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Productivity

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)
  • Darryl Jonckheere

    Unplugging and going out for a coffee is a great way to invite ideas.

    However, having an epiphany moment doesn’t necessarily require an isolated, quite environment devoid of interruptions. Sometimes the best ideas can materialize amidst chaos and stressful situations.

    Yet Belsky strikes a compelling argument with the notion ‘sacred spaces’ are becoming increasingly difficult to find in our always-connected world.

    I believe distraction versus downtime needs balance. Both are necessary in varying doses to fuel creativity.

  • Jeroen v. d. Eijkhof

    Travelling by train down the north west Cascades has been very good for me. No wi-fi on board and plenty of beautiful scenery to look at while writing or reading.

    Thanks

  • Gary Lynch

    Most of my problem solving/creative thinking took place on long bike rides. I would end each ride physically energized and mentally refreshed. Since I’ve stopped bike riding I’ve lost that time for deep thinking. I walk now, but I’m always plugged into my iPod during the walk. I may feel physically energized after a walk, but I never feel the same sense of mental awareness. I think it is time to unplug during my walks and let my mind wander once again…

  • eaddressbyphonenumber.com

    Great article. I really like the idea of deep thinking. There is never enough time to think and reflect.

    http://www.eaddressbyphonenumb

  • Kenzie Endo

    Excellent article. A couple of years ago a small earthquake knocked Honolulu off the grid for 24 hours. It was one of the most peaceful and relaxing weekends I can remember. We should all unplug and recharge once in a while.

    https://sites.google.com/site/

  • Herbert Reininger

    I too like this suggestion, it works very well for me! Since many years I’m taking a “daily vacation”, to empty “the cup”, so new things can fit into it. Half an hour at the most is sufficient.

  • snookerwolf

    The things I find fascinating is this concept is what I think is fueling extreme bullying these days. Bullying always happened, but you could get away from it before. Now, we are so connected that we can’t get away from mean classmates or co-workers. You don’t leave frustrations there, they show up on your Smart Phone, Facebook or IM to constantly remind you

  • René Crone

    Thanks. An important take in times of totally information overflow – always on. As a former marketer with Microsoft we once did an analysis about how people (office users) made decisions… Conclusions where – in popular terms – that due to the focus of urgency, multitasking – people tended to make decisions extremely fast – bringing us to a conclusion that you would never really be certain that you actually took the time to get really in to the actual issue……in other words making only decisions at the surface of the issue – not the real issue. So problem solving was harmed. At the end same as creativity opportunity limited.

  • Steff Metal

    A brilliant article. I have two ways of finding “Downtime”. Each day, I walk to and from my office. I walk early in the morning, when everything is shut and there’s no one on the streets. This is my meditation time, and I do slip into a bit of a dream world.

    Secondly, I take one day each weekend when I am media-free. I don’t go on the internet, listen to the radio, turn on the TV. My husband and I spend this day hanging out together – we might have friends over for dinner, or go out together, or I might just potter around the garden or paint. But we don’t succumb to using any kind of media. We try to have one day a week when we just live with what is right now. I love it. Has truly changed how we both interact with media and with each other.

  • Sanda Ionescu

    So true, such a thought-provoking article! I have had the pleasure to work with many academics and scientists and they work extremely hard, but they say the best ideas always come during this ‘downtime’, rather than when they are in the lab.

  • nikki

    Amen!

  • miestermad

    Like Wordsworth wrote : No Time to Stand & Stare

  • Aussiewriters

    As a teacher for many years and watching the way education is going today, it pains me to see that we are teaching the next generation this 24/7 connectivity lifestyle and training them up to be absolute workaholics. The concept of your article should somehow be incorporated into the teachings for future generations. We need to teach kids the power of meditation and that persistence pays if they can work through their urges for instant gratification. As a writer, it is simply a given that you MUST disconnect, reflect and give your self space to meditate. Most good ideas come from a relaxed and a rested mind. That’s why we have great ideas at 3am!
    Thanks for this article. It is excellent and I have tweeted it to my writers’ network.

  • Atrudel

    Thank you for recognizing the need to disconnect, if only for a little while. I work in a position that requires constant creativity, and sometimes I’ll find myself staring at the computer screen or looking out the window. When I need a jump-start, I get out of my office and take a walk, and usually when I return that simple change of activities (or even going to the kitchen to wash dishes) helps me to switch gears and write what I need to write.

  • Heather Gordon Business Savvy

    Well here I am reading this article. Early morning having spent the night tossing and turning mind churning. New to FB and no idea how I stumbled across this article, so must take it as being a ‘message’ and take note. Well after I have spent the day networking like crazy and worrying about new business contracts. Will print off and read this evening, make a pact to disconnect, before I literally do. Thanks for this article.

  • Claire_M

    Actually, you don’t need to be connected all the time. The world is full of people who mostly…aren’t.

  • Claire_M

    Then keep your co-workers off your Facebook. If you need to, explain politely to colleagues that you are trying to limit FB distractions and so removing most of the people. It’s hard to argue with such a ‘productive’ employee.

    If you are at school and it’s being used for childish bullying, like posting doctored photos, that’s harder. You need make no excuse to ‘unfriend’ the mean kids though.

  • Telshaw

    good idea steff. A day off is so important. Then we realise those things we’re so essential after all

  • Tyler Schuett

    You know this article is interesting. You talk about being disconnected from the constant experience that is technology and this world. You say that during a break such as while driving or showering for instance, that its a time to let your mind wander and to be creative.

    What happened to being present? What happened to being SO present that the experience of taking a shower, feeling the water fall from the shower head to your neck, and down your body and into the floor, the warming sensation on your skin, the feeling of cleansing your body… what happens to that amazing beautiful unique experience every time you are ‘off in your head’ being whatever it is you say you’re doing that is more important.

    If there is conflict or dysfunction (and I am going to take it that there is in your mind at very least, otherwise you wouldn’t have written this article), then finding a better ‘way’ or ‘path’ is not the answer. You’re basically substituting one pattern with another. When you attach one pattern to another, you get even worse conflict. Now you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I need to be doing this and that…’ and feeling like you don’t want to. Conflict.

    Trying to eliminate anything only strengthens it. You’re pouring more and more energy into it, like it or not.

    Only through deep realization can we eliminate a pattern. Truly seeing the pattern for what it is, why its there, and when you do, it will cease to exist. So perhaps the prescription for meditation is correct, but during meditation, one should never have goals or intent to solve. One should ask questions, and more questions. Look into the abyss as they say. See what stares back at you.

  • apami

    The restriction of shower time due to water restrictions in Australia has an impact because I have had so many problems solved or found new ideas in the shower but 3 minutes is too short. Now I have 2 dogs and find that walking them is a great opportunity to unplug, I am grateful to them for sometimes forcing me to take them for a walk, rain, hail or shine, day or night …

  • Dina Bhakta

    My mornings are in silence before my meditation class.
    I engage in deep thinking in the car with the radio off sometimes after my meditation class from which I gain great food for thoughts to be able to reduce waste thoughts and increase energy.

    Meditation is a definite plus. I like the one minute meditations created for busy people, by the Brahma Kumaris found here: http://www.just-a-minute.org.
    I like to download them.

    Staring out the window is a definite refresher…I do this often to even relieve the eyes and clear the workhorse state of mind from time to time.

  • Paula Shoup

    Great article! I started turning off the radio in the car a while ago and now it has become more often than not that I enjoy the silence while I drive. Last year I started a morning meditation practice and I have noticed a real shift in my ability to think more creatively and be more patient.

  • Corey L

    I agree 99% with your comment’s, I have learned that everything in moderation is ok…

    CL

  • old but not out

    How ironic that I am using this medium to say:
    listen to your elders, us old fogeys have been carping forever about ‘when do you have time to Think?’
    I was very lucky to not swim into the TV era until I was in high school, well behind my contemporaries, and I recall my parents complaining about the unsociability of people not turning off their tv when they dropped by… ‘dropping by’ itself an old concept.

    so, yes a great article. I found time for my art years ago by turning off the tv. The irony is that now I have to leap into the electronic communications just to keep my marketing head above water…
    grateful for the reminder, as it is so easy to have your time swallowed up by another monster – this one is not one-eyed, but many eyed…

  • DanG

    There’s a wonderful book called “The Poetics of Space” by French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard that is all about the physical spaces that are conducive to reverie. (basements, attics, forests…) Sadly, most of us don’t have access to those kinds of spaces anymore so we must somehow figure out how to create them.

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