This normal life: The case for boredom

What are we missing out on by not disconnecting?

Woman using laptop in office corridor  (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Woman using laptop in office corridor
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
When was the last time you were bored? Think about it: What do you do if you have nothing of great importance to do – say, you’re standing in a line at the pharmacy and there are three people ahead of you, or you’re waiting for a bus that Moovit says is still seven minutes away, or you’ve just put the kids to bed but they’re not asleep yet, so it’s too soon to move on to the living room to blast the TV?
What do you do? If you’re like me, you pull out your smartphone. You check your email, Facebook, Twitter, the news, or you play a game. But do nothing and run the risk of getting bored? That’s so 2008.
Don’t feel bad – you’re certainly not the only one. Take a look around you the next time you’re at a party or in the park. How many people have their heads in their phones, or at least headphones in their ears, as they’re standing or walking or sitting or running? Everyone.
Smartphones and other mobile devices have filled our every waking moment with stimulation, sometimes scintillating, more often just a numbing distraction.
But as long as there’s still battery left, in 2015, boredom has been effectively banished.
And that could be messing up our brains big-time.
At least, that’s the conclusion that Manoush Zomorodi came to. Zomorodi is the host of the American radio show and podcast New Tech City. She wanted to understand what we’re giving up on when we give up on boredom.
Her research should alarm us. It alarmed me.
On the program, Zomorodi interviewed Jonathan Smallwood, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York in the UK. Smallwood studies what’s called “mind wandering,” geek talk for the daydreaming that often results from getting bored.
What he found was that there is a close link between “originality, novelty and creativity” and “the sort of spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.”
Smartphones, which enable us to effectively avoid ever having our minds idle, also take away our ability “to see and learn where we truly are in terms of our goals,” Smallwood says – what neuroscientists dub “autobiographical planning.” During an ordinary week, about the only time many of us are not engaged with smartphone- delivered media seems to be in the shower.
How much are people on their phones? Using an iPhone app called Moment, which tracks every time you turn on your phone, pick it up, scroll, swipe or pinch, Zomorodi came up with a number: Her listeners were averaging around 110 minutes a day.
That translates into checking one’s device an astounding 150 times a day.
Zomorodi didn’t include Israelis in her analysis, but if anything, I’d guess we are even more hooked to our devices. We already have a long-standing tradition of half-hourly news beeps priming us to pay attention wherever a radio is playing.
IS IT really such a big deal, though? I’ve had my smart phone for a number of years now, and my creativity seems to be just fine. Another psychologist, Dr. Sandi Mann, who teaches at the University of Central Lancashire, designed an experiment to investigate the correlation between boredom and innovation.
She assembled a group of 40 students and had them copy numbers out of the phone directory for 20 minutes. She then gave them two paper cups and asked them to make something. The research subjects came up with some simple ideas, like using the cups to hold plants and spices.
Mann then asked another group to pull out the phone book but, for this round, just to read it for 20 minutes – a really boring task. This time, when they were given the paper cups, the students got much more creative. They turned them into earrings, musical instruments, Madonna-style bras.
Ironically Zomorodi has contributed to my own phone use. I’m a big podcast listener. I’m hooked on This American Life, Radio Lab, Vox Tablet’s English-language version of Israel Story, the TED Radio Hour, Fresh Air, Planet Money, Freakonomics, Invisibilia, and don’t even get me started about my Serial obsession. Now add to that list Zomorodi’s New Tech City.
When I’m washing the dishes or mopping the floor on Friday afternoon, my headphones are in. When I’m doing push-ups and squats, it’s Ira, Jad and Robert in my ears. When it’s my turn to walk the dog, oy vavoy if my phone runs out of juice. What would I do, me alone with only my thoughts? It’s not just podcasts. I check my email every time there’s a down moment in a conversation. My wife and I are having lunch together; she gets a phone call from a client, my screen is on at once. It got so bad that I was even checking my phone while we were on vacation in Bali. There I was, in a tropical paradise, drinking smoothies and getting massages, but 3G connectivity meant I was never far from the latest scandal back home.
I KNOW it’s not all my fault. The apps on our phones are perfectly designed to send a little shot of pleasure-boosting dopamine to the brain every time we receive a new tweet, email notification or Facebook “Like.” I’m also no neo-Luddite: I’m well aware of the value our mobile devices have brought to our lives. I couldn’t do my job without the Internet, and apps like Waze and Google Maps have changed my relationship to getting lost (which used to result in something far more insidious than boredom).
I love that I can download an English-language e-book immediate- ly, rather than wait for someone vis- iting from the Old Country to kindly bring it over.
But still, if boredom is so crucial to the human experience, maybe it’s time we took some action to bring it back into our lives.
That’s what Zomorodi decided to do when she launched the “Bored and Brilliant” challenge on her radio show. For the first week in February, she broadcast a series of suggestions designed to help us reclaim the opportunity to daydream. She never suggested we give up our phones entirely. Rather, on the first day, she recommended we keep our phones in our pockets or handbags, rather than having them in the “line of sight” where we can see those notifications pop up again and again. Next came “Photo Free Day” – for those people who are snapping pictures constantly, she recommended taking a whole day off.
Day 3 was the hardest – Zomorodi challenged listeners to delete their most addictive app. It might be a game, it might be Pinterest. You know what sucks you in. (Don’t worry, she said reassuringly, it doesn’t have to be permanent, just give it a try.) On Day 4, it was “fauxcation” time – that’s where you pretend you’re unavailable for the day and set your email and social messaging status to “away.” Day 5, she asked listeners to make like Chancy Gardner and just watch. Sit on a park bench or a café on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and simply observe people going by. It’s boredom mashed up with mindfulness.
THERE WAS one more challenge she didn’t propose, but it’s one that the Jews might have something to say about: We already have a built-in don’t-use-yourphone day. It’s called Shabbat. Strictly observant Jews already refrain from using electronic devices on the Sabbath. Even if you don’t keep Shabbat, if you’re going to try any of Zomorodi’s challenges, and they seem daunting during the work week, doing so during the 24 hours between sundowns on Friday and Saturday might be an easier way to kickstart a new behavior – and a very Jewy way, to boot.
Keep it simple: Set up a Friday night dinner with friends or family. Then, don’t just keep your phone in your pocket during the meal (as on Zomorodi’s Day 1); don’t bring it to the table at all.
Lest you think I’m coming at this from some religious imperative, I’m not. But considering everything Zomorodi has raised from the latest in neuroscience, it seems that, halfway into the 20-teens, a lightly mandated day (or even a few hours) of communal unplugging in order to boost creativity and restore boredom to its once, well, boring place makes a lot of sense. (If you want to make this a group effort, Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto” project promotes a “National Day of Unplugging” the first weekend in March.) By the way, I got kind of stuck trying to figure out the end to the article, so I did what I always do: I took a shower. Never underestimate the power of a little hot water and shampoo on a cold winter’s morning to turn boredom into brilliance.
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers in order to rank higher on social media and search engines.