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) |

Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 3: Invoking the Muse)

To me, part three of Pressfield’s book is where things really start to get interesting. Part one looked at overcoming Resistance in our approach to work; part two looked at the idea of “turning pro”; part three is where things get theological. This section, which Pressfield entitles “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm” is all about invoking the muse.

Now, Pressfield seems to mean this quite literally. He relates that before he sits down to work, it is his practice to “take a minute and show respect to this unseen Power [the Muse, the daughter of Zeus] who can make or break me” (118). As he shares in the preface, this is how he begins his writing day:

I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO nametag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.

There are a couple of interesting things here, the first of which is Pressfield’s collection of lucky objects. I wonder if there is a correlation between working in the creative fields and the use of, or belief in, luck and totems and the like? When I was in grad school I kept a number of objects on the shelf of my library carrel: a fist-sized rock from my childhood summer camp, a toy wooden horse (inside the drawer in its side: a tiny seashell, a marble, an unusually shiny penny), and a few other knick-knacks of sentimental and/or aesthetic value. I didn’t think of them as “lucky” — really, I didn’t think of them at all except as decoration. Nevertheless I liked having them present and arranged just so while I worked. Make of that what you will!

Overall, though, all of this has made me wonder whether it’s possible to discern what, exactly, Pressfield’s theology is. As part of his working day, Pressfield prays to the daughter of Zeus — quite sincerely as far as I can tell (see pp. 116-21 for more on this). He has some vaguely Kabbalistic beliefs about angels and their role in our lives:

Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up. Bump us along.

Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence, consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of grass is an angel crying “Grow! Grow!” I’ll go further. I believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying “Evolve! Evolve!”

Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention… (123)

Note the reference to “God” in the first line; Pressfield is clearly not talking about YHWH — possibly he is talking about Zeus. But a later passage clarifies his thinking about the nature of (the) deity:

Everything that is, is God in one form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in which we live and move and have our being. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and infused by the spirit of God. (138)

“In which we live and move and have our being” is, of course, a quotation from St. Paul in Acts 17, who is himself quoting (most likely) the Greek poet Epimenides of Crete. To further confuse the issue, here is a snippet from Pressfield’s “about” page on his website:

I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist’s role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of “where it all comes from” and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.

So, to sum up: reincarnation, Kabbalah, pantheism, the Greek pantheon,the pre-existence and self-inception (for lack of a better term) of the arts, and a sort of Jungian view of the Ego and the Self (which I haven’t touched on but you can find for yourself on pp. 132-41). It’s quite the hodge-podge! But despite the — dare I say it? — complete incoherence of Pressfield’s theology, what makes this section really fascinating for me is how he still manages to put his finger on something really important. He’s so close. Look at this passage (bolded emphasis mine):

… when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active ally. (108)

This is the point at which I would like to change tracks a little bit, and see if we can put Steven Pressfield in dialogue with Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is most often remembered for the Lord Peter Wimsey novels she authored in the 1920s and 30s, but in her own day she was a fairly prominent lay theologian with a particular interest in work and creativity. In The Mind of the Maker, her seminal work on creativity and the nature of the Trinity, she traces mankind’s creative ability back to the Genesis account of being made in the image of God:

How then can he be said to resemble God? It is his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (Sayers, 22)

Like Pressfield, Sayers turns to the mind of the creative writer as a means by which to examine work and creativity in general, and specifically its relation to the divine. But rather than turning to the Jungian Self or the Greek Muses, Sayers finds a pattern in the act of human creation which she ties analogically to the nature of the godhead as expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Mind of the Maker is her treatise on the subject, but it was “previewed” in the closing doxology of her play The Zeal of Thy House, which had been written a few years prior to the publication of The Mind of the Maker. This is the final speech of the play, given by the archangel Michael and quoted in full in The Mind of the Maker (the bracketed additions are Sayers’s):

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity. (Sayers, 37-8)

Does this not sound, to some extent, like what Pressfield is moving towards? I think Sayers would agree with Pressfield wholeheartedly when it comes to the lived experience of the creative artist, from the need to be diligent to the curious phenomenon of ideas that seemingly arrive from somewhere Out There. And though her vocabulary is different, her view on “turning pro” and the attitude necessary to do work well is similar to his; she wrote extensively on the idea of “serving the work,” in which she calls the artist to mastery of his or her craft and, above all, integrity and excellence in its pursuit. This pursuit of the craft will breed a new set of values in the artist, “… which are not purely economic; he beholds the end of the work. As a common-or-business man, he requires payment for his work, and is often pretty stiff in his demands; but as an artist, he retains so much of the image of God that he is in love with his creation for its own sake” (Sayers, 221). Here, again, Sayers and Pressfield find themselves in agreement.

Here are two different writers, working from two vastly different theological frameworks, and yet they are each hitting on the same essential kernel of truth — and I do believe that it is truth — about the makeup of the creative artist and the nature of creative work. The War of Art is well worth a read; bringing Sayers alongside can make it even more valuable. I commend them both to you.

Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 1: Resistance)

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles came to me as a kick in the behind — in a good and timely way, I mean. He speaks mostly to writers, which is natural, but The War of Art is directed at anyone who has undertaken or desires to undertake some sort of creative effort, whether it is in the artistic fields or not. The book is divided into three sections. In the first, which this post will examine, Pressfield looks at the driving forces that keep us from our work, naming (and personifying) them as Resistance. He writes in his prologue,

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Pressfield characterizes Resistance as an implacable and impersonal evil that works in the universe and in us; its desire is to thwart our efforts toward creative endeavour, education, courage, commitment, and principle — “In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” (6). One might call Resistance sin — or perhaps a potent combination of them: sloth + fear + wrath + lust = Resistance. The way he talks about Resistance put me very much in mind of Kathleen Norris’s book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life — and although it’s been long enough since I read Norris that I wouldn’t want to compare them too directly (because I can’t), it certainly seems that Pressfield and Norris are working out of the same wheelhouse, albeit with a few significant theological differences.

Anecdotally, Pressfield’s theories about Resistance ring very true for me. Even in just reading the book, I found myself having to deliberately decide to do it, working against a reluctance to pick it up that seemed to increase the further in I got. I wasn’t reluctant because it was a bad or a boring book — just the opposite, in fact. I was reluctant because I knew I had to read what he had written, because I knew he was putting his finger on something important, and that I would have to respond to it. And I didn’t want to, even though I knew that reading and understanding Pressfield’s thesis would challenge me to be a better writer and a better worker. And even though, in theory, those are things I want very much, in practice, I was extremely hesitant to go down this path. And that, I suppose, is Resistance in a nutshell.

Pressfield argues, however, that Resistance can actually be turned on its head and made to serve us as we work, in that we can use it as a means of evaluating the importance and worth of a particular project. “Resistance,” he writes, “obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. […] So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing . . . relax. Resistance will give you a free path” (17). If we are making a choice or beginning a project and encounter no resistance at all, that is a prompt for us to evaluate whether it is really the better thing for us to be doing. So, too, can we use the fear that Resistance engenders as a helpful guidepost: “the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to  us at to the growth of our soul” (40). Resistance is also, he writes, “directly proportional to love” (42), in that the more Resistance we feel, the more love we have for our project, and the more gratifying it will be to actually complete it. So while Resistance works against us, we can work against it in part by using it as part of our own discernment.

Now, I don’t agree with all that Pressfield posits about Resistance. Take this excerpt, for example, from a vignette titled “Resistance and Self-Medication:”

Do you regularly ingest any substance, controlled or otherwise, whose aim is the alleviation of depression, anxiety, etc.? I offer the following experience:

I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the disease, he said, and we can sell the cure.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctor’s didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.

Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance. (26)

I will agree with Pressfield so far as to say that things like depression and Resistance can exacerbate each other’s effects, and that our spiritual state affects our physical bodies (and vice-versa). But to say that things like ADD are entirely imaginary, products of Resistance rather than anything physiological, seems to go rather too far. So I wouldn’t take everything he writes without the proverbial grain of salt. But the meat of his argument in this first section, I think, is sound.

At this point, Pressfield has identified the problem; now what to do with it? Stay tuned for the next post on part two of the book, “Turning Pro”.