I have a confession to make. I’m an information addict. In case you aren’t aware, I love reading about all sorts of things in books, magazines, online and just about anywhere I can find it. But a report I discovered yesterday reminded me that too much of anything is not always good. In fact, information-overload is the consequence of a constant search for all things new and interesting. And as I’ve just learned, by cramming every moment with either information or entertainment, I distract myself from the gifts of boredom. As any creative person knows, that downtime is where new original ideas flow. In other words, if we want to be inspired, we would do well to give ourselves the gift of boredom on a regular basis and learn to master our digital literacy.
You don’t need me to tell you that many things have changed since we were children. Remember when we would complain to our parents that we were bored? They would instantly explain that if we couldn’t find something to do with ourselves that they would find something for us. Most of us would head out the door with no plans whatsoever (and certainly no phone!) and not return until it was dark or we were hungry. Using our imaginations, we always found something better to do than what Mom had in mind.
Today such boredom is a lost art. Instead, we carry around devices that keep us constantly connected and never having to face a moment alone by ourselves. Even if you don’t have the same attraction to information as I do, chances are good that you love the entertainment value and engagement of your technology. But, as Genevieve Bell, Australian Anthropologist says, “Mobile phones aren’t really about communication anymore. It’s not a device for making phone calls. The soul or promise of every phone you have in your hands or your pockets is the promise that you’ll never be bored again. You’ll never have to be anywhere again without something to do.”
What’s rather daunting is how quickly this has come upon us. In a YouTube video, author and public radio podcaster, Manoush Zomorodi explained that only ten years ago people used to switch tasks every three minutes or so. Nowadays, most people jump from task-to-task in 45 seconds. A big part of that comes from the instant gratification of our technology. Even if we are proud of our ability to multi-task, the reality is that we are just quickly jumping from task-to-task and likely not fulfilling any of them to the best of our ability. How could our creativity not be suffering?
Zomorodi says in her book, Bored To Brilliant that many people feel unsure of what to do when it comes to personal digital habits, or how to exist in the world without being connected all the time. And just getting rid of our devices, or turning them off forever, isn’t the solution. Like going on a diet—unless we change our relationship to food, we’ll likely end up exactly where we started.
Instead, Zomorodi argues for the need to learn a new “digital literacy.” This is especially true for those of younger generations. Instead of taking away a young person’s phone, or arguing against their value, the best step is to teach them a new and more mindful way to handle technology. Zomorodi says, “It’s a constant sort of vigilance. A reminder to yourself to listen to the messages that your brain and your body are sending to you and translate that into better behavior with your technology.”
But it’s not easy—mainly because every programmer or devise inventor has one thing in mind—getting you (and others) hooked on using their product as much as possible. Zomorodi goes so far to say that the only people more interested in turning you into a “user” are drug dealers! She also worries a bit that those in the tech industry who continually flood the world with new and more inventive ways to keep us engaged believe, “We know what’s best for you, sheeple.”
The obvious downside to all this wonderful technology is how it keeps us focused on everything outside ourselves—and hinders us from our own original thoughts. The more we seek entertainment and reward within our technology, the more we limit our ability to generate creative thoughts on our own. And if we continually look for a technology distraction anytime we have a moment by ourselves, are we really thinking at all? Maybe it is time to recognize that feelings of boredom and that open space where we give ourselves time to think is not only a chance to be more creative, but also a requirement for a mentally healthy and balanced mind.
What happens in our brains when we are bored? According to author Scott Barry Kaufman, the rewards of a bored or wandering mind are numerous. In a 2013 Scientific American article he wrote, “These rewards include self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences…moral reasoning and reflective compassion.”
Zomorodi agrees. Not only does she believe that a degree of boredom is necessary for all types of creativity and problem solving, it also gives us the ability to determine what is important to us, and recognize who and what we are at the deepest level. Yet, if we fill every minute of every day doing work we believe is necessary, and then medicating ourselves with entertainment or distraction when not, how is that creating a purposeful and happy life?
Perhaps worse, how can we expect future generations to creatively transform the world to a better place if we, as a population, repetitiously drug ourselves with technological distraction every chance we get?
Again, Zomorodi does not think the problem will solve itself or believe the solution is to pretend that technology hasn’t transformed the way we think and process in our world today. In fact, she is convinced that we are becoming a “visually communicative society” to the extent that it is transforming us to a “photo-centric way of communicating that we see happening globally.” Another reason that our technology is so difficult to put away is that our devices “change the way you experience the world.” Whether that is good or bad is not the right question. Instead, we need to ask ourselves, how can I best make them work for me, rather than me becoming their robotic slave?
There are things we can do.
- Create boundaries. Being aware of our attachments and establishing limits helps to put us in control. For example, when I’m writing I turn off my phone, my email “messenger,” and all other app notifications.
- Don’t let your desire for perfection trick you. It’s tempting to believe that just a little more is the perfect solution. For example, when I am writing I must refuse to allow my curiosity to follow every little train of thought I can find before I begin writing an article. And trust me, my interests constantly try to trick me into believing that one more Google search will turn up the perfect bit.
- Observe how often you habitually turn on music or the TV in your day. Our world is filled with noise and we add to it ourselves with all our technology. It’s important to recognize why we feel the need to constantly fill the silence with noise—and the cost that brings to our original thoughts.
- Keep your phone in your purse/pocket. Create a habit where you do not pull out or carry your phone around in your hand during certain activities. For example, don’t take your phone to the bathroom with you, don’t walk down the street with it in your hand, and refuse to pull it out when you are eating.
- Don’t use the “need to stay informed” excuse run your life. I personally know quite a few people who believe that if they don’t stay on top of every news piece on Facebook that somehow the world will not continue to spin. Instead of mindlessly reacting to the drama of the day, our time and energy are far better utilized when we find a way to actively get involved with issues we hope to change.
- Refuse to answer the phone every time it rings. Ever had someone answer the phone while you are having lunch or dinner with them? How did that make you feel? Or what about while you are waiting in line and the person at the register answers the phone rather than taking care of the business at hand? Most importantly, recognize when you yourself are the guilty party.
- Try to go a day (or more) without taking a photo with your phone. According to Zomorodi, Americans take over 10 billion photos every month. Not only is that not allowing us to see what is right in front of us, it is literally changing the way we see things.
- Recognize and delete any apps that you are most attached to using. Zomorodi says that this challenge was the most difficult for most people who read her book and took on the Bored and Brilliant Why? Chances are it pointed out exactly how deeply we are addicted to using our phones for distraction.
- Embrace your boredom. For example, instead of just mindlessly absorbing more and more information, I need to spend as much time thinking about what I’m reading as I do reading it. If we want to jumpstart our creativity, we need to let our minds wander and explore ideas.
Like it or not, technology is here to stay. But how it develops in our individual lives is up to us. When you think about it, it is possible that much of the existential crisis that we are all witnessing every day just about everywhere we look is a result of people merely reacting to what they observe in the media instead of thoughtfully using it to trigger their own original thoughts and solutions. Perhaps the SMART move is to cultivate a thoughtful and mindful “technological literacy” for ourselves and those we love, and learn to use our boredom to jumpstart our creativity as much as possible.
Okay, your turn. Do you agree that some of your most creative ideas flow when you are bored? How about your digital management skills? Do you own them or do they own you? Please share in the comments below.