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Big Ideas

What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space

We're addicted to distraction, and it's holding us back. To find genius in the 21st century, we must build a discipline of unplugging and deep thinking.


Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.

There has been much discussion about the value of the “creative pause” – a state described as “the shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or the shift to being disengaged altogether.” This phenomenon is the seed of the break-through “a-ha!” moments that people so frequently report having in the shower. In these moments, you are completely isolated, and your mind is able to wander and churn big questions without interruption. However, despite the incredible power and potential of sacred spaces, they are quickly becoming extinct. We are depriving ourselves of every opportunity for disconnection. And our imaginations suffer the consequences.

Why do we crave distraction over downtime?

Why do we give up our sacred space so easily? Because space is scary. During these temporary voids of distraction, our minds return to the uncertainty and fears that plague all of us. To escape this chasm of self-doubt and unanswered questions, you tune into all of the activity and data for reassurance. But this desperate need for constant connection and stimulation is not a modern problem. I would argue that we have always sought a state of constant connection from the dawn of time, it’s just never been possible until now.

We are depriving ourselves of every opportunity for disconnection.

The need to be connected is, in fact, very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychological theory that explains the largest and most fundamental human desires. Our need for a sense of belonging comes right after physical safety. We thrive on friendship, family, and the constant affirmation of our existence and relevance. Our self-esteem is largely a product of our interactions with others. It is now possible to always feel loved and cared for, thanks to the efficiency of our “comment walls” on Facebook and seamless connection with everyone we’ve ever known. Your confidence and self-esteem can quickly be reassured by checking your number of “followers” on Twitter or the number of “likes” garnered by your photographs and blog posts. The traction you are getting in your projects, or with your business, can now be measured and reported in real time. Our insatiable need to tune into information – at the expense of savoring our downtime – is a form of “work” (something I call “insecurity work”) that we do to reassure ourselves.

So what’s the solution? How do we reclaim our sacred spaces?

Soon enough, planes, trains, subways, and, yes, showers will offer the option of staying connected. Knowing that we cannot rely on spaces that force us to unplug to survive much longer, we must be proactive in creating these spaces for ourselves. And when we have a precious opportunity to NOT be connected, we should develop the capacity to use it and protect it. Here are five potential mindsets and solutions for consideration:

1. Rituals for unplugging.

Perhaps those in biblical times knew what was in store for us when they created the Sabbath? The notion of a day every week reserved for reflection has become more important than ever before. It’s about more than just refraining from work. It’s about unplugging. The recent Sabbath Manifesto movement has received mainstream, secular accolades for the concept of ritualizing the period of disconnection. Perhaps you will reserve one day on the weekend where you force yourself to disconnect? At first, such efforts will feel very uncomfortable. You will deal with a bout of “connection withdrawal,” but stay with it.

2. Daily doses of deep thinking.

Perhaps “sacred space” is a new life tenet that we must adopt in the 21st century? Since we know that unplugging will only become more difficult over time, we will need to develop a discipline for ourselves. Back in the day when the TV became a staple of every American home, parents started mandating time for their children to read. “TV time” became a controlled endeavor because, otherwise, it would consume every waking moment. Now, every waking moment is “connected time,” and we need to start controlling it. We need some rules. When it comes to scheduling, we will need to allocate blocks of time for deep thinking. Maybe you will carve out a 1-2 hour block on your calendar every day for taking a walk or grabbing a cup of coffee and just pondering some of those bigger things. I can even imagine a day when homes and apartments have a special switch that shuts down wi-fi and data access during dinner or at night – just to provide a temporary pause from the constant flow of status updates and other communications.

3. Meditation and naps to clear the mind.

There is no better mental escape from our tech-charged world than the act of meditation. If only for 15 minutes, the ability to steer your mind away from constant stimulation is downright liberating. There are various kinds of meditation. Some forms require you to think about nothing and completely clear your mind. (This is quite hard, at least for me.) Other forms of meditation are about focusing on one specific thing – often your breath, or a mantra that you repeat in your head (or out loud) for 10-15 minutes. At first, any sort of meditation will feel like a chore. But with practice, it will become an energizing exercise. If you can’t adopt meditation, you might also try clearing your mind the old fashioned way – by sleeping. The legendary energy expert and bestselling author Tony Schwartz takes a 20-minute nap every day. Even if it’s a few hours before he presents to a packed audience, he’ll take a short nap. I asked him how he overcomes the midday anxiety enough to nap. His trick? “Practice,” he said. Like all skills that don’t come naturally, practice makes perfect.

4. Self-awareness and psychological investment.

Our most basic fears and desires, both conscious and subconscious, are soothed by connectivity and a constant flow of information. It is supremely important that we recognize the power of our insecurities and, at the very least, acknowledge where our anxiety comes from. Awareness is always the first step in solving any problem. During research for my book, Making Ideas Happen, I was surprised by how many legendary creative leaders credited some form of therapy as a part of their professional success. If you’re willing to invest in it, then take the plunge. Whatever you learn will help you understand your fears and the actions you take as a result.

 

5. Protect the state of no-intent.

When you’re rushing to a solution, your mind will jump to the easiest and most familiar path. But when you allow yourself to just look out the window for 10 minutes – and ponder – your brain will start working in a more creative way. It will grasp ideas from unexpected places.  It’s this very sort of unconscious creativity that leads to great thinking. When you’re driving or showering, you’re letting your mind wander because you don’t have to focus on anything in particular. If you do carve out some time for unobstructed thinking, be sure to free yourself from any specific intent.

***

The potential of our own creativity is rapidly being compromised by the era we live in. I believe that genius in the 21st century will be attributed to people who are able to unplug from the constant state of reactionary workflow, reduce their amount of insecurity work, and allow their minds to solve the great challenges of our era. Brilliance is so rare because it is always obstructed, often by the very stuff that keeps us so busy.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (223)
  • Stefania

    I completely agree. Creativity requires mental space or what I often refer to as “mental bandwidth” with my clients. Mental bandwidth is shrinked if you nevel let your mind float on empty spaces. The digital age requires a strategy to deal with information overload: you must become your own data dietician

  • Jaidev Kapadia

    Great article Scott.
    I’ve always preferred looking out of the window while sipping on my coffee to reading the newspaper. As an advertising copywriter, I’ve always seen the nicest ideas come to me in the shower (strangely). At least now I know why. Thanks for reminding us how we’re all living technology and nothing else anymore, Scott. Owe you one. 🙂

  • jffrecnch

    Interestingly I am currently doing a university project on sacred space – that need to escape, spend time apart just to be ourselves in the safest environment we can create or have at our disposal, including online.

    I like to think when I am not at my computer; though I spend most of the day here! Sacred space – that need for it at the very least, whether its someplace in our home or somewhere else, is such a valued part of our sanity in this day and age.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • alexander koene

    escapism is indeed a fundamental human drive, we all need it! and without it we would probably die! interestingly enough, it is a fundamental drive which does not pop up in scientific research of sociologists and psychologists on human motivations, needs, drives, emotions, etc. that’s why it is the ‘one’ in the #23plusone scientific studies after brands and human appeal. if you wish you can read more about this on http://www.alexanderkoene.org/

  • Holy Schmidt!

    Fantastic article. More of this discussion is needed at the highest of levels – before its too late and we’re all but drones. Parent’s especially need to take heed. It seems though, that everyone is too ‘focused’ to step back and breath and think. Instant and constant consumption.
    Wondering if ADD/ ADHD can be linked to this in the Millennials and there constant and natural plugged-in state (from the tv, to games, to relationships, to computers, to mobile, to e-books, cars, appliances, etc.
    Wasn’t technology supposed to be a tool to help us lead a more efficient life and allow us to maximize the joys of life as we strive for sacred experiences, sacred relationships and sacred space? But it, so far, has been the opposite. Hoping that it will calm down after the shiny-ness wears off a bit and not too much of life has passed us by.

  • julie doane roberts

    i’m so happy to see these topics discussed here – thanks for speaking so eloquently about how important it is for each of us to become aware, to value the silence and space within which imagination sings loudest, to consciously carve ourselves a place both mental and physical where we can become most peaceful and whole.
    we are sorely in need of unplugging so we can hear our own thoughts, turn down the volume on the nonstop marketing drone that begs us to become something “better” than who we are without this or that product, return to our pre-conditioned state of in-joy-ment, playful discovery, and revel in the bliss instilled by time spent in a hammock bathed in sunlight and rocked by a breeze.
    LOVE this article. thank you.

  • Chris Jeong

    great article. and wonderful site. I think I’ll visit here more often 🙂

  • Mantrart

    Excellent thinking here. I teach creativity workshops that are basically an excuse to delve into the deep space where brilliance and connection to source are found. I love teaching them, and people always come away amazed at how profound the results are.

    Historically in my life I’ve scheduled every moment (schooling etc)….but after dealing with cancer at the ripe age of 39 I realized I had to change my ways. Creativity is the life-force, and I choose to dwell there as much as possible every day.

    Hannah
    http://www.mantrart.typepad.com

  • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

    as much as this is a task, it is by no means any less important that what work is at hand. great write up, now to practice it .. 🙂

  • Samhain Moon

    I agree. I have the most unusual places to retreat to when I need a breather, but I think I need to apply the ‘disconnect’ to my life. Turning my phone off for an hour, staying away from the computer when i’m not working or doing research.

  • Scott Belsky

    Well said. Disconnecting does feel like work these days, which is a concern on its own.

  • Scott Belsky

    The hammock. I like it. Thank you Julie.

  • Sparky

    True enough. There is a happy balance of inner connectivity and environmental connection that must be maintained. As with everything unbalanced, there is bound to be consequences once the scale is tipped. We just have to take the time for both.

  • Satano

    Everybody needs a time and a space to do it. Antony Caro

  • Travis

    I like the down to earth and easy to try examples. Thanks for the article

  • Joel Layne

    It’s strange that we crave the security of a great job with great benefits with the right size house etc etc, but in the end we many times live far unhealthier and less satisfying lives. We become slaves to the things that we thought would bring freedom. I love the book and the article. I’m starting a new job in the next week that will leave some time to be disconnected and I’m planning to give myself more creative time, down time, Sabath time. The 4 hour work week is also a great book by Tim Ferris and Made to Stick by the Heath brothers. Joel

  • Liftbridge

    Wonderful article. My husband and I eat all of our meals together, and make a concerted effort to disconnect at that time son we can focus on each other, but it isn’t easy! I definitely miss having more quiet time. Everything is so much busier these days since we’re connected to some device at all times.

  • Raquel

    Great article. I totally agree about disconnecting, we live over informed, this is creating anxiety and sometimes depression, I sometimes feel that way, people is becoming less focused not only at work, even with personal relationships, you cannot keep a face to face conversation with a friend without being interrupted by a text message, its terrible, now people never answer the phone, they prefer to send a text message, I even ask myself are we really more connected now? Definitely I need more down time, will be planning a camping trip with my family without any electronic devices.

  • Mikhail

    great!
    I think this article should read everyone!

  • Nathanael Boehm

    Great article, something I’ve been dwelling on over the past 12 months.

  • Bill

    Yes–personally I play the guitar to disconnect. I’m convinced that the focus on a disconnected object or activity can really help me to solidify the ritual. Even though my object of choice involves participation in another “activity”, it still allows me a personal space that is isolated and private. And music, in a very real sense, allows for a different perception of time, which, I’ve experienced, is emotionally and intellectually healthy.

  • Brian Turley

    Fantastic article! It’s interesting that others are feeling the same way as I have recently. Very timely advice.

  • R1n0

    dude you ever heard of camping?

  • Augus

    its funny that this article suggests that we are so connected and therefore has a great impact for creative minds and somehow, in the end they suggest to follow the great unpplugging mentor through twitter – I mean, should we connect in order to receive this freeing ideas – are this ideas coming from excessive connection? just a paradox “Iam so connected I need to disconnect” I think we are in a circular way of thinking. Of course, acces to different contents are making us think in things we would have never participated in or getting new info almost impossible to get or having debates with people all around the world, plus. we should not be so naive or blind …. information is always and was always around us, has nothing to do with having twitter, ipad, rockband, books, nature …its our choices on what do or we pay attention to or not…just that simple..we choose to receive certain kind of info wherever it comes from or choose not to receive info at all(if we concentrate eventually in blanlk -meditation) – why are we always blaming others when deep inside is OUR responsibilty whether to open or shut info supply and through which sources do we want to be influenced? – the main idea is that we are always receiving information, a bird flying, the sun rising…all this little things that are present but we do not pay attention generally BUT if we choose to do so suddenly we “disconnect” come on..we are connecting to something different – just that – AWARENESS is the word, but meaning being awared on what you are paying attention to and knowing that making that decision implies yo do not pay attention to other thig going around – just do not be so “single minded” and try to think in different ways and not to think at all at some times

  • nathanburrblair

    You know, I’ve always thought it funny how I’ll think of the most random things in the shower or during my down time. I suppose it makes perfect sense, considering that the mind digs into deep or forgotten places when it’s not obstructed by noise.
    Great blog post – I now have a better resolve to disconnect more often.

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