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Work / Life Balance

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.

Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is a general partner for Benchmark Capital. Previously, he was Adobe’s Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (223)
  • Diesel Laws

    Superb article. Thankyou.

  • jaredbrandon1

    Wow, Scott. You nailed it! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And thanks for the link to the Sabbath Manifesto.

  • The Gnu Guy

    Hence, why it’s always important to “sleep on it.” I did an impromptu survey at my previous company (an “innovation” agency”) where I asked everyone, “where/when do you do your best thinking?” Not surprisingly, only 4 people out of the 80+ responses actually said, “at work.” Most said, “while driving,” “in the shower” or doing some other benign task. And this was from a people who are paid to be creative “on the clock.” Hmmm….

  • Derrick Bradley

    This is a brilliant reminder to take pause. Thanks for writing, Scott.

  • Ryan Cheek

    So with all this connectivity going on, how do I get my deep thinking on? Personally, I have never had the ‘a-ha!’ moment happen in the shower. It usually happens when I’m logged off of Facebook early in the morning, approximately 4-5 am. Cigarette breaks usually are the start of the thinking, followed by my idea completion in my room (aka my home office). How do you get the ‘a-ha!’ ideas? Take a problem and solve it! What’s wrong in the world, or what could work better? What’s wrong in your life, and how could you improve upon it?

    I personally refer to the ‘a-ha!’ moment as a Power Brainstorm. It’s when the room feels like it’s filled with a crazy amount of energy, almost ready to blow the roof right off the house. It’s not just one ‘a-ha!’ moment, but rather one after another after another. What’s the key to generating Power Brainstorms? No stress, deep sleep, and positive energy. R.E.M. BABY!

  • Jon

    I like all of this except the use of the term “sacred spaces” — religious overtones are a turn off that are completely unnecessary to make your point.

  • Scott Belsky

    That’s a good point – our body’s need for sleep is another “forced space” we are mandated to take.

  • Scott Belsky

    It seems that “sacred space” is a very personalized concept…

  • Scott Belsky

    Hey Jon – Certainly didn’t mean to imply any “religious overtone.” I could have called them “special spaces,” but strived for something that implied a need for protection. The word “sacred” means that it should be “regarded with reverence.” …Which it should.

    But point well taken. Let’s make it clear: This is an agnostic concept that we should all probably consider!

  • GamerPrint

    Great article. I sometimes wonder if I’m alone in having a constantly busy mind – always thinking about work, the next project, my to do list etc. Reading this has made me realise that my creative pause takes place when I go to bed, which is great (that I have it) but it’s seriously preventing me from sleeping! I have the most wonderful ideas but they are at completely the wrong time of day!

    I think I need to make time during the day to unplug and try a variety of methods to allow my mind to wander.

  • Scott Belsky

    And, FYI – with the theme of information always penetrating our focus and space for deep thinking (which, often times, occurs in the shower), I was also considering the title “Stop Penetrating Us In The Shower.” But I felt that might attract the wrong type of traffic… 🙂

  • Lucas W.

    As usual, great article Scott. This culture of continuous connection is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. Now that we’re getting past the initial wave of wireless inebriation some of us are beginning to realize that there’s massive value to being disconnected in order to be more creative and productive. It is only a matter of time before one’s ability to be unreachable and off-line becomes a social status symbol. If you have to wear a digital leash at all times to earn your income (no matter how big it may be) you will not impress most successful people.

  • Adan Flores

    great article, now days we don’t have time to stop for a min and close our eyes and just think.
    We are always try to be in the loop and i think is making us all stupid, we need to unplug from digital, main stream culture and just go back to the basics. learn how to breath, how think, and learn to value “downtime”.

    #unplug

  • Matthew

    Wondereful article Scott. Thank you, once again, for your clear headed direction and research.

  • Scott Belsky

    Lucas: Well said! “This culture of continuous connection is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns.” Thanks for sharing this.

  • Cynthialil

    I work on the internet so this past Sunday I made it a point to not even turn on my computer. At the end of the day I was moaning about what I’d face when I got up this morning. It was probably good for me to unplug for the day – but it felt very weird.

  • Bryson Moore

    Great thoughts, Scott. For me, the best way to find my “Sacred Space” is to actually schedule it on my calendar (like you suggest). I usually choose one or two things to think about and put those in the title of the calendar event. For location, I’ll put something like “In Seclusion” or “Don’t ask.” The people I work with know what this means and won’t try to contact me during those times. Works great, but it takes discipline to actually schedule it!

  • DEANNESABECK

    I COULD NOT AGREE MORE. THIS IS WHY I DO YOGA AND HAVE A HOUSE IN COSTA RICA WHERE TIME SLOWS DOWN INCREDIBLY. I THINK THIS IS ESPECIALLY UNFORTUNATE FOR CHILDREN AS THEY DON’T SEEM TO SPEND ENOUGH IF ANY TIME DISCOVERING, CREATING AND JUST PLAYING. IT IS ALL ABOUT GETTING AHEAD RIGHT FROM THE GET GO.

  • CharlieSeymourJr

    Weekly I practice what I call DPS Time: Dreaming, Planning, Scheming.

    I go to my local Borders, order the larges chocolate, raspberry, coffee drink to set the mood (different mood from my regular work times), take out my pad of paper (something about the connection between physically writing and the brain which isn’t the same as between tapping on my MacBook Pro), and let things pour out of me.

    Tablets are always around, so I often have quite and agenda of ideas to contemplate… some times I know that just sitting there for a few hours to let things pour from me will generate enough good, solid, new thoughts.

    It’s on my calendar. Nothing gets in the way. When people want to see me I truthfully say, “I’m sorry… I have an appointment then” and then I suggest another time.

    See if this can work for you!

    Charlie Seymour Jr
    http://CreateYourOwnLegendNow….

  • Spike

    I’ve found that meaningful time for deep thinking can’t always be scheduled or planned for. It just happens. The trick is to run your life in such a way that you have time for it to occur naturally. This is difficult to do!

  • Binita

    Brilliant article. I am a showers girl myself ha ha.

    I am also developing a very cool web tool for this very thing as I write and a close friend is also developing bespoke thinking tools for creative people. We live in London and really care creatives making the most of themselves.

    Thanks for this. It all helps.

    Binita

  • Brett

    Awesome post, Scott. I started to really harness my creativity (and feel better as a whole) when I started to embrace the idea of meditation. 20 minutes per day usually does the trick for me – and it benefits more than just my creativity.

    And, yes, I always get that “a-ha!” moment in the shower. Maybe I just need to be taking more showers…

    At any rate, creativity in spontaneous – and we need to harness it whenever we’re in that “flow” moment. Ritualizing creativity – reserving it for a certain time in the day – makes it so our bodies can tap into that flow state much, much more quickly.

  • Gabriel Meono

    Thanks so much for this article, this is really an every day conflict, specially for creative people.

  • Bill Sonic

    Hey guys! Meditation is the answer to your prayers. Literally. Ever wonder when you ask God or Source Or The One or whatever of the 72 names of God there are where the answers emanate from? Easy. When you meditate you connect with your Higher Self and that aspect of you, you as a god on this planet then connects to The Light.
    If we do not meditate, we run the risk of having walked right past the answer to our spiritual requests. Only when we are connected in this fashion do we tap into the stream of Gods’ Consciousness. When you are here now, present now that is when the words of God come in like a well tuned station. you dial in the answers to your questions.

    I’m a Spiritual Teacher. A Kabbalist. And what a true Kabbalist knows is that he/she doesn’t know anything. Unless of course you start to accept that, you know how life works.
    We are here to learn no matter what. Some lessons harsh, seemingly.

    Some lessons a piece of cake. Seemingly.
    I am not a zealot, I have spent a few years now teaching and healing and I feel like I have a better understanding of the universe and our place in it.
    I used to declare to anyone that would listen that I was an,’Illustrator.’
    I spent most of my 40 years on the planet just ‘being’ that.
    I’ll always be a creative, everyone is. But I have realized that we are infinite!
    And we get get it wrong when we compartmentalize ourselves. I am, now that gets it right!
    We are One. What I do affects you. And what you do affects me.

    Curious to know more?
    We are all about Free-Will.
    CHOICE. So it is my choice to proffer this info and your choice to read it or accept it or question it. All good.
    Here is where my life started to become one of empowerment. Clarity. Real Love for self.
    http://www.modernmysteryschool.com
    Check us out and see what you think.
    We have a program called, “Empower Thyself,” that will blow you away!
    But once again, your choice. It is your God Given Right to flex your Spiritual Muscles and
    become the god that you were put here to one day ascend to be.

    I wish you all The Blessings of The Light and send you Love, Peace and Joy to illumine every step you take.

    Namaste!
    Bill Sonic MMS Guide

  • azzcatdesign

    I totally get the showers thing. Trouble is, somewhere between tuning out and inspiration, I feel guilty about using too much hot water! 😮

    Fortunately, walking the dogs gives me an opportunity to think.

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