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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)
  • scott88


  • Scott Belsky

    Camping? Yeah, heard of it. 😉

    Actually, one of the most interesting experiences I ever had with forced “deep thinking” was a “solo” camping experience I had for 3 days in the Green Mountains area in Vermont. As part of a high school program called “The Mountain School,” we were all given tarps, survival materials, and three days worth of food – and we were placed in isolation along a river for two nights, three days.

    Our only required daily task was to place a flag upright along the river every afternoon – just to signal to the staff, who would hike along the river every the evening, that we were ok. We were strongly discouraged from bringing any books. The purpose of “solo” was to really experience the wilderness.

    My experience was very surprising.

    I expected that I would get bored after one day and simply run out of things to do and think about. On the contrary, I was bored for only the first 6 hours. At first, I didn’t know what to do without any people to speak to, things to watch, and stuff to read. My mind was so used to constant stimulation. Without it, I felt a bit lost.

    But as the time progressed, my mind started to compensate. Rather than look for external stimulation, my mind got cranking on its own. The last day passed in a flash. My mind was racing through ideas, pondering everything I looked at, and the hours slipped away.

    I was struck by the potential of the mind to entertain itself. I was also amazed by how much stimulation we have in our lives, and how difficult it is to unplug from it.

    The message of the article I wrote, at least for me, is that we need to give our own minds some respect. Every now and then, you need to cut off the constant connectivity (stimulation) and let your own mind work its magic.

  • Katherine Rand

    This is a great article. I particularly appreciate both the diagnosis: the motivation behind the desire to stay ever-connected (feeling reassured, loved, etc.) and the prescription.

    However, I do feel it’s important to note that “Some forms [of meditation] require you to think about nothing and completely clear your mind” is a universal myth that needs to be dispelled! Forms of meditation such as “just sitting” / shikantaza or silent illumination in Zen, choiceless awareness, or the nature of mind of Mahamudra/Dzogchen are practices that over time create a spaciousness that allows one to see the fleeting nature of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. It’s not that the goal is an empty sky, but just to see that the sky has clouds that breeze in and out — that the fundamental nature of it is one sky and that the distinction (between sky and clouds) arises only in the conceptual mind…And of course it’s hard to see that when one first begins a meditation practice 😉 It’s contrary to most everything we learn otherwise in our lives.

    But just think of moments when you are standing at the beach, say, and all there is is water lapping the shore; for a moment, you may forget that “you” are there, and instead there is just life happening. Meditation helps us to cultivate those moments more and more…

  • GalenS

    Its interesting how Belsky mainstreams the idea of a sabbath. So much of what I gain from studying scripture, contemplating the ideas of grace and mercy, spending time in meditation and worship, being in community with and challenged by Christian friends helps fill these kinds of difficult voids.

  • R1n0

    That does sound like an interesting experience. If the opportunity ever arises I would like to try something like that.

    My point was that camping (or weekend getaways in general) was a good example of the #1 – rituals.. if you do it right, that is. And by right i mean turn off all your mp3 players, cell phones, leave books at home and just experience isolation and nature. If you can’t escape your busy life to camp for a weekend or you don’t have the gear – you can just go for a hike.

  • Barb Chamberlain

    This was sent to me by a friend and I’ve already sent him a note thanking him for sending it. I like the items on the Sabbath Manifesto and will be looking at that more closely–thanks for mentioning it.

    One BIG caveat on #5 though–please don’t let your mind wander while you’re driving!

    I’m the bike commuter you will fail to see at the intersection when you glance absentmindedly but without really seeing or registering that someone is moving toward you because you’re on autopilot.

    Instead, I suggest you try biking for transportation. It is on the one hand a wonderful practice opportunity for mindfulness meditation–you will pay attention only to your cycling, the traffic around you, the road conditions, and the other factors that will affect your safety (like those absentminded drivers).

    At the same time you can create a space in which you will not be distracted by electronic technology (please tell me you won’t text and bike) and other types of interruptions. You will be truly in the moment and may just find great creative inspiration in your morning ride to work or the wind-down ride on your way home.

    You may also find you have simplified your life in surprising ways that make room for creative work. You’ll regain time you spend trying to remember where you parked, hunting for a parking spot or for change for a parking meter, putting fuel in the tank, cleaning junk out of your trunk…

    That’s if you really move to biking for transportation a fair amount of the time, but even a ride to the coffee shop on a Saturday will clear your head and make some space in your life. And it’s FUN.

    Founder, Bike to Work Spokane

  • Scott Belsky

    Point taken. When you’re on the road, keep your eyes on the road as you allow your mind to crunch other ideas and problems.

  • Michael Kimb Jones

    I find reading helps – off subject matters. I often read science/engineering and aerospace books which although can often contain subjects close to my work (web design/development) they offer new perspectives and clarity. While not exactly ‘downtime’ I find it very hard to switch off, even when travelling or getting ready to sleep.

    Other forms of reading such as novels or web-based content don’t cut it – I either get distracted or too engrossed in the story for any ‘idea space’ to breath.

  • Dave Ursillo

    The extinction deep thinking is very real and very dangerous. It threatens to cause us to lose sight of what is most important in life, because contemplation and inner exploration are vital to the longevity of our happiness, relationships and life’s pursuits.

    Excellent piece, thank you for writing.

  • Steve S

    Riding a bike seems to clear my head. I also like to stare at my aquarium for a few minutes after work.

  • birmingham

    You can not beat a good nap for clearing the mind and getting everything into perspective!

  • Toni Sciarra Poynter

    Take a page (or 3) from Julia Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY: 3 pages of longhand writing every day. It could be about anything – i.e. intentional or no, or your grocery list, or a litany of complaint that gets that crud out of your head so you can start thinking and not just reacting. Whatever. I don’t always do it, but when I do, it yields profound insights when I least expect it–from book structures to new career paths to just garden-variety meotional relief. And then I vow to continue (and don’t). But please, give it a try.

  • Kalu Ireke Agbeze Onuma

    I create my own scared spaces through walks… long, unplanned walk often through uncharted terrains help me refocus with myself. Thanks for the article though.

  • Kathy Kaiser

    All good ideas and desperately needed. I meditate and take long walks in nature, making sure I notice everything I see. The nature walks, especially, open my mind and let ideas flow.

  • a norwegian

    Haven’t read all the comments, but I totaly agree, and perhaps most in the last words: “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.”

    Here in Norway, one of our best athletes, cross country skier Petter Northug, Is famous for not reading the newspapers or anything like it before competitions. He blocks out everything that doesn’t help him to go faster. he work out, test ski’s, and thats about it. At the same time he is loved around the country for his ability to joke around when it fit’s his schedual (propper spelling?). To have this on/off-button I belive is crucial to be brilliant.

  • Daniel Decker

    Margin. We need more of it.

  • Rian Shams

    Great article!

    Last paragraph is spot on.

  • Sam Smith

    The most ironic thing to me is that i read this article, but know that I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, so I bookmarked it to get back to it later…

  • alshaw

    Not owning a mobile phone, and walking places, are two practical ways I’ve found of guarding time and space for thinking.

  • Barbarasunshine88

    Thank you for the valuable insight.

  • Guest

    i just tweeted this…. it’s so ironic

  • Jthorpe

    Write a letter,write a card, walk to the post office,buy some well-designed stamps and think about the person you are about to mail your message to with the hope that they will enjoy a good cup of coffee or a glass of wine while reading it and remember the moments you’ve shared together and will share again.

  • nealhacker



    Harry Lovell
    Without question the twenty minute nap after lunch takes some beating. Try it by lying flat on the floor and looking at the ceiling and just emptying your mind completely.

  • Pete R.

    These tips are very interesting. I have only try some of them.

    For example, unplugging by going out and have a coffee at the local coffee shop. I find it easy for me to at least have the concentration to read the magazine. If i were to read a magazine in a house in front of the computer, it would take me months to finish the whole magazine.

    Overall, this post really keeps me thinking and I like that, it proofs that I have learned something interesting in the post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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