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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