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.
Kathy, this is a great list of suggestions for setting boundaries around screen time. I agree that we have become a society of entertainment addicts. It is problematic because as we use more and more of our time fixated on entertaining ourselves (whether via our phones, TVs, mindless shopping, or whatever), we are not spending that time engaging meaningfully with each other, being active citizens, using our minds reflectively to solve the problems facing humanity, collaborating with each other, out in nature, or fostering our own creativity. Yes, people do need relaxation time, but it does not have to involve planting one’s butt on a couch and staring at a screen (she says, ironically, as she stares at a screen and types this comment).
Great post, Kathy, and an issue I beat my drum about. Boredom has its benefits. As a child it made me wander into the backyard to observe my world. As a student, it took me away from math (I hated math) and let me sneak some time reading a favorite book. As a college student and later a teacher–having NOTHING to read, write and study, was amazing. I could take a walk on campus or wander into the lounge where I rarely stayed because others were watching what I came to call “dumb” television or as a teacher garden or wallpaper my new house. Staying away from TV has stuck with me as I am fussy as to what I watch. Same with YouTube videos. I like cats, but that’s it. When I have free time I’m more than happy to close down my computer and read or watch a film or talk to my husband or call a friend or take a walk. My phone goes with me when I drive somewhere, but only for security. I STILL ALWAYS BRING PAPER (a book or a magazine) to read in the doctor’s office, for example. I’m a dying breed.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Good for you for being “old-school” with technology. It sure makes me wonder how it will be handled by the younger generations though. Because it has changed so much and so fast I don’t think that most parents and/or schools have any idea how it is completely changing how we all communicate (or don’t) and how we interact (or don’t) and how we create (or don’t), etc., etc. etc. Just like we need to learn how to eat properly to maintain a healthy body, I think we also need to learn how to manage all this technology. It will sure be interesting to see how this all evolves. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. ~Kathy
Kathy, this post is so timely and perfect for the season and any time of year. I am mostly proud of being a Boomer who can go without technology and it’s entertainment for a while if necessary. I do like to have background instrumental music on while home or in the car, but when I walk the dogs or walk on campus, my phone is firmly planted in my purse (although I will stop for a photo op). Walking for me, frees my mind, helps me solve problems and provides a time of creativity as I enjoy the (mostly) quiet neighborhood or surroundings. I come up with great ideas for blog posts this way! I really dislike earphones in my ears, and prefer the sounds of urban nature–barking dog, wind in the trees, distant freeway noise, just the random white noise of civilization. In the wild, the particular sound of the breeze high up in the pine trees is something I would like to bottle! Most of the time I prefer to read info on a tablet rather than my phone, so I have room to use my fat fingers to type or click. I think this might be the difference in our generation, that we are used to quiet rather than listening or watching entertainment. However I am a multi-tasker, and admit to listening to an audiobook while driving.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! It certainly sounds to me like you are a “master” of digital literacy in your life. To me, it is sort of similar to Rightsizing in that we all need to find what works best for us and then do that. And I LOVED your description of walking in nature. I agree that hearing the birds and the sound of the wind, etc. is such a freeing way to clear our mind. And as for multi-tasking, I think that just knowing that we are choosing to switch our minds back and forth between two (or more) tasks that don’t require too much concentration is fine. The challenge, of course, is not to do it when we are either attempting to be creatively inspired or focused on something far more important. Thanks for sharing your insights! ~Kathy
Lynne Spreen says
The same concern was voiced by Dr. Cal Newport in the excellent book, Deep Work. He says we are training our brains–to the point where we’re altering them genetically!–to lose the capability of deep thinking. Which is the only professional talent that won’t be able to be done by machines. Scary. Thanks for this.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lynne! I agree that it is good for us to recognize the changes that are happening to our ability to be creative, to think and even how we “see” the world. The more we can be aware of it and watch how it effects things the better, IMHO. As a confirmed optimist, I still imagine that our ability to adapt will ultimately prevail, but how and to what extent that happens surely remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I like to remind myself to back away from my technology and use it rather it using me!!!! Thanks for the referral of that book. I’ll have to check it out. ~Kathy
Hi, Kathy – You have a brilliant way of writing/publishing the EXACT post that I need at the time. Today’s post is a perfect example. Thank you for this!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Thank you! I never know for sure how some of my crazy thoughts will be received. But as long as I find them interesting to consider and write about–I surely hope those taking the time to read my words find some nuggets in every post. I appreciate you letting me know that this one was like that for you. ~Kathy
So fascinating Kathy! I do wonder what all the screen time is doing to our brains. The art of people watching is lost .I love to have a coffee and watch people in a busy coffee shop, noting the fashions and over hearing conversations. Often the only ones talking are the staff because most people are ear budded up. During the Holidays in a large group it is interesting to observe the body language as well as the conversation. If your are looking at your phone you miss. I know I can not write or do a lot of new work with any background music or TV. Some of my best thoughts come in the shower. I am not bored but the quiet is reflective.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Yes, can you imagine what historians (or Her-storians) will write about this time in the future? With it happening all around us and basically transforming how we think, see and connect with the world, I don’t think most of the time we are even thinking about it…just being swept along in the tide. And children today? While I believe creativity is inherent in all of us, will it just develop in new and as of yet, unknown ways? Or will it we squashed? I suppose only time will tell. And as you say, it changes how and where we watch one another in person too. We live in interesting times for sure. Let’s just be sure that we honor and protect those “quiet” times ourselves. ~Kathy
Even before the technological revolution, I was never bored. It is so easy to find things to do, activities to pursue or topics to write about. When we lived on our sailboat, I had friends complain they were bored. Even on shore, I found this sentiment. I didn’t understand then (and was a bit jealous of those people, telling them that my ultimate goal is to be bored, since that would mean that I accomplished everything I wanted to do), but you ar right, these days nobody should be bored with all those gadgets.
In my case, the gadgets seldom own me. I don’t have a phone and when we leave the house, Mark only takes his as a navigation device in the car. When we go for walks, the phone never comes. As a matter of fact, we never pick up the phone, since most times, it is spam. Unless we recognize the number, people have to leave messages.
After work hours and during the weekend, I try to leave my laptop closed and I seldom “browse Facebook” for longer than ten minutes a day.
We don’t have a radio and we don’t have TV, so no distractions there. And, when I go to the doctor or take public transportation, where waiting is involved, I don’t even think about taking my tablet (or a book). Sometimes I regret that, but usually, I’m quite happy to sit around and watch the world, and take a moment of “mind” rest. People atching has become less interesting, since everyone is constantly on their phone. 🙂
My best ideas come when my mind is uncluttered with work or digital activity: before falling asleep, during a car ride, or on the toilet. 🙂 During most walks, I take in my surroundings and creative thoughts are actually quite rare, which surprises me. Taking a break from all that thinking is blissful.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! I think you have found the perfect window for your creativity. While the word boredom usually brings up thoughts of “being lazy or unproductive” it really depends on how we are thinking about it, don’t you think? The authors I quoted are convinced that boredom is that space where your mind is uncluttered and just wandering–but if your upbringing was like mine, then the idea of indulging in boredom was something to be avoided. And I so agree that people watching has gone a little wonky with everyone on their phones all the time. I can’t help but wonder what the younger generations (younger than you too!) will do to cope with all the technology? Most people I know haven’t taken the time to consider how technology is changing our world (and it is like it or not) so children are being raised to binge on technology without considering the consequences. Digital Literacy or Technology Dieting will be a very important skill in the future. ~Kathy
In my opinion what those authors are quoting is merely a reprieve for our minds from pressing issues and worries and commitment to a busy life. This break of our brain, of course, stimulates the creative process. It could be a way to redefine boredom, but boredom to me still means that you are at a (temporary) loss of what to do, which is fine once in a while. I actually wish for such boredom, because this idle feeling would not only be a new experience, but it would encourage me to get ready for the next thing, a refreshing feeling for a new start on something.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Yes, it certainly isn’t the way we are used to thinking of boredom. Maybe I wasn’t able to communicate that as well as some of the authors, especially Manoush Zomorodi. The way I understand it she is talking about boredom as a space in your mind (and yes in your schedule too) where you aren’t necessarily at a loss, but rather at a wide-open place of possibility. When I have too much on my to-do list or am occupying my brain with lots of thoughts…no matter how productive, I am seldom original (or as original as I want to be!) It is only when I get quiet, (which is really helped when I meditate or am in nature) that I feel inspiration flow from inside or me. I’m pretty sure that what Zomorodi talks about with boredom has very little to do with productivity and everything to do with creating something from nothing. Lots to mull over for sure! Thanks for your thoughts on this. ~Kathy
What an original way to look at creativity! I agree, the discomfort of boredom is the first step towards building something new! I like the nine points you direct us to consider. They cover it all.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! Yes, isn’t it a new way to think about boredom? I’m not sure I ever considered it a “gift” myself but as with so many things, it depends upon the perspective. I particularly think this is such a good way for all of us (writers/creators) to think of it. We (and yeah I talking about me here!) likely do some of our best work when we allow the inspiration to flow out of our hearts as much as our heads–and boredom helps us set the stage. And how about that idea of “digital literacy?” Glad you found it helpful! ~Kathy