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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)
  • Sunita Chauhan
  • Marcin Czech

    Thanks Scott,

    Your article actually made me go to local marketplace instead of supermarket. I definitely felt an urge to disconnect from modern ways of doing things.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if within next few years we would see big corps exploiting this “disconnected” perspective. Proper marketing could really do magic here.

    for instance Tescos promoting their special “longer” queues inside their stores where you have time to disconnect

  • smart

    Having one day for myself is very hard. Easy option i can suggest for everyone at least one hour a day. Reflect and reflect on your whole day. Slowly go up to two hours then the whole day.

  • Nick Mack

    after all that we are invited to follow Scott on Twitter !

  • EKey

    I’m a slow riser, always have been. With running my own business and not needing an alarm not only is not having that horrible alarm shock you awake one of my favorite things about running my own company but also I enjoy spending that time “meditating”. As I slowly get out of bed those 20 minutes are my deep thinking time. The shower and surfing are also great!

  • Matthew

    Hi all ..Great article you should all check out… My company has developed software that helps with this issue. IUnplug day is coming if you would like to learn more.

  • Charles Crawford

    Great article. Disconnection is key. You can use methods like Dean Jackson’s 50 minute focus finder etc. to make sure you cut the digital stuff for a while so you can accomplish important tasks. Don’t let digital take over your life.

  • Stars27

    People don’t stop thinking, that is a fallacy. And to relax even takes some method of brain activity. Just don’t do it, if it tires you, bores you or doesn’t fit in, stop it.

  • Dean Kakridas

    awesome post. thanks Scott.

  • thebinarymachine

    Great article, read something meaningful in recent times.

  • It's Finally Done!

    Nice, refreshing article. I think downtime is an important tool in the arsenal of successful people. The iPads, cellphones, gadgets and stuff we have nowadays are great tools, but there are articles that say that these have rewired our brains and made us less able to focus on longer-term stuff (like reading a novel). Mainstream society’s quest to annihilate precious downtime is rampant: look at all the schools that are curtailing recess in order to give kids more “time on task”. This may come across as smug, but sometimes, I feel like I have an advantage over my younger peers who simply seem to lack the concentration and follow-through they need to get stuff done.

    (Thanks for letting me rant! I feel better already 🙂 )

  • Awesome-Raghib

    Outstanding post as i’m connected to facebook 12 hours a day for 7 days a week

    I need alone time to relax but all I want to do is study at UNSW

  • grit

    I ride a motorcycle to focus on one thing… the road. I won’t even look at my watch. I also make time for reading print. Leaving devices in another room is helpful. I only access work email M-F 9-5

    • Will Mederski

      love two wheels for the same reason.
      dislike cars for that reason too. it’s like cars are designed to distract you while you sit in traffic.

  • Elizabeth Huntington Hall

    The “stuff” does have to be done by somebody. That’s always been true. But the world doesn’t need you or me to be doing that stuff every minute of every day. We take turns.

    “It” certainly is escapable, and fallow times are absolutely necessary.

  • scratchy888

    shamanic “not doing”

  • showersinger

    Another great article in the current line up to remove me yet further from my “sacred space” 🙂

  • Tistou Willjam Blomberg

    How about getting the self confidence to not need constant appreciation? The you can relax more naturally maybe.

  • sternkal69

    really important stuff. thanks. the kiddies need to learn to block out some time/sacred space with no screens or distractions.

  • joelz


  • Guest

    Well, yeah that’s the whole logic of writing articles by such people, like Scott and others, is to write such non-sense and then go have Us All DO what he is writing NOT to DO, like continue to follow him on Twitter (and to get more followers), but I GUESS Scott is telling US to Follow him, when WE are NOT taking our “Scared Space” time? LOL!! You are right-on Nick M.

  • bsaunders

    I question the focus on “technology” as the cause of our lack of downtime. I find that extroverted socializing is the bigger drain for me – the expectation of constant “collaboration” on every work project. “Teamwork” misapplied to tasks like writing, that have traditionally been carried out in solitude. The “never-eat-lunch-alone” ethic. I agree that connecting with and through devices should not replace connecting with people face to face. But connecting with people face to face, even in analog, cannot replace being alone on a regular basis. In fact I would argue that being alone with the television and a cup of tea counts for downtime.

    • Monica Braat

      This was my response as well. I actually find its the face to face social demands of our time that are a bigger drain. Technology actually affords me the reflective time that I need as I spend some of that time thinking about and writing my blog. I really like the premise of this piece of writing but I find the glorification of busy outside of technology to be a larger problem. It doesn’t start with technology. It starts with needing to enroll our kids in every single activity and not giving time to play in the neighborhood with their friends.

  • MichaelPaone

    Great stuff. Scott — Do you have more about therapy as a tool for development in your book or in other articles?

  • ch

    I read this because I was alone.

    • aclm

      same here

  • austin
    • austin

      …its a link to control when you are able to access websites…called leechblock

  • Su

    Loved this article and feel blessed to live in a town that that is rates as having 30 electricity black outs a month. Love the down time this creates. Out of office walks, candle lit dinners, early bed times, tea cookies and kids, meaningful conversations, alone time and quality together time………time to think. ……..time spent outside with the farm animals, time to garden without a guilty conscience, time to say……..”
    Great! Another power cut!”

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