What Happened To Downtime? The Extinction Of Deep Thinking And Sacred Space

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.

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.

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For 5 tips on reclaiming our downtime and sacred space, visit the99percent.com.

This article, by Scott Belsky, is syndicated from The 99%—a daily web magazine from Behance that offers tips and insights to help creative professionals make ideas happen. Scott Belsky is the CEO of Behance and author of the national bestselling book Making Ideas Happen.

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21 Comments

  • Scott Myers

    I'm sorry but from where I stand the reason why we crave distraction over downtime is simply that if we have to sit and really think about things we'd have to face some very unpleasant truths about ourselves and about life....like the fact that we're not as decent as we like to think we are....like the fact that most of our lives is spent in constant struggles just to survive in our current version of civilization......those thoughts lead to worries, worries leads to fear, fear leads to despair which can lead to either depression or rage......far easier to allow ourselves to be distracted than to have to deal with all of THAT...I'm not saying that that is as it should be...far from it...merely stating the reason why it happens......

  • Sean Hopkins

    If we're gaining the self-esteem that "wall comments" and "tweets" provide us much easier now, wouldn't we have more time for downtime and reflection? Or is that just causing us to seek more of a connection?

  • Shelley Alexa Somerville

    It's an aspect of the human condition.  We come into this world and are taught the it's all about the material world and the outer trappings of success, and, while we do have to get things done to survive, we get addicted to the distractions.  We're really here to learn and grow inside, and become who we really are, but that takes courage, commitment and whole lot of patience.

    Regradless, that place-of-peace is always available.  It's as close as our next breath.  We just need to take a break from the drama to observe our breathing, one breath at a time.  With a little practice, we come present to the moment - no past, no future, just now, and now and now.  And if we really get there, it's not at all scary.  The kindom is indeed within.

  • Wayne Steffen

    Anybody get a chuckle that this article is in a publication called Fast Company? Stopping to smell the irony reduces stress as well as gardening and you can do it anywhere.

  • Charlie Bernstein

    The thing that bugs me about the article is the use of "we." I don't have a big urge to be "connected" - or, at least, the word means something different to me than it does to THE 99 PERCENT. I'm happiy alone, only have a cell phone because my board of directors insisted a year ago. (I rarely have it with me and would have to look around for it if I wanted it now. I don't.) There's a TV in my house only because my of five years brought it with her when she moved in. No, we don't have cable.

    I'm a twice-diagnosed ADD-type, but I don't think of it as a disorder (at all!), and I'm not aware of having any attention deficit: I can easily put in ten hours of reading, writing, or playing my guitar. I know other so-called ADD-types who can put in ten hours playing video games. As Tom Wolfe said about his nephew, they might have a disorder, but it has nothing to do with attention.

    So though I do know plenty of people who can't get by without a smart phone, an iPod, and a laptop, it's a choice, and it certainly doesn't apply to everyone. We're as connected and as distracted as we want to be.

  • Katherine Dudley Hoehn

    Isn't it amazing how exciting and distracting it is to get an unexpected email!  It's more addicting than sugar and junk food.  

    The ultimate vacation is the one where there is no television, wireless service, telephone, radio, or other electronic gadgetry, making it possible for downtime, sacred space, quiet time with God, renewed energy, and - optionally - real human relationships.  Next best is taking an electronics-free day, which takes self-control and confidence that the world and its inhabitants will survive a day without your electronic input.    

  • Susan J Hughes

    The ultimate satisfying connection is to God.  He is the source of creative thoughts, peace, energy.  Often the modern distractions offer temporary efficiency which is excellent, but we still need to seek God and wait for inspiration from Him.  So many great artists, thinkers, leaders of past centuries had only the Bible and prayer; and look at what was accomplished!   

  • fiona law

    Gardening is a great way to be creative and active while grounding yourself and feeling connection. I also recommend a mindful yoga practice (ie not a dynamic, gym-based lycra body conscious thing). Toning your nervous system and using the breath mantra repetition will slowly re-train your mind away from over activity. OM!

  • LIz Broomfield

    Very good points here. And I think we really are in danger of losing our creativity - I know I need the opportunity afforded by an online game I don't really need to concentrate on, or (better) a good gym session or run, to mull over things unconsciously and get back to my desk with an article written myself or a piece written for a client.

  • Cedricj

    It is the way one experiences space and silence that makes it either sacred or scary. We have become so conditioned by our "time is money" and "I am productive (and therefore of value) when I am busy" paradigms that a new way of being seems very strange indeed. But once the shift begins towards more reflective and contemplative practices like journaling, meditating, or yoga silence becomes golden.

    And anyway, if one really wants to become "productive" the more creative connections occur in those moments. 

    We have to remember that if there are no spaces between musical notes, all we have is noise.

    cedricj.wordpress.com
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Michael Brown

    One commenter noted than people in the far East don't tend to have this issue.  Let me mention another group of people for whom this is not a grave concern.  Southerners.

    Things are just so much slower in the South (Southern states).  And they all seem to prefer it that way.  It's mostly the rest of the United States for whom life just can't be lived fast enough.

  • Nate Larmore

    Great article.  Business has completely lost touch with the importance of downtime.  Corporate bureaucrats bang the drum of constant productivity, emphasize the latest gizmo that will make us more efficient, and ultimately complain that outcomes have lost their edge. Creativity doesn't fit into a Gantt chart. Innovation isn't a box to be checked off. We have become so consumed with productivity, we rarely take time to assess the value of what we're producing. This article is a timely reminder to intentionally unplug from the digital rat race and engage the most powerful app you'll ever know, your mind.

  • Dan Turner

    This article and these comments just hit me square between the eyes. How often I have heard my spouse and friends comment on how much I over think everything? How I can not seem to let go of anything until I have the correct answer. I think I need to find my "Off" switch or have one installed maybe I'll Google it on my droid while I'm at lunch.

  • AJ Calhoun

    Have normally intelligent people become so obtuse that cannot use the "Off" switch?

  • Dennis Ingwersen

    Whether you call it creative time, quiet time, or meditation, this exercise seems to be a common denominator in many successful people's lives.  Can you give me permission to reprint this article?  DennyI  www.inspireandimagine.com

  • Chris

    I was just talking about this type of thing this
    weekend.  I am now living/working in
    Bangkok Thailand and have been immersed in the eastern culture for over 6 years
    now.  Eastern People seem to place a high
    value of downtime and often tell me that I think too much.  I have to admit I seem to be thinking about
    something every waking moment.  Also,
    sleep seems to be filled with thoughts that come to life while waking.  My Asian friends seems to be able to shut
    down and stop thinking. 

    This weekend, I concluded that this is likely due in big
    part to the Buddhist teachings, which influences much of their culture.  However, in terms on Southeast Asia, it may
    indeed be in part genetic for SEA is mostly a tropical area where food is plenty
    all year long.  Western cultures are most
    in cold temperate climates where the changing seasons made constant planning
    for the next season a requirement to survive before the modern era.  Sounds like a study…  any takers?

  • John Clark III

    Great insight, Scott... As I recently penned in my
    soon-to-be-published "The Ideal: Your Guide to An Ideal Life," alas...How did we independently
    become so dependent on the interdependence of our dependencies?  How did we lose sight of the significant
    importance of our independence?  The
    facts in your article state unequivocally "it is what it is."  However, IMHO, what's MOST scary is the lack of self-awareness and/or the delight that many people choose to revel in as they reject self and embrace all else.  Indeed, we are all connected on some level... the question is: To what are we connected?

  • Lisa Hannah

    Thank you, Scott, for this post. I often wonder about what "we" used to think about walking down the street or sitting in a car at a stoplight - time now spent talking on the phone or pecking at a smart phone. While we are all so caught up in the always on mentality and fearful of slipping behind, if even for 5 minutes, I agree with you that we are really at risk at losing much more.

  • Omar

    This is something that I frequently struggle with. I have so many things on my to-do list and I always feel so swamped with the never ending/overlapping amount of information pouring at me from all over the web. I miss being able to just sit down, disconnect, and do something very personally productive. Sadly, nowadays it seems like the only place I can do that is on an airplane, that is if the flight does not offer a WiFi-connection. I used to look forward to flights with in-flight WiFi, now I pray that they don't have them on my flights...