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The Death of Downtime

by | Process

Are we sacrificing the brilliant work that we’re capable of in order to satisfy our urge to feel connected?

Yesterday I stopped in the local coffee shop for an afternoon pick-me-up and to do a little writing. As I stood in line waiting for my drink, the next person stepped up to order. As we stood there waiting, I glanced around at the others in the line. Everyone was staring at their cell phone, checking e-mail, texting, or browsing the web.

I suddenly realized how often those little spaces “in between” are now filled by technology. If I am bored for the slightest moment, I can immediately find something to satisfy my urge for entertainment. If I feel out of the loop on something, I can immediately get back in the loop as long as I have cell phone coverage. I can work or find entertainment 24/7, 365 in a place of my choosing. When I have nothing to work on, I can check twitter, e-mail, or browse my favorite websites for something to give me a sense of engagement. It prevents me from plumbing the depths of the well of inspiration, where brilliance emerges with time and attention rather than in a spasm.

However, when I reflect on some of the best ideas I’ve had in my life and in my work, they often occurred in the spaces “in between” my commitments. They appeared in the moment I least  expected, and typically when I was doing something in no way related to the project. Today, I don’t know if those ideas would even show up on my radar because there are so many things pulling at my attention. I often don’t notice my environment, overhear fragments of conversation, or notice connections and subtlety the way that I used to.

This is, I think, the blessing and the curse of technology. It broadens the scope of our familiarity, but with that familiarity comes a kind of curse. We think we know things, but the depth of our knowledge is more shallow. We don’t take time to stop and think and process how our experiences fit into the wider scheme of our life. The result is that it’s more difficult for us to synthesize because everything seems more random. There is more input, but less of the synthesis that comes from downtime.

There is nothing wrong with technology as a servant, but it can’t become my master. I’ve made a personal commitment to value those “spaces in between”, subvert the Ping, and not retreat to technology when bored. I’m trying to focus more on synthesis and space rather than swimming in a constant stream of stimulus, and it’s making a big difference in the quality of my thoughts.

How about you? Have you noticed any side effects to your use of technology? If so, how have you dealt with them?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Ralph Dopping

    Technology is just like your image in this post. A rabbit hole. I am constantly searching for engagement. That is my crutch. 

    I am writing a piece on the positive effect technology can have on the design of space from the perspective of space reduction and positive economic and environmental impacts by building less. Researching has lead me astray many times down that rabbit hole.

    I am starting to see the value of shutting off for short periods of time. It allows me to see my surroundings, something I fear we can all be missing. That and it helps with posture. :-)

    • Todd Henry

      Fantastic, Ralph. I am in the same place with research on my new book. It’s a fine line between research, and processing that research to distill new insights. (And so glad you caught the subtle meaning of the image…)

  2. Joe Abraham

    I agree with you, Todd. Today, while waiting in line, I thought about the same stuff!

  3. Wes Roberts

    …exceptional post!

    …thank you!!

    …now I’m going to turn off my iPhone and go take a run to both encourage my soul and the rest of my day.  :-)

  4. Della Rucker

    Great observation, Todd. I’ve noticed that most of my breakthroughs come in the shower anymore….probably because that’s one of few places the phone don’t go. :-S

    • Todd Henry

      This is a great point, Della. Those moments “in between” are valuable, because they are the places where serendipity is most likely to occur, if we’re paying attention. Sometimes I will turn off all media while driving just so I can “space out” and have some measure of silence and peace while driving.

  5. Brett Henley

    I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately. Just returned after a 5-6 week digital sabbatical, and to be honest it was difficult to come back. I think you’re point on the depth of our knowledge being wide but shallow is exactly what bothers me the most about the information age.

    That + the fact that we’re all broadcasting 24-7, without really stopping to consider whether what we are saying truly matters.

    As a writer, I’m honestly struggling with the role of technology in my life/art. If the balance shifts too much to the need to connect, then my art suffers. The other side is the need to build a platform and an audience for our work.

    Thanks for the insights Todd – loved the post.

    • Todd Henry

      Thanks for your thoughts, Brett. I agree completely that it’s a balancing act, and that there’s a measure of caution around too much immersion in information and platform building without enough to synthesize, and too little information/stimulus to spark creative thought. The key is strategy and structured informality, I think. Having time set aside for synthesis allows for plenty of time to roam.

  6. Kyle Fadeley

    Dang Todd! Way to challenge me! I literally just read this because I was sitting down during an “in between” moment. My question is this: for you, what do those synthesis moments look like for you? What do you do? What kinds of questions are you asking yourself?

    • Todd Henry

      Frankly, much of the time they don’t look like anything too purposeful. I’m just trying to block time in my life (and in-between commitments) to stop, think, breathe, write, process, etc. I realized a while ago that much of the stress in my life isn’t the result of the number of commitments I have, it’s the result of the lack of intentional time to process those commitments sufficiently.

  7. Ted Mishima

    For the month of November, Facebook becomes deactivated…

  8. Charlie Birch

    I love your blogs, your podcasts, and your mission!! Mine is still formulating and gaining clarity each day. Creative Process!!!


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