe of the restorative power of starting and ending my day with God. When I look at my phone first thing in the morning, I wake up to the world of hurry and chaos that pushes me into the busy rhythm of the digital world. Starting my day with God, however, is beginning my day with the promises of joy, restoration, and peace even while living in a fallen world.
3. Set aside one hour of intentional conversation a week
Sherry Turkle, in her book Reclaiming Conversation, describes how the introduction of cell phones has created a “continuous partial attention” in people. You may have been in a conversation with someone in person only to notice how their eyes look down at the table every now and then to an illuminated screen with notifications asking for their attention. Your conversation becomes shallow and constantly disrupted. Sherry Turkle describes this phenomenon as individuals “substituting conversation for mere connection,” most often without realizing it.
On the evening of my 24-hour digital fast through Internet and Society, I had the opportunity to talk with my friend Susie about our semesters abroad. I had gone on the Europe Semester last Fall and she had done Westmont in Mexico. As the night went on, we shared our stories of cultural immersion, meeting new people and transformative experiences. Our conversation was thorough, uninterrupted, and life-giving. I thought about how this time would have been different if we had our digital devices to turn to, if we halted our stories to see what was populating our phones. It was a moment where I felt understood and loved. I realized that the complexities of a face-to-face conversation that can’t be authentically simulated over the digital. Only in face-to-face conversations can we know and be deeply known by someone we love.
4. Designate a tech-free room
Our devices go with us everywhere we go, and so the fast-paced narrative of the world goes with us as well. Having my phone everywhere I go is like a tether, urging me to be productive, stay connected, and see what everyone else is doing. Creating a tech-free space during the school year was challenging. I often worked on school tasks in my dorm room, so I knew making my room a tech-free zone was going to be hard. Regardless, I designated my room as “tech-free,” pushing myself to do homework and communicate through digital devices elsewhere. While I wasn’t always comfortable with this change, my room became, in a sense, a sanctuary. When I entered my room it was for rest and fellowship with my friends and God. It was a space that allowed for restoration for my body, spirit and mind, a place where the “noise” of the outside world was silenced.
Tech-free spaces done in a communal effort are powerful forces for positive change. Organizations can designate a break room as a space to unwind from the demands of work and embrace each other in intentional conversations. Families can make the dinner table a space for meaningful togetherness that strengthens the family unit and puts listening and love at the forefront of mealsharing.
Simply stated, monotasking is doing only one action at a time. For example, if you are doing laundry, you are only doing laundry, not texting your friend as well. It allows you to be rooted in your task. In the midst of chaos, we can find an oasis of calm when we place our attention on one thing.
I found monotasking to be surprisingly renewing. I currently commute to my work from my home in Ventura to Santa Barbara. The drive is about 40 to 45 minutes, and in the beginning of summer, I often played a podcast or listened to the radio while I was driving to pass the time. I was anxious to get to work and begin my workday as soon as possible. I saw the time in my car as a forced stop to my productivity. I’m the type of person that likes doing, getting things done, and being busy. I deeply resonate with what Justin Earley wrote in The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:
“Busyness functions like an addiction. When you stop, you have to face your thoughts, which terrifies most of us. So to cope you have to keep up the busyness.” - Justin Earley
In the car, I can’t be on my computer or on my phone. A few weeks in I began using my commute as an opportunity to monotask two or three times a week. I wouldn’t listen to music, just silence. While it was difficult to adjust, I began to understand how my restless heart was in need of a rest that could only be found in Christ. I began to structure my time in the car for prayer and worship. For so long I’d been keeping myself so busy that I wasn’t able to be present to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Now this time I spend commuting is an opportunity to wait, to listen, and to worship.
6. Take a Sabbath
Our culture today has arranged our week in a way that mirrors the seven-day pattern of creation story in Genesis, but often we miss the rest of the seventh day. Busyness has become viewed as a status symbol: the less time you have, the more important you are. Digital technologies only push this rhythm even further. The Christian narrative, however, tells a different story. While we are to love God and serve others, we are also called to take time to rest from our work.
For much of my time in college, I struggled immensely with honoring the Sabbath. I was driven to get assignments done, and if I finished that work I would find a new project. I felt the need to be in control, finding my identity in being achievement-driven. Through the Freedom Project, I learned that honoring the Sabbath is a reminder of my dependency on God and of the good work that has already been done, giving me my true identity in Christ. My Sabbath consisted of not checking my phone often and doing an activity that glorifies God through admiring creation like hiking or going to the beach. Spending quality time with people allows me to recognize their "imago dei," or Image of God. Keeping Sabbath is still not always easy for me. I still get the impulse to check my email or social media. I enjoy this quote by Earley, who explains, “Practicing Sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done because that is the way reality is.” I cannot do life through my own power.
Overall, these practices have helped me understand that habits form more than just our schedules—they form our hearts. I learned that we can find freedom in restriction, joy in stillness, and hope in waiting. When we accept the power of habit and view our habits as liturgies with heart-shaping ability, we begin to recognize the ways in which our interactions with social media and digital technologies direct us towards a particular lifestyle. These practices have begun to free me from a lifestyle of busyness and connectivity, reminding me of my true source of rest.
“Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” - St. Augustine
Cheerful, diligent, and exuberant, Amber Nozzi is an incoming junior studying Econ/Business and Sociology at Westmont College, where she also works in the Office of College Advancement as a gift processor. Her hobbies include visiting National Parks, hiking, laughing for too long at jokes, helping others, and being Italian. She doesn't drink coffee and is slightly allergic to cats.