The Creative Benefits Of Taking "Mini-Sabbaticals" From All Your Various Screens

Research suggests that taking a quick break from technology can set your week on track and get good ideas flowing freely. Embrace the downtime—it might be the only chance you get.

According to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, one of the best ways to enhance your creative output is to clearly separate work and consumption—in particular, she advocates an "absorb state" where you gather information and inspiration without doing any work.

Easy to say, but much harder to do . . . especially if most of your work is dependent on technology.

It has even been suggested by some cognitive research that "tech dependency" (particularly due to the web) is crippling our attention spans, wounding our ability to create meaningful relationships, and generating a false expectation that we should be able to be contacted at every hour of the day.

I can state with confidence that many of my fellow writers feel the same way. As I was writing this very article, I had to find the links mentioned above, and I ended up reading two other articles (falling down the rabbit hole) before I got back to work!

It is for these reasons that I often look for ways to unplug myself from this dependency on technology to complete my work.

Since much of what I do involves writing and editing, this isn’t always so easy, but I have found a way to take a "mini-sabbatical" every now and then to break free from the Web and bring things back to the fundamentals. While my method suits me, I encourage other knowledge workers who operate online to consider doing something similar.

Every other Friday, I take a tech break by spending the day outlining ideas for new articles on regular old sheets of paper (many of my colleagues love their Moleskine’s, though I just use a cheap old notebook!).

I find that this ritual tends to help for a few reasons.

The first is that I can hit the ground running on Monday with fully fleshed out ideas. If you’ve ever started off your day with "analysis paralysis" (a state of lethargy caused by not knowing where to begin), you’ll find this method incredibly useful.

More important though, I find this regular break from technology allows for more deep thinking that is increasingly harder to conjure in a interruption-mad world.

I’m not the only one who feels this way—Scott Belsky, cofounder of Behance, has argued that we seem to "crave distraction over downtime" and that those who are able to unplug from "insecurity work" (or work done for the sake of feeling busy) will be the best suited for tackling the most difficult problems.

Author Ben Casnocha also recently addressed this issue in a well-received article on why (and how) busy people should find time to think deeply.

You may not be so surprised to hear, then, that even Michelle Obama holds these worries for her husband, confiding to to his aides that his schedule rarely allows time to simply think.

Disconnecting is a way for us to find that time, but it can be quite intimidating to actually put into practice, given that our normal schedule practically invites interruption.

Belsky has even argued that we subconsciously avoid downtime so that we can avoid bringing up feelings of insecurity:

"During these temporary voids of distraction, our minds return to the uncertainty and fears that plague all of us. . . . Our insatiable need to tune into information—at the expense of savoring our downtime—is a form of 'work' that we do to reassure ourselves."

Perhaps just as important, we are also worried that we will be "missing out" if we aren’t connected. These worries are often well-grounded, as it is now unusual for someone not to be accessible at nearly any hour.

But this worry and "business" is often what keeps us from doing our best thinking.

And as you know, our best thinking is what generates our best ideas.

In fact, a variety of research on daydreaming and the benefits of a "wandering mind" show that after we’ve invested an ample amount of time in a project, one of the best ways to come up with good ideas is to simply think about them and let them incubate for a while.

Easy to see how it is difficult to get that sort of downtime when working exclusively online; we’re much more likely to check one of the myriad of sites available on the Web during a break than we are to just sit there with our own thoughts.

For me, a simple break from my keyboard and a reunion with pen and paper works well enough to force me to face this downtime head on. For you, the process may be completely different, but I would argue, very necessary.

How do you give yourself time for deep thinking?

Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, an email management software company, tailored for small businesses. Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryCiotti, or visit his website.

[Image: Flickr user Masayoshi Sekimura]

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3 Comments

  • Rebecca Jensen

    Sometimes I take a break by walking through an art, book, or game shop and it is vastly more refreshing than taking a "fake break" online, browsing the same sort of things.

  • Amanda Peters

    Totally true, though I don't implement it as often as I should. Recently my iPhone broke and I spent a full day without it and felt that I emerged much more clear-headed, and thought more deeply rather than in sound bites. 

  • April Smith

    This method also works well for me. Sometimes I find that I have to lock myself in my bedroom away from phones and computers to focus on reading marketing or business books or even just brainstorming ideas on a notepad. I've also found that using a brainstorming wheel works wonders for cultivating creativity.