Let’s get bored

Manoush Zomorodi hosts WYNC’s Note to Self podcast. In 2015, Zomorodi hosted a six-day challenge for her listeners in realigning their relationship with their smartphones. Why, she wondered, are our phones so hard to put down? How much do we actually use them, compared to how much we think we use them? And what are we missing out on? The challene series was widely successful, with over 20,000 initial participants, and now it’s a book:

This is a brilliant (ba-dum tssh) read in which Zomorodi makes a strong case for the value of boredom, of deliberately leaving (or making) spaces in our days for daydreaming, spacing out, and sitting around with no distractions or mental agenda. Far from wasted time, these moments are actually critical for our own creativity, ability to plan, and mental health. We shouldn’t be avoiding boredom; we should be embracing it.

But why is it so hard to let ourselves be bored? After hitting a creative wall at work, Zomorodi began examinging her life in order to figure out what was happening:

My mind felt tired. Worn-out. Why? Yes, I was juggling motherhood, marriage, and career in one of the most hectic cities in the world. But it was more than that. In order to analyze what was going on with me, I began by observing my own behaviour. What I found was, frankly, exhausting. As soon as I took a moment to reflect, I realized there wasn’t a single waking moment in my life that I didn’t find a way to fill — and my main accomplice was my phone.

I had long ago traded my own flip phone for a smartphone, and now it seemed I spent every spare minute on it. Whether waiting for the subway, in line for coffee, or at my son’s preschool for pickup, I was engaged in some kind of information call-and-response. I checked the weather, updated Twitter, responded to e-mails. When I flopped into bed at the end of an exhausting day, instead of turning out the lights, I chose to fire up Two Dots — a game that I couldn’t stop playing despite myself. I wasn’t using my smartphone to connect. I was using it to escape. […] My brain was always occupied, but my mind wasn’t doing anything with all the information coming in.

[…] I saw a connection between a lack of stimulation — boredom — and a flourishing of creativity and drive. It was so clear to me because the cycle of technological innovation sped up at exactly the same time my life did, too. Between the time my son was born and could walk, we saw mobile technology change the way people called a taxi, ordered food, found a date. Suddenly, very basic society actions that had remained unchanged for decades were upended. And then, when the next operating system came out six months later, unpended again. My life wasn’t just pre-children and post-children . . . it was simultaneously pre-mobile phone, post-mobile phone. Both children and smartphones shifted me to the core.

In light of all this, I asked myself, “Can my lack of ideas have to do with never being bored?” (3-4)

As it turns out, research suggests that the answer to that question is an overwhelming Yes. When we allow our minds to wander, we activate something called the default mode, “the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is als involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments” (5). When we’re spacing out, there’s an awful lot going on underneath the surface; it’s not wasted time, but rather the opposite. In fact, fMRIs show that when a person is daydreaming, their brains are active at about 80-90% of the level they would be when deliberately thinking through a complex problem. Under the surface, our brains are working hard — which is why our best ideas so often come when we’re taking a walk, washing dishes, or having a shower.

Zomorodi is not anti-technology and this is not an anti-technology book. It’s not about not using our smartphones, but about using them purposefully instead of mindlessly, about placing them back in service to us as tools rather than over us as taskmasters. To that end, she suggests seven exercises to be completed over the course of a week.. Here are the seven culminating challenges and some “upgrades” for those who want a bit more (she suggests reading Bored and Brilliant straight through before attempting them, in order to better understand the purpose of each challenge):

  1. Observe yourself: download a time-and-usage tracking app to your phone (I’ve linked to those at the end of this post). Don’t change your behaviour on day one, but think about how you would like to use / relate to your phone.
  2. Put your phone totally away while engaging in motion (no using it on your commute or while you’re out walking). Challenge upgrade: try instead to notice five things around you that you’ve never noticed before.
  3. Have a photo-free day: don’t take any pictures with your phone. Challenge upgrade: today when you look at pictures on social media, only look at them: no likes, no comments, no shares or retweets.
  4. Delete that app: the one that you find yourself constantly opening without even thinking about it, be it social media, a game, the news, whatever. Challenge upgrade: don’t just delete the app, delete your whole account.
  5. Take a fakecation: block out some time for yourself, set an auto-reply on your email, let your phone go to voicemail, and totally disconnect from tech for that time. Challenge upgrade: don’t just take a hiatus from email and the phone, but download an app that will send auto-replies to incoming texts as well.
  6. Observe something else: go to a public place (the mall, the library, a cafe, etc.) and simply sit and observe. Try to find something you would never have seen/noticed if your face was stuck in a screen. Challenge upgrade: Instead of just noticing, write down what you are observing, in as much detail as possible.
  7. The Bored and Brilliant challenge: Identify an area of life where you need to do some real thinking. Set aside thirty minutes. Put a pot of water on the stove and watch it until it boils, then immediately sit down with a pen and paper and put your mind to the problem you’ve identified: unlock its solution through the deliberate cultivation of the boredom that leads to creative thinking.

I have not completed the challenges yet — most of the time I think I have a pretty good handle on how I’m using my phone. But one thing that really challenged me was in Chapter Five, “App Addled”: the phenomenon of self-interruption. We’re all aware of how easy it is to be interrupted by others: by incoming emails, by app notifications, by incoming text messages. But most of the time, it’s not other people who are interrupting us — it’s us interrupting ourselves:

But you can’t blame your coworkers or your children or your Gchat buddy for everything. Guess who is the person who actually interrupts you the most? Yourself. [Gloria] Mark’s lab has a term for this — the “pattern of self-interruption.”

“From an observer’s perspective, you’re watching a person [and] they’re typing in a Word document. And then, for no apparent reason, they suddenly stop what they’re doing and they shift and look at e-mail or check Facebook. These kinds of self-interruptions happen almost as frequently as people are interrupted from external sources,” Mark said. “So we find that when external interruptions are pretty high in any particular hour, then even if the level of external interruptions wanes [in the next hour], then people self-interrupt.”

In other words, if you’ve had a hectic morning dealing with lots of e-mail and people stopping by your desk, you are more likely to start interrupting yourself. Interruptions are self-perpetuating. (90)

I do this all the time. I’ll be writing a post, or writing an email, then all of a sudden I’m looking at my blog reader or checking my virtual store in my favourite game, or taking a look at my library holds list, or looking something up on wikipedia… and generally for no real reason. This self-interrupting also plays into something Zomorodi discusses in an earlier chapter: reading comprehension:

His journalistic interest piqued, Mike [Rosenwald] began investigating why he and his friends were struggling with something that, until recently, had come naturally. He went, of course, straight to the Internet to see what was coming between him and the page. (When in Rome . . . ) What he discovered was a radical break in reading methodology post-Internet. Before the Web, reading was primarily a linear activity. “You looked at a magazine, a menu, a book. Whatever,” he said. “You pretty much read it uninterrupted, and that’s the way we’ve read since writing on caves.”

Then along came the Internet with hyperlines, scrolling screens, and an impossible-to-finish flow of information, which necessitated nonlinear reading. The problem, Mike found, wasn’t that our brains have adapted to this second form of reading. Rather, it has supplanted the first. In an article he wrote for The Washington Post, he did his own in-house (and meta) experiment on the thoroughness of reading online. Only 30 percent of the people reading his story about having trouble reading got to the last line of his story. (46)

For a few years now, I’ve tried to make it a discipline to read as linearly as I can when I’m reading online, something that’s hard to do — all those delicious hyperlinks begging to be read as well! What I try to do is to open any links I want to read in new tabs, and to read them after I’ve finished with the thing I started with, rather than jumping around. It’s hard. But I think it’s worth trying. To that end I’ve decided that, going forward, instead of hyperlinking within the main body of my posts here, I’ll stick them all at the end. I’ve also started to go through old entries and reformat them this way (although that’s a side project that will take a little while to finish). I can’t control how people read my posts, of course, but I can maybe help foster some good habits — in myself as well.

I appreciate the thoroughness of the research in Bored and Brilliant (as well as its excellent index). Manoush Zomorodi has written a very timely and useful book, one which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to take back some control over their digital experience and creative lives.

Explore More: Manoush Zomorodi | Note to Self podcast | “Bored and Brilliant” TED Talk | “Bored and Brilliant” podcast challenge series (6 episodes) | Default mode (wikipedia) | “Moment” app (iphone) | “SPACE” app (android) | “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say” (Mike Rosenwald, Washington Post) |

4 thoughts on “Let’s get bored

  1. This was fun to read. I’m all for boredom – except that it’s not really that… there’s always something there, but certainly not on my phone. Interesting list of things to do to overcome doing…. šŸ˜‰ No. 6’s Challenge struck me as funny. I’d totally agree with sitting and watching and observing for a while – and writing something down, but Not At The Time….that seems like converting the sit/observe/thought-wander time into a task. One of the things which is necessary (for me) for a good vacation is a dose of nothingness, which I guess could be called boredom. Or something…

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  2. This looks SO compelling. Iā€™m looking for some motivation for a new relationship with my phone and with social media. We very much enjoyed our device fast at the retreat centre last week.

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  3. Pingback: Reading Round-Up: August 2018 | In this Ordinary Time

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