In July 2010, special education teacher and mother Rachel Macy Stafford decided enough was enough. No longer did she want to multi-task her life away with buzzing phones, mile-long to-do lists and overloaded agendas. Instead, Rachel yearned to take small steps to let go of daily distractions and connect to what truly mattered. She began by turning off the notifications on her cell phone while in the company of her loved ones. She also established daily rituals at mealtime and bedtime that were always distraction-free.
Immediately, she noticed the profound impact these small changes were having on her ability to bond with the people she loved most, as well as her own happiness. Rachel began sharing her experiences on a blog (www.HandsFreeMama.com) to stay accountable to her "hands free" journey. The public response was quite remarkable. Over the past three years, The Hands Free Revolution has grown to a community of nearly 100K!
Rachel recently released her first book, Hands Free Mama, which describes how she transformed her overly distracted life into one of meaningful connection. Read about Rachel's transformative journey below.
Interview by Beth Gebhard of Lightshop Media
Q. What does it mean to live “hands free”?
A. Living hands free means making a conscious decision to temporarily push aside daily distractions and give your undivided attention to someone or something meaningful in your life. But it doesn’t mean giving up technology altogether, and it does not mean ignoring your job responsibilities, volunteer obligations or home duties. Instead, living hands free allows you to experience the joy that comes from being fully engaged with others.
Q. What caused you to embark on this hands free journey?
A. Three years ago, I experienced what I call my “breakdown-breakthrough.” For the first time in my life, I honestly answered the complimentary question I received on a daily basis: “How do you do it all?” I painfully admitted that I was able to “do it all” because I missed out on life⎯the playing, connecting, memory-making parts of life. Tragically, I knew every precious moment I’d missed could never be retrieved. With clarity, I saw the damage that my daily distractions were causing my relationships, my health and my life.
Once I acknowledged that living distractedly was not really living at all, I vowed to change. From that day on, I began taking small steps to let go of distraction and created designated times of the day to be fully present with the people I love.
Q. You began chronicling your journey on your Hands Free Mama blog. Why?
A. When I was ready to tell someone about my endeavor, I started with my husband, Scott. The hands free concept I described impacted his behavior immediately. While at the children’s museum that morning, he’d noticed several parents paying more attention to their phones than to their kids. This observation motivated him to turn off his phone, push away thoughts of work and focus solely on our children’s clever comments and funny expressions. In doing so, he felt a strong sense of connection, peace and renewal. That was the moment I knew I needed to go public with my hands free journey. The impact of the small changes I was making in my daily life was so immediate and so profound that I knew I must share it with as many people as I could. As an educator, writer and encourager, I felt certain this was my purpose in life. I believed that the people who could most likely benefit from my hands free message were people who read blogs and use social media. That is why I chose those media to share my message.
Q. What surprised you when you began sharing your stories?
A. Within weeks of my first blog post, readers began reaching out to me. People all over the world wrote to me saying, “I need this message. I am joining you on your journey.” Even my friends and neighbors, who I thought had it all together, were saying, “I’m tired of living on a hamster wheel. I am tired of the pressure. I want to enjoy time with my family. I want my kids to be kids.”
As stories from my journey fell into the hands (and onto the screens) of others who also felt trapped by their distractions, I suddenly had companions on my hands free journey, and a movement to live with less daily distraction and more human connection began. I soon discovered it wasn’t just stressed-out moms who were struggling…I heard from a Fortune 500 company executive, a stay-at-home dad, a single mom living in a battered women’s shelter, a homeschooler, a grandmother, a blogger and even a teen—people from all different backgrounds and circumstances were implementing strategies described in my stories and experiencing the life-altering results.
Q. Did you find it difficult to live hands free during the process of writing this book?
A. When I got started writing the book, my husband, my two daughters and I sat down and discussed what we would need to do as a family in order for me to meet my publishing deadlines. Much to my surprise, every member of the family was willing to take on more household duties and daily responsibilities in order to help me. I am proud to say that my family came through like rock stars! Although I worked more hours than usual that month, I refused to miss out on the daily rituals of connection I’d established with my family throughout my journey. Those little moments of togetherness are the most meaningful and renewing parts of my day.
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of living hands free?
A. Before, I avoided painful truths about the way I was living by being overly busy, tied to my devices and never alone with my thoughts. Once I quieted down my external distractions, I was forced to face some painful realizations. Once I was honest with myself about changes I needed to make, I had to take action. I learned to apologize, be kind to myself, show up “as is” and admit my imperfections and shortcomings, among other things. These actions were not easy, but as I often say, “The truth hurts, but the truth heals…and brings me closer to the person I want to be.”
I thought that after one year of grasping what really mattered, I would be cured and my journey would be over—but it is far from over. Although I have made significant progress toward a more present and gratitude-filled life, I am faced with choices every moment of every day on how I spend my time and energy. Daily distractions and societal pressures will always be ready and willing to sabotage my time and my relationships. Living hands free requires constant daily effort and continual honesty, but the payoff is a closer relationship with the people you love.
Q. What are some immediate and simple ways to transform a tech-obsessed family into a hands free family?
A. 1) Turn off the notifications on your phone and place it out of reach while driving. This was the easiest and most impactful effort in my hands free journey.
2) Allow yourself 60 extra seconds for an unrushed, undivided, loving goodbye. If you make only one small effort to let go of distractions and grasp what matters in a day, do this!
3) Establish do-nothing moments with no agenda and no itinerary.
4) Create and maintain one daily ritual where time with your loved one is protected from all other distractions and interruptions. For example, morning snuggles, nightly tuck-ins, walking the dog together, prayer or a daily devotional, after-school snack time.
5) Consistently invite your family to engage in activities that do not involve electronic devices. Try cooking, board games, nature walks, bike rides, arts and crafts, sports or science experiments.