Time to Unplug: Why Downtime Makes You More Creative

Are you someone who gets really great thinking done in the shower? Did your last great idea come to you when you were scrubbing your belly or rinsing your hair? Or maybe you like to sing in there — or even zone out completely, losing time as the steam rises. Either way, don’t you just love a nice long shower? I sure do. It occurred to me the other day that the shower is one of the few places you can’t take your phone with you. It’s built-in downtime, and for some of us, it’s the only downtime we get.

I, for one, can definitely get addicted to the constant stimulation of having devices at my fingertips. I’ll read my kindle as I walk down the hall to the restroom, or I’ll continue listening to a podcast on my way from the parking lot to my desk. I will fill every potentially silent moment in my brain with input, whether it’s a story, information from the web, a podcast, checking my email, or a phone call. It can reach a level of complete excess before I even realize what I’ve done. I’ll exhaust myself by never letting my brain take a break to roam the imaginary terrain of spontaneous thought.

downtime and creativity

I remember way back in my former life as an aspiring musician — before smart phones — when I had a little notepad on my night stand. Ideas for song lyrics would pop into my head right as I was relaxing into sleep. One song even came to me in the middle of a restless night, and I jumped out of bed and wrote the whole thing in one sitting, music and all. Creative ideas, whether they’re song lyrics, an idea for a painting, a garden idea, a recipe idea, or just something fun to write about, often come to me in those moments of idle thought — of daydreaming. What am I missing out on by filling all that empty space with noise from my phone?


Getting Caught up in Being Plugged-in

downtime and creativityAs much as I enjoy being unplugged (one of the motivating factors in my constant retreat to the wilderness), I’ll admit that having this blog has meant being more plugged in than I’ve ever been in my life. It could also be a function of the world at large becoming more and more plugged in and me getting swept away with the times, but to be honest, I’ve historically been relatively resistant to technology that makes me constantly available. I like to disappear from time to time. You might notice that about me if you follow me on twitter — I’m not great about keeping up on weekends, because I’m usually hanging off the side of a rock somewhere, very much in the moment with what I’m doing.

I hung onto my flip phone far longer than most, and from there, I wanted to make sure that the next phone I got did not have an email function. I actively did NOT want to be able to check email from my phone, and nowadays I check it (and Facebook) somewhat ridiculously often. Even when I know nothing new is there, I’ll grab my phone at a stop light and check it. Since when did sitting at a stoplight become so unbearably boring that I can’t sit there and listen to whatever I’m listening to without fidgeting with my phone? And when did being bored become such a burden?

I realize my conundrum when the constant checking reaches a fevered pitch. Then I attempt to ditch the bad habits and regroup to live a more sane life. It lasts for a while, then it slowly creeps back in! I mentioned this same pattern with my coffee addiction a little while back. 


Downtime: a Goal on its Own

So what I’m getting at here is that we do actually need the downtime. It’s not expendable. We can’t just wait for our next vacation to get some good quality, deviceless, unscheduled time in. Our bodies, minds, and souls need and deserve more than that to function at their best. In fact, we need daily bouts of downtime in order for creativity to flourish.

downtime and creativityOur brains are doing really important work when we think we’re doing nothing. Letting ourselves get bored pushes us into the subconscious and leads us to some of our best ideas. As we become more and more involved in our devices, we spend less and less time allowing our minds to wander, which is where creative sparks and self-exploration originate.

There’s a concept called “autobiographical planning,” the act of mentally planning and anticipating personally relevant future goals, which takes places when our brains are in that idle or daydreaming state. When we fill those empty spaces with our devices (games, Facebook, Instagram, email), the potential for that planning is interrupted or entirely prevented. 

There’s also this idea of productivity that pops into conversations about daydreaming and down time. When we think about being productive, we think about being constantly busy and engaged in our work. But the truth is that without the downtime, we’re actually less productive. We need not only vacation, but a good sleep schedule, a reasonable amount of time away from our work, and again, time to do absolutely nothing. Tony Schwartz, author and CEO shares his secrets for being more productive through relaxation and refers to studies on sleep and vacation, stating that employees who take vacation will be up to 8% more productive at work.


Bored and Brilliant

These days, the average mobile consumer spends an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes on their mobile devices daily. In the past, at least some of that time was spent doing nothing with our brains in idle mode — daydreaming — and when we miss out on that, we miss out on spontaneous ideas popping in; potentially brilliant ideas! In googling around for today’s post, I came across a project that WNYC launched through their show (and podcast) Note to Self. In February of this year, the Bored and Brilliant project challenged listeners to do less on their phones — and with technology in general. I mean, the catch is that the info they share comes to you via email and podcast, but we haven’t figure out telepathy yet so I think it’s a fair way to play at this point. I love this idea of a collective effort to put down our phones and zone out. I know I’m a little late to the game, but I decided to sign up.

It’s time to program some boredom into my schedule and see what ideas emerge. My goal is not only to create some lasting changes in the way I deal with my devices, but to reignite the spirit of my former musical self. Maybe a song will come, maybe something else, but I bet what does come will be brilliant!

And you should try it too! Sign up for Bored and Brilliant and let me know how it goes for you. Maybe we can swap our creative ideas when our boredom sparks our brilliance!

downtime and creativity


I'm a wellness professional with a Master's in Integrative Health, passionate about spreading health, happiness and personal fulfillment to as many people as possible. I have a professional background in health and wellness, dietary supplements, and nutrition, and embark every day to live a well, balanced, happy life. In being true to myself and what I seek in life, I hope to inspire others to do the same, to cultivate wellbeing in their own lives.

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2 thoughts on “Time to Unplug: Why Downtime Makes You More Creative

  1. Toni, thanks for posting this. You’re so right. Downtime is incredibly important. So is unplugging, which, of course, most people don’t do. People are so darn plugged in!

    Over the past four years, I realized that I needed to unplug a lot to heal from my grueling Bittersweet Last Year with Mom, and I’ve never been more productive! Fascinating!

    Look forward to more posts from you.

    • Thanks for your comment Connie, sorry to hear about your mom. That’s so hard. I’m practicing what I preach this weekend and getting the heck out of dodge — heading to the mountains! Very excited. I hope you do some unplugging of your own over the holiday weekend. Check out that challenge from WNYC. It picks apart phone usage in an interesting way — challenging you not to take a single picture all day for one of the days. Very interesting things I hadn’t even thought about! Happy to have you here at CWB! Thanks for visiting!

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