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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)
  • Chea

    Very good points and a rather sad comment on how skewed our world has become that we need reminding to “unplug”. We are ever more out of touch with the rhythms of life and it’s taking a toll on our health, as well. It is always a good practice to at the very least, turn off your wi-fi at night while you sleep, and as a courtesy to others around you, too, for the signals go outside your home to others. Offices should shut it off at the end of the work day. We are engaged in a great experiment on the affects of all this technology on ourselves and unfortunately, the first scientific reports coming out do not look good…

  • Guest

    In the production environment of the modern workplace, there are no quiet places, no time that’s your own, and a moment spent staring off into space (or at the burlap weave of the grey fabric on the panel wall) is taken furtively, when you can be sure no one is watching. Of course, in a production environment, creativity and individuality are bad for process, output and the mythical beast made of many legs, arms, and torsos but no head, called the Team. So maybe it’s a moot point.

  • cat_pat_1972

    In the production environment of the modern workplace, there are no quiet places, no time that’s your own, and a moment spent staring off into space (or at the burlap weave of the grey fabric on the panel wall) is taken furtively, when you can be sure no one is watching. Of course, in a production environment, creativity and individuality are bad for process, output and the mythical beast made of many legs, arms, and torsos but no head, called the Team. So maybe it’s a moot point.

  • cat_pat_1972

    In the production environment of the modern workplace, there are no quiet places, no time that’s your own, and a moment spent staring off into space (or at the burlap weave of the grey fabric on the panel wall) is taken furtively, when you can be sure no one is watching. Of course, in a production environment, creativity and individuality are bad for process, output and the mythical beast made of many legs, arms, and torsos but no head, called the Team. So maybe it’s a moot point.

  • cat_pat_1972

    In the production environment of the modern workplace, there are no quiet places, no time that’s your own, and a moment spent staring off into space (or at the burlap weave of the grey fabric on the panel wall) is taken furtively, when you can be sure no one is watching. Of course, in a production environment, creativity and individuality are bad for process, output and the mythical beast made of many legs, arms, and torsos but no head, called the Team. So maybe it’s a moot point.

  • Coffee On The Patio

    It seems I need to remind myself of this every day.

  • Rich Antcliff

    One of the things we are seeing is people using “teleworking” as an excuse to disconnect from the noise. People repeatedly tell us that their productivity increases when working at home because they are not interrupted either physically or electronically.
    The idea of sabbaticals needs to return.

  • Teamwork21st

    It’s amazing that even short periods of ‘downtime’ can help if practised regularly. One of the misconceptions of meditation is that you need hours to do it, whereas in reality you can meditate anywhere, anytime if you know how. Even one minute can help a lot. It’s just learning how… This site is really useful to discover how, and all the resources are free, including over 40 one minute meditations to listen to http://www.just-a-minute.org

  • Christian Ray

    Meditate/Pray Daily. Rest weekly. Retreat Monthly. Vacation Yearly.

  • Carole Pivarnik

    I try to spend a half hour or even an hour in bed after awakening to let my mind wander and roam among all the things I know are bouncing around for attention. The earlier in the morning–before anyone else is up and around–the better. 

    Enjoyed your book Making Ideas Happen, btw.

  • Nikolas Karampelas

    The best way to do it, is go fishing. Really! 

    You leave your phone at home because you are afraid of have it drawn, you take a boat and go in the middle of nowhere, alone with the fishes.

    While you wait for the fish to bite you consentrate on that, and you slowly start to clean your mind of most of the daily problems. In time the most troubling thoughs will surface and you will start thinking only one of those and only that, sometimes you think of this so deep that you will not notice the bite from the fish at all.

    For me this is one of the most easy ways to have some short of meditation and it can bring fresh fish in my diet too 😛

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Absolutely excellent article-I’ve found that “space” is truly what gives you peace and perspective. From my experience as a time coach, here are some strategies that I’ve seen work well:

    -Create space immediately after getting up so that your mind doesn’t start to engage with what you need to do and you can just “be”

    -Use your commute time as thinking time–either by listening to guided meditation or simply staying with the silence.

    -Go on a silent retreat.

    -Leave your devices at the office.

    -Make reflection part of your evening wind-down ritual. This allows you to fall asleep instead of flicking the light back on to take notes.

    -Each week, block out time in your calendar when you will not schedule activities and can have time to get lost in your thoughts.

    Finally release the guilt that “thinking” is a wasteful activity–activity without purpose is truly a waste. Thoughtful reflection is a wise investment.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Wanda Weithers

    Wonderful article. What frustrates me–a former television executive assistant–is that the media culture reserves the allowance of downtime or digital thinking for top level executives. A good television assistant is always one who is frantic and frenzied getting coffee for their boss who needs their downtime. LOL! Building the habits and behavior of a creative professional should be a right not a privilege. I know I may be in the minority in that argument; I guess that’s why I quit to start my own company. Thanks! 

  • Gary Dunstan

    Thanks Scott.
    Insightful and good advice too. Reminded me of a funny quote:”Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” (Winnie the Pooh)Gary Dunstan.

  • Miss Displaced

    I LOVE having downtime. I read or sometimes just lay on the floor or bed and “space.” People think I’m nuts for not constantly wanting to be entertained by something (TV, radio, computer, etc.) but I love it and get downright cranky if I don’t get my unplugged time.  

    I drive in the car sans radio too. I find my best ideas that way.

  • Breathe Meditation Studio

    Wonderful wonderful article! As someone who works at a meditation studio, I love seeing the increased awareness on the importance of downtime; even just a few seconds of deep breathing can be immensely helpful!

    There are some neat books I just stumbled upon that give tips for finding downtime in the office and while traveling – Office Yoga by Darrin Zeer and Travel Yoga by Darrin Zeer.

    Our blog http://aplacetobreatheblog1.bl… also posts exercises and quotes that focus on meditation, breathing, stress reduction, and so on.

    Hope you don’t mind me re-posting this on our blog!

    Thanks!

  • Annie Korzen

    I find that just taking a walk is beneficial – both physically and mentally.  It doesn’t matter if I walk through lively streets or a peaceful parki.  The unconscious mind is always working and very often the solution to a problem will pop into my consciousness without my deliberately struggling to find it.  And on the days that I don’t solve a problem, I’m still burning off calories in a pleasant way!

  • Featherbrazil

    I VERY IDEA OF PUTTING YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOLD OR HAVING TIME TO JUST HAVING A SIZABLE COMMA IN LIFE IS A REAL TREAT!

  • ヤシン

    JUST HAVING THE VERY TO BE ABLE TO PUT YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOLD AND HAVING A SIZABLE COMMA IN LIFE IS A REAL TREAT!

  • Dan Peck

    Why not check out  – DigitalSilence lite – 3hours without email/mobile/internet to #getstuffdone #recharge http://bit.ly/mv4FL4

    or if your your brave why not the whole  – DigitalSilence – 3days without technology – more like a retreat from your digital world to get back on track with life. Take time to reconnect with people and get creative! http://bitly.com/kW5s18

  • Dan Peck

    this has already helped a ton of people and common feed back is that people were unaware of the amount they interatacted with technology – have you ever taken not of haw many times you have even looked at your phone during the day!

  • Dan Peck

    this has already helped a ton of people and common feed back is that people were unaware of the amount they interatacted with technology – have you ever taken not of haw many times you have even looked at your phone during the day!

  • Matthew

    Want some quality ‘down-time’.  I loved the one-day retreat I went on here.  The real surprise was that it was free with all donations being voluntary and is a stunning location in Oxfordshire.
    http://www.globalretreatcentre

  • Rat

    My escape into downtime is achieved through music. There’s nothing to beat playing Bach on the organ in an empty church. The only intervention there is divine !!  

  • Carol

    Scott, I couldn’t agree with you more.  If we don’t give ourselves time to contemplate we are always at the mercy of life and being thrown from pilar to post.  Thank you for this.  I will repost this on my blog and refer back to you.

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