Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Nov

Primal Experiment: Intentional Power Outage

A few months back, I linked to an article about a guy who experienced an unexpected benefit after Hurricane Irene knocked out his power for several days: he started sleeping much, much better. Instead of staying up late on the computer or with the TV blaring and going to bed at the usual 11:30 or midnight, he found himself yawning around 9 PM and getting to bed at 10. It was the best sleep of his life, and even better – the effects persisted even after the power returned. He had effectively entrained his circadian rhythm to the natural cycle of light and dark. This is basic stuff to you guys, but bear with me.

Just last week, a reader named Melissa emailed me with a similar story. She lost power for three and a half days after a Connecticut snowstorm took out power all across the state. Instead of panicking, she rolled with it. Instead of freaking out over the fact that there were sub-freezing temperatures, no heat, and no water (it froze), she made a fun snowball fight out of a snowstorm. She took it as an opportunity to get “unexpectedly extra-Primal.” I like it. I remember those New England winters, and I can’t imagine a better way to deal with them than to accept the challenge and make the best of it.

That gave me an idea – why wait for the grid to fail to have all that fun? Why not willingly experience all that good stuff without the threat of cannibal hordes and Xbox-live starved teens beating down your door?

So, now, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to spend a weekend – two full nights, minimum – living under a self-imposed intentional power outage. Even if you live in a sunny climate and even if you’ve got a generator hooked up for worst-case scenarios, I want you to completely disconnect from electricity. We’re going to find out what it really feels like to turn off and drop out.

That means:

  • No computers, smartphones, or Internet.
  • No e-book readers.
  • No TV or radio.
  • No lightbulbs or flashlights.
  • Thus, you should be:
  • Stocking up on candles.
  • Splitting wood for the fireplace (if you have one and it’s cold enough to warrant it).
  • Grabbing some good books (no Nooks or Kindles, though).
  • Bringing out the board games.

To give you an idea of what to expect, check out exactly how Melissa got more Primal (in her own words) going without power:

  1. No hot water, so I was a little more “natural” smelling than usual!
  2. I mostly lived off of the rest of my salad greens, tuna with olive oil and dried tomatoes. Also a filling little mixture of coconut milk and whey powder. A bit of beef jerky and almonds, too.
  3. With very limited artificial light, my sleep rhythms seem more natural. Sleep around 8:30 or 9 pm (instead of my usual midnight), wake up when it starts to get light.
  4. A mile+ each way trek through the snow to get to a Target I heard was open so I could stock up on tuna and the like. Haul it all home in a bag over my shoulder.
  5. During the day, when it was nice and sunny, spent more time outdoors to take advantage.
  6. Nice leisure time spent with the cat, knitting and reading (what else but The Primal Blueprint!).

All that in a little over three days.

To those I would add a few other things it’ll allow (force) you to do:

Unwind, Completely and Utterly

It’s one thing to tell yourself, “Don’t check your email after 7 PM” and have your laptop staring at you all night, power light winking seductively. You can still hop on and log in. There’s nothing stopping you but your own will. It’s another thing to be physically unable to check your email. When the power is out, you can’t use electricity. You physically cannot access email (until the battery dies, at least), and this makes a huge difference. I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t go online after dark only to “just sneak one last peek” before bed. Sometimes it’s good to remove temptation entirely so that you have no choice but to unwind. Removing electricity will remove temptation.

Spend Quality Time with Loved Ones

I mean really spend quality time with loved ones. Not sitting on the couch watching TV with the gang. Not Skype-ing each other from separate rooms in the same house. I’m talking look each other in the eye and exchanging words, telling jokes, playing board or card games, telling stories, laughing about old times, as well as engaging in more intimate pastimes characterized by unintelligible vocalizations. Face time, not FaceTime.

Disconnect from Electronic Media

We’ve gone over this one before, but now the rubber hits the road. This one’s for the political junkies who need their fix every hour on the hour, the Primal blogosphere addicts fastidiously checking every blog for new comments, the gamers, the chronic email/Twitter/Facebook checkers. Basically, it’s for everyone. And it will hurt, at first. You might get itchy, cranky, irritable. You’ll probably flip open your powerless laptop and check your dead phone a few times before you realize that THE POWER IS OUT AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET IS SAYING ABOUT SOMETHING. That’s okay, though. Take several slow, deep breaths and settle in for the long (2-day) haul. It’s going to be okay. The benefits are many, of course, with the main objective being the lack of blue light messing with your circadian rhythm, but what about the simple fact that you will be forced to be in the moment without the crutch of electronic media? It’s hard, and a lack of electronic stimulation initially manifests as boredom and restlessness, but that will pass. Trust me.

Disconnect from All Media After Dark

Unless you go overboard with the candles, you’ll be hard-pressed to stay up late reading. Candlelight is still dim and still promotes sleep (by allowing melatonin secretion), and I dare you to read longer than an hour by candlelight. You might be able to; I can’t. I get too sleepy too fast. This is a good thing, I think. At the very least, it’s worth trying out for a couple days, if only to explore the inner workings of your own mind left to its own devices. We don’t get that very often, do we? A total lack of external stimulation is hard to come by these days. Whenever I go camping, I always bring a book with visions of hunkering down in the tent after dark, except it never happens. The book stays unopened, and I lie there amidst the awesome stillness of it all with my own thoughts. I bet you’ll have the same experience. Just don’t freak out, because the mind can be a pretty interesting, unnerving place!

Get Outside and Play

You know what I did when I was a kid and there was nothing good on TV and computers filled up entire rooms? I went outside and played. Without electricity to fall back on for entertainment, I bet you’ll get the hankering to go outside and scrounge up some of your own. There’s a ton of fun stuff outside (not to mention sacred stuff, too), much of which I’ve talked about before, but it takes effort. And when you can access millions of songs, movies, TV shows, books, and blogs with the touch of a few keys, effort-based entertainment starts looking like, well, too much effort. No more. Without electricity, all you’ve got is the entire world around you. A world you can taste, smell, grab, and climb. So get out there and do it! I mean, what else is there?

This is your chance to finally try out all the “other stuff” we write about around here. The blue light avoidance, the sleep cycle entrainment, the divestment from the tyranny of the LED, the socializing, the quietude, the time alone with one’s thoughts, the forest bathing – this is the time to actually do this stuff, rather than read about it and think to yourself, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” Now you actually have to do it.

A few tips:

  • Don’t actually turn off power to your entire house. You might need it in an emergency, and I don’t think letting your refrigerated and frozen food spoil in the name of purity is worth it. Just turn off the laptop, the phone, the lights, and disconnect all elective electronics.
  • Make sure your schedule is clear. Finish all your work and let people know that you’re going to be out of commission (and that they’re free to come visit in person!).
  • Go longer if you can. Two days should be the minimum, but go for three or even four if you can manage it.

I love electricity and modern technology, and I appreciate all the luxuries it allows. But it’s also something I take for granted. It’s something I’ve come to expect as a given, an essential aspect of life that I give little thought to, like the presence of oxygen and the influence of gravity on everyday life. I think that’s probably true for most of us reading this post. This experiment, I think, will make that clearer than ever.

Once you’ve successfully completed your intentional power outage weekend, report back with your findings. Did you enjoy it? Was it more restful? Stressful? Was it unbearable? If so, why? Was it a nice surprise? How so? What did you learn? Did you sleep better? Is this something you’ll try to work into your daily life from now on, or was it a nice vacation but not anything you’d care to repeat? Give it an honest shot and let us know how it went!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Hi all, I’m actually the Melissa featured! We lost power on Saturday, Oct 29, and got it back Wednesday, November 2. Would you believe that some people here in CT STILL do not have their power back? It’s crazy! I think it was worse at first because we were pretty unprepared for it, and then we lost cell reception to boot. Once I got into survival mode I got into a good routine. Not being able to cook anything was a pain at first, but totally manageable. Try it! At least if you are doing this on your own terms, you can decide when you’ve had enough (instead of the power company deciding that for you!)

    Melissa wrote on November 8th, 2011
  2. Well, the first 3 days of Storm Alfred and no lights was cool. The 8pm bed time was good for me. And, I got to the point where a 45 degree bedroom was warm in the AM. But, when I had to toss my refrigerated / frozen food it was a bummer. The final straw was when I woke up to my 4 y/o clinging to me like glue for warmth. We had to bail out to my ‘rents for heat then. BUT, it did remind me that I don’t NEED the lights, and the TV, and the PC.


    Chris T wrote on November 8th, 2011
  3. That would be challenging…but a fun experiment.

    Erik wrote on November 8th, 2011
  4. This would be a cool experiment, and I don’t think it would be a challenge for myself so much as for my fiancee. I love candlelight and reading books and spending time outside and sleeping. But he’s a ‘come home from work and watch tv for 5 hours then go to bed’ kind of guy.

    *sigh* At least he likes meat and vegetables…

    Caleigh wrote on November 8th, 2011
  5. Sounds like fun to me, it would be tough to get my wife and kids to commit.

    Steve wrote on November 8th, 2011
  6. I live in Alaska, and we’re starting winter so there’s not much sunlight (and I have school, so I miss most of it). Is candlelight much better than fluorescent bulbs? Or should I lie, cheat, and steal to get my dose of natural sunlight?

    Semi-PrimalDan wrote on November 8th, 2011
  7. Actually I lived it, too. I was without power for about 6 days after Irene, and 8 days after the snow thing just now. The Irene thing was fine — I hiked around the neighborhood. The snow thing was more problematic as it got dark faster at this time of year, and it got dark well before I wanted to sleep. I like to read prior to sleeping, so I did get to read by lantern-light, but after a few days, I admit to boredom with this. At any rate: I did learn to appreciate the benefits of electricity. And of simplifying. And, I did save most of my food.

    Of Goats and Greens wrote on November 8th, 2011
    • Why I couldn’t hike at night in the dark: It would be a death sentence, considering how people drive around here.

      Temps dropped down to the upper 40’s here. I have a really good sleeping bag and I remained toasty in it.

      I did have great fun with the grill. Took half days from work, so I could grill with some daylight.

      Of Goats and Greens wrote on November 8th, 2011
  8. When cyclone yasi came through north Queensland (Australia) we lost power for 9 days! I really did have to learn that social medias weren’t all they cracked up to be- and this has comefor me at the perfect time I’m getting rid of social media (will keep skype as ilive thousands of kms away from family ) and am learning that it’s not the end of the world!

    Sarah wrote on November 8th, 2011
  9. We have a summer cabin (over 100 years old) that does have some electricity and water supplied by a truck every spring. I miss spending time there as I’m on Vancouver Island summers now. Still, on VI the grid is tenuous and we usually spend some Primal time when the electricity goes out — for an hour, a day or longer. Surprise Primal is often the best kind.

    Diane wrote on November 8th, 2011
  10. oh woe is me. If only a college student could do this. Maybe over vaca

    steffo wrote on November 8th, 2011
  11. A few years ago we had a really bad ice storm and the power was out for over two weeks. After four days the phone and water also went out. It was January in South Dakota, so it was chilly. I also had the best sleep of my life! At about 8-9 pm I was ready to sack out. I didn’t really mind the power and phone being out, but I did miss the water. Boiling drinking water and taking a sponge bath in a freezing room was no fun.

    Tamika Maria wrote on November 8th, 2011
  12. Funnily enough, we had a power cut yesterday (5 hours long, so not too bad), but we’re now entering the realms of power cut weather. I am lucky – my house is already heated with wood and coal, I have a coal-fired Aga (range cooker), so I never really have to worry about power cuts. Oh, and my television broke yesterday, too! So this post is rather timely. I think, though, that we’ll get enough practice over the winter if last year was anything to go by. 10 days was our record last year ….

    oliviascotland wrote on November 9th, 2011
  13. I lived like that for about 2 years of my life back when I was in Russia. I stayed in a small village in Georgia ( Russian Georgia ) with my grandma and we didn’t have electricity, and we only had cold water available 1 hour a day ( the government only allowed 1 hour a day ). We used those kerasine lamps ( the one that looks like a candle ) and we heated our house with one of those large cement stoves where you place wood to burn it. It was a very simple life but everyone in that village seemed to survive just fine.

    We didn’t even had bathroom inside of our house, it was outside just like our homemade shower box with a bucket of rain water, which was heated by sunlight ( you can call it primal living 😉 ), but my grandma calls it surviving.

    My grandma still lives in that village, exactly the same way, she doesn’t see a point in living a different life.

    Tatianna wrote on November 9th, 2011
  14. I just want to point out that if the circadian rhythm is a matter of light and dark, then it’s unfair to lump ereaders in with computers and television–baby, bathwater, etc. The majority of ereaders have no built in light source, so it’s really no different than reading a book except that (for me) there’s no eyestrain involved trying to read those tiny fonts.

    I think this is a cool idea, and I do try to limit my screen time in the evenings before bed and it’s helped me a lot. However, we’re about to move and go off-grid, so I’m planning to enjoy my electricity while I’ve got easy access to it. :-)

    KathyJo wrote on November 9th, 2011
  15. I guess this would be fun for people who don’t live in New England. I live in New Hampshire. We lose power all the time, last week I went without power for 4 days and let me tell you, that was no picnic. I had to get up freezing, go to the gym and take a freezing shower (the gym ran out of hot water because soo many people were showering. You don’t want to go outside in the snow because once you come back in guess what? Your still freezing!! Had to throw away all of my food in the fridge and freeze. Sorry guys, no power is no fun.

    Moonlightmyth wrote on November 9th, 2011
  16. Years ago we lost power for a week because of an ice storm. I never slept better in my life. At first I thought it was because we were sleeping in absolute darkness. That was a factor, but after the power was back my sleep became disturbed again even though I went to great lengths to darken our room. I am convinced that noise is another factor. I think the sounds of the refrigerator, water heater, etc. cause me to not sleep as well as I could. I would love to wear ear plugs to see if that would make a difference, but don’t dare to do it because I’m afraid I wouldn’t hear if something is wrong in the house. I don’t think we are even aware how much noise we are surrounded by all the time.

    Stephanie wrote on November 9th, 2011
  17. When I lived in Colorado last year, my roommate and I went down to the Springs to visit his parents. They live in Black Forest, which is a pretty rural area (dirt roads, wood stoves, in other words HEAVEN). We were snowed in for 3 days while we were there, and although I was a bit restless for the first couple hours, I found all sorts of things to do: I read more than 100 pages of a book, helped chop firewood, cleaned the guest house we were staying in, baked bread (this was in my pre-Primal days), shoveled snow out of the driveway, had snowball fights… I can honestly say it was those 3 days without electricity and artificial stimulation that made me fall in love with Colorado. I dream of a life of having the luxury of remaining connected to “civilization” but not drowning in the middle of it. If I didn’t live under my mother’s roof, I’d do this every night. Awesome post Mark, thanks! =)

    Siren wrote on November 9th, 2011
  18. It feels great to disconnect from all the conveniences. I do it with my friends during summers, when we bike out of town into the “wild”.
    Biking with no lights through a forest is liberating.

    Paul Alexander wrote on November 9th, 2011
  19. I’m doing it this weekend, and adding not driving my car, except for two appointments on Saturday.
    I look forward to walking or biking everywhere to get my groceries, meet with friends, etc.

    Lars T. (Primal Minimalist) wrote on November 9th, 2011
  20. I have discussed this with my Grok and we decided to give it a try this weekend! Although the heater is staying on. I would not sleep well if it was below freezing in the house.

    FoCo Girl wrote on November 9th, 2011
  21. I’ve always had trouble sleeping and had tried everything, but recently stumbled upon something that really works. Before bed I go sit on the back porch and get really cold. I sit out there barefooted with no shirt, reading in the dim light of a string of white Christmas lights (not LED). I usually stay out for about 45 minutes. When I come inside and curl up under the blankets it’s like I’ve been shot with a tranquilizer dart. Best sleep of my adult life. Not sure what I’ll do when the weather warms up — ice bath maybe.

    Raul Johnson wrote on November 9th, 2011
    • This reminds me of a website I was on the other week talking about letting your babies sleep outside in their prams, and a lot of European countries are BIG advocates of freezing cold sleeping for babies. They do rug them up, but the general “old wives tale” goes that babies sleep much better in the open air and the cold is favoured. Im talking freezing countries. Lots of readers sent in comments to this site I was on saying they had many memories as toddlers being popped into the garden or verandah (porch) and being left to sleep outside in winter. Of course then a zillion americans piped up and pooh poohed it and talked about how dangerous it is blah blah blah. (Only having a slight dig here – just tired of people stating the dangers of every suggestion). Same site had a blog about European (Danish I believe) mothers leaving their sleeping babies in prams outside coffee shops on the sidewalk while they visited with girlfriends. This is also common throughout Europe in incited near panic in American readers about how wrong it was. Its not wrong people its just a cultural DIFFERENCE! Don’t be so insular for goodness sake! LOL I LOVE this idea, and after my uni exams are over next week Im going to de-internet myself. Im so over staring at this damn screen…. GROK ON everyone. Mark you legend you’ve changed my life xo

      Jane wrote on November 11th, 2011
  22. This experiment will no doubt result in adding to the population explosion.

    şişme bebek wrote on November 9th, 2011
  23. Very interesting, Mark, as always. Though I wasn’t affected by the power outage, I’ve noticed how my body has been gradually become more and more “hungry” for radio programs and less and less for TV programs. It may not be a full-on forced power outage, but radio, unlike TV, doesn’t seem to interfere with my sleep pattern (which is now in line with the circadian rhythm and very restful).

    Fabio wrote on November 10th, 2011
  24. Having had various power outages over the past few years (icy snowstorms, usually), we didn’t mind most of it – the biggest problem for me is actually simply my tropical salt water aquarium – you have to keep the water circulating, and some sort of decent temps (above 70, pref) to keep everything in the tank alive…otherwise, been there, done that. :-)

    Kerstin wrote on November 10th, 2011
  25. I started on this the very day the post was posted. Found candles, let it get dark, etc. Now on day 3 of letting it get dark. The thing I like: the day ends! You have a deadline and it’s dark. Not dark-thirty, as some of my neighbors say. So work can actually end at some point, instead of continuing on into the night. I feel very rested during the day and energetic after a long dark night.

    shannon wrote on November 10th, 2011
    • Also I found that we do talk more at night when we just have candles and no electric light or tv.
      It was hard to knit, though, by candlelight.

      shannon wrote on November 10th, 2011
  26. Take care!! Many of my friends were conceived as a result of the 73′ power cuts in the UK. Nothing else to do.

    Mike wrote on November 10th, 2011
  27. mark, have you ever been to Israel? lights out is a weekly occurrence(Shabbat)for the entire population. It is a beautiful thing.

    Dan wrote on November 10th, 2011
  28. April 27 tornadoes destroyed power poles here. No power for 8 nights. Never been so bored in all my life. Tried to read by flashlight…no good. Tried to converse with spouse…no good..he can not stay awake without some stimulant and apparently my conversation was not stimulating, for EIGHT nights. Sat in the dark by myself and waited hours for sleep to come.
    In addition we had no power to run our sump pump in the basement. Tornadoes brought massive amounts of rain. Rain settled in basement and in our central gas heating unit. Lost everything in our side by side and our big freezer. Curfew was imposed so we had to leave town and be home by dark…no chance for entertainment. Did get carry out food a couple of nights. Spent days picking up debris, cutting downed trees.Wasn’t fun.
    We are not on municipal water system, had no power for well pump, could not flush toilet…for EIGHT days. Had to fill portable water tank elsewhere and transport to our house so we would have water to pour into toilet in order to flush. No water, hot or cold to bathe or wash hair. Traveled to relatives one afternoon to shower, just smelled bad and felt icky the rest of the time.
    Had my fill of powerless days and nights. Will be using every electrical appliance every chance I get until my power is taken away from me. I suffered enough to last me the rest of my life. Having no power is no picnic.

    Becca wrote on November 12th, 2011
  29. I’m planning on doing this next week when my family go away. My slightly modified version is: No clocks (including electronic ones,) no electricity, no transportation except my own two feet. I decided for my own sanity to include a means to warm water for showering and hot drinks, warm food and heat the house.

    But ostensibly, I’ll be without light, computers, clocks, a car. My pile of candles is growing…

    Alison Golden wrote on January 3rd, 2012
  30. This challenge reminds of one of my favourite books: “Gaining Ground” (also called “Abra”) by Joan Barfoot.

    This is what we all do when we go camping (real camping, not campground camping). Everyone gets in sync with the sun pretty fast.

    Jen wrote on June 20th, 2012

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