Creativity — Why Gap Time Is So Important

This is the fifth piece in an essay series on bringing humanity back to life and positively transforming the way we live, work, and operate in our always-connected 21st-century environment. You can explore the rest of the series here!

We live in a time of constant interruption. Where communications abound, and our brains are frequently active.

Through modern mobile technologies we’re always able to entertain ourselves, communicate with others, and fill any void we experience, with any information we want, at any time of the day. There is no sleep for our personal device, except for those scare hours each day when our human element kicks in and we take time to rest, reset, and recharge our bodies and minds. But other than that, most of us are fully wired in, always expending mental energy and frequently depleting our daily mental capacity.

The problem as I see it, however, is that it’s been noted how gap time — time for our brains to wander and connect the dots — is an essential part of the creative process. Steve Jobs has famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things,” within the context of the need for one to have a diverse set of experiences and reflections to help them along their creative journey. Similarly, the creative “Aha!” moments we so frequently have in the shower are regularly explained as “the perfect storm for the perfect idea.” Lucas Reilly, Senior Editor at Mental Floss, goes on to say that as “strange as it sounds, your brain is not most active when you’re focused on a task. Rather, research shows it’s more active when you let go of the leash and allow it to wander.”

This is all well and good within research on creativity, but my concern is that with our fully-connected lifestyles, where we rarely go outside of physical proximity to our devices, we’re increasingly losing out on potential “Aha!” moments, since we’re always tethered to our connectivity.

Given the way we interact with our devices — pulling them out when waiting for the elevator, waiting in line, or using the toilet — we don’t allow ourselves these moments of disconnection for dots can be connected and insights and ideas formed! While we often think we’re taking a break by stepping away from our desk, taking a walk outside, or changing our scenery, truth is, most of us spend those moments staring at our screens scrolling through Twitter and catching up on our communications, news, and whatever else provides us hits of dopamine. Be honest with yourself. You know it to be true!

In this always-connected environment we live in, it’s more important than ever for us to set intentions and make sure we’re making space for our brains to disconnect, unwind, wander, and connect dots. Especially for those of us in creative fields — and I’d argue that in today’s age, that’s most of us! We need to be cognizant of our surroundings, the habits we don’t know we have (i.e. playing on our phones right up until we go to sleep, checking them before getting out of bed, pooping while texting, etc), and create times for ourselves to intentionally free our minds.

As I recently discovered, I’m not the only one who believes all this to be true! Iain Tait, Executive Creative Director at leading advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy London, wrote a phenomenal post about why creative brains need time off. In his piece, he describes changes the agency recently made to encourage people to disconnect, step away, and free their minds. Their focus is on cutting down after work email exchanges, offering “recovery time” for nights and weekends given up to work, and providing space before and after the bulk of the workday by banning meetings that typically would bookend people’s days.

This is a great step forward that has already paid dividends to the entire agency, and is a philosophy that I predict we’ll see more and more subscribe to over the next few years.

However, for those of us who want to take control of our time, our days, and our mental operations, here’s a good starting point for bringing some gap time into your days, with the goals of increasing idea generation and creative output:

  • Move through your day with awareness and discover what moments could potentially serve as time to disconnect from devices. Here’s a sample of what I’ve observed as opportunity for myself: in the bathroom, eating lunch, standing in line, commuting to/from work, waiting for a friend/meeting, and the hour before going to bed.
  • Once you’re aware of the opportunities for gap time, begin to set the intention for yourself that you will not use your phone/tablet/laptop during those moments. You will simply be.
  • Stay present in each moment and let yourself soak up the enjoyable feelings of disconnection, be OK with your mind wandering, and allow yourself to follow trains of thought as they come and go.
  • Keep a notebook and pencil with you! Or use your phone to make notes, but be careful — it’s easy to open your phone to make a note and then slip into the world of social media and distraction! If you choose this method, make sure to set the intention of making the note (or audio recording) and immediately shutting your device. Then hold yourself accountable.

And there you have it! Insights to help you spend your time in efficient, enjoyable, idea-generating ways. You’re now empowered to take care of your brain! Remember — you are not your machines, and you must make sure to disconnect and recharge in order to continually produce quality work.

With this new awareness, I’m excited to see how you bake some gap time into your days!

I’d love to hear from you on your struggles and triumphs, questions, and comments. It’s easiest to find me on Twitter @miketnnnbm!