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The Case for Boredom
My son and the iPhone were born three weeks apart, in June 2007. I’m more of a 2.0 kind of woman, so I didn’t rush out to buy one, and anyway, I had more pressing things to tend to. My new baby was colicky and miserable. I spent hours pushing him around, trying to soothe him to sleep, which he would do only when his stroller was in motion. We probably wandered the equivalent of ten to fifteen miles a day. Our walks were also very quiet because my newborn required utter silence to snooze longer than fifteen minutes at a time, so I couldn’t talk on my flip phone or get coffee from the bodega or even just sit on a bench. The baby weight flew off, but I was the most bored I had ever been in my entire life.
At first I was angry, frustrated, and sad. It was the classic story of my generation: A woman goes from urban professional to cloistered mom in one shocking instant. Once upon a time, I was a foreign news producer always dropping into emergency situations no matter where in the world they happened. If the Concorde crashed or the parliament in Belgrade was set on fire, I went. For twelve years I worked in the fast-paced world of broadcast journalism. On my time off, I thought nothing of spending an entire Sunday on the couch to plow through The New York Times and the latest novel.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I pictured my husband, Josh, a fellow journalist and adventurer, and me putting the baby in a backpack or something as we traveled the world and were still amazing at our jobs. What a joke. I had no idea. After I had my son, Kai, my ass got kicked so hard. I felt lonely and truly fatigued as never before. New York Times? The latest novel? Us Weekly was the most I could handle between back-to-back nursing sessions and unloading the dishwasher.
After a few weeks of my stroller-pushing marathons, though, there was a shift. Not only did I get into a rhythm, but I also began to see things around my neighborhood that I’d never noticed before. Ornamental cornices and gargoyles became familiar friends. I grew to be an expert in the blooming patterns of the neighborhood’s landscaping. I even knew the cracks and bumps in the sidewalk by heart. I gave in to the discomfort of nonstop walking and started appreciating the fact that I had no destination. (How many times when I was stuck in the office till all hours of the night would I have given anything to roam aimlessly?) Most important, I came to understand what it means to have symbiosis with your child. Being fully in tune with this beautiful new human being I had created required slowing down to a pace that at first made me feel deeply uncomfortable, then completely transformed me.
Indeed, he grew less and less colicky, and soon enough those days of wandering that had soothed both of us ended. I went back to work and, if I’d thought life was busy before, I didn’t know the meaning of the word. The next several years flew by in a flurry of personal and professional creativity and effort. I covered tech and business for Reuters, and then New York’s public radio station, WNYC; wrote my first book (a guide to making video for nonprofits and businesses); and welcomed a daughter, Soraya.
Then in 2013—after six months of doing weekly news updates on technology after suggesting WNYC cover more of the sector’s burgeoning scene in New York—I was offered my dream job, hosting my own weekly radio show and podcast about the human side of technology.
Running the show, which would eventually be called Note to Self, I was riding high on possibility. I had the chance to produce something meaningful and interesting about a subject essential to modern life for an intensely responsive group of listeners. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, with creative control and responsibility on a level that I had never experienced before. And if I screwed it up, might never again.
At the start, I was firing on all cylinders. Surrounded by smart, insightful people, I found no shortage of fascinating stories to cover and received great feedback from the public.
Then I hit a wall. Crashed, is more like it. This was different from writer’s block, which in the past I’d experienced as a stuck place I needed to work through. This was a blankness. There was just … nothing. It was bad.
Part of the problem was, of course, the pressure that came with the unbelievable opportunity before me. Wanting to do the best job possible can be crippling. But there was also something else going on.
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 behavior. 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 in my old 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. Scrolling through Twitter made my long commute disappear. Updating my calendar obsessively gave me the feeling of productivity. As my life ramped up, so had the pace and quantity of my technology consumption. My brain was always occupied, but my mind wasn’t doing anything with all the information coming in.
In trying to figure out when, in the past, my best ideas had come to me, I was reminded of my time with Kai. During those long, solitary, tech-free walks, where I was cataloguing the details of everything I saw around me, I also did an internal assessment of the professional skills I’d acquired over the previous fifteen years. Like my meandering strolls, it wasn’t a conscious accounting but rather a winding mental trip through my career so far and how I might like to put my skills to work next. I let my mind go. It went to some dark and uncomfortable places, but it also went to some weird and wonderful ones.
Looking back at that experience during this hectic period of my life, 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 societal actions that had remained unchanged for decades were upended. And then, when the next operating system came out six months later, upended 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?”
The Original Bored and Brilliant Project
There is no question that we are at an unprecedented point in history, where our attention is in hot demand. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, mobile consumers now spend an average of two hours and fifty-seven minutes each day on mobile devices and about eleven hours a day in front of a screen. Although we don’t know if all this screen time will have longer-term harmful effects, we know technology is changing us (and it’s unclear whether it’s for the better).
Parents fret about how to raise healthy and confident children in the digital age. If our children are constantly engaged with bits and bytes of information, what is happening to their ability to imagine, concentrate deeply, reflect on past experiences, decide how to apply those lessons to future goals, and figure out what they want for themselves, their relationships, and life?
It isn’t just parents who worry about the shift in how we use our brains in the tech age. The implications for business are significant as well. There is evidence that people could be better at their jobs if they weren’t always plugged in. The Bank of England’s chief economist said he fears that skills building, innovation, and entire economies could be at risk because “fast thought could make for slow growth.”
And what does all this scrolling, processing, blue light, and more mean for our health? All you have to do is stay up hours past your bedtime, playing Two Dots (as I shamefully have), to know the answer—sometimes it’s relaxing, but most of the time, not so much.
With so many big questions stemming from my central quandary, I dived into trying to understand what happens when we constantly keep our brains busy and never give ourselves time to mentally meander. I spoke with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists about “mind-wandering”—what our brains do when we’re doing nothing at all, or not fully focused on a task.
We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds 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 also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.
When we let ourselves space out and our minds wander, we do our most original thinking and problem solving; without distraction, your mind can go to some interesting and unexpected places. Creativity—no matter how you define or apply it—needs a push, and boredom, which allows new and different connections to form in our brain, is a most effective muse. It’s what the futurist Rita King calls “the tedium of creativity.”
For King—someone whose job it is to conceive of anything from how a town might look two hundred years from now to actions business leaders should embark on to take advantage of trends coming down the line—creativity is her business. “The mistake a lot of people make is to assume the euphoria of an idea is going to persist all the way through the countless little steps that need to happen before the idea becomes real,” she says. “Many lose heart or momentum because those little tiny things that have to get done are so dull.” The tedium of creativity can be daunting, King explains, especially when compared to the satisfaction of crossing things off a to-do list—which explains why I make my to-do list so long.
But if we let it, inspiration can strike if we give ourselves permission to take time to focus on nothing in particular—before drifting off to sleep, in the shower, while taking a walk in the woods. The default mode is not surprisingly also called the “imagination network.” Being bored gives us the space to ask “What if?” That’s an essential question regarding not only any creative endeavor but also our emotional health and personal growth.
According to Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, professor of cognitive neuroscience and an expert in mind-wandering at the University of York, “In a very deep way, there’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.” In other words, you have to let yourself be bored to be brilliant.
So, I wanted to know: if we changed our relationship to our gadgets, could we generate bigger and better ideas? Would there be a ripple effect of changes to the way we work, the way we parent, the way we relate to one another? Could this change the way we see the world? Suspecting Note to Self listeners would want to know as well, in February 2015, my team and I created the Bored and Brilliant Project to investigate and test my theory. We developed a weeklong series of challenges designed to help people detach from their devices and jump-start their creativity.
I heard a lot of listeners and people around me grumbling that everyone these days is “always looking at their phone.” But I wasn’t sure if rethinking our relationship to smartphones, laptops, and tablets would spark a lot of enthusiasm from the public. My bosses at WNYC, however, told me to trust my instincts. So I put aside my doubts and asked others to join me in reclaiming time to “space out.” And listeners of all ages vigorously nodded Yes! They showed their support with tweets and e-mails and Facebook posts (ironic, I know)—and, most important, by signing up for the project.
In the end, more than twenty thousand people signed on to the Bored and Brilliant Project, from just about every state. (The highest concentrations of participants were from New York City, San Francisco, L.A., D.C., Chicago, and—out of the blue—Arkansas.) We also had participants from Slovakia, Israel, Denmark, Australia, and the UK. This was something a lot of people had been thinking about, even though the problem hadn’t yet been named.
Before we began, we surveyed the participants on their motivations, desires, and dreams for this experiment. From the answers we received, a few clear trends and themes emerged. Forty percent of them said that they wanted to cut down on the constant checking of their phones and override this newly developed, all-encompassing instinct. Some wanted to model better behavior for their children, who are keenly aware every time their parents’ eyes dart toward a screen or their thumbs start texting. Others yearned to figure out the line between “wasting time” and “valuable networking” on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Then there were people who appreciated the ability afforded them by technology to stay connected but wished to set boundaries so that they couldn’t be reached all the time.
The top three concerns we heard were the following:
It’s messing with my productivity
I feel addicted
It might actually be affecting my health
Those were my concerns as well. But is there any data to support our suspicions? According to experts in boredom, such as Dr. Sandi Mann from the University of Central Lancashire, we’re onto something. Cell phones and other mobile tech devices surely affect our brains, but we’re only beginning to get research confirming that. And any evidence that does exist is circumstantial at best. There are no random control studies comparing people with cell phones in their lives to those without. We are all doing our own grand experiment, but we may not know the results until we’ve experienced the consequences, good and bad.
We really don’t know what long-term effects smartphones may have. There’s disagreement about whether we’re using technology to achieve our goals, or our brains are adapting to use technology more efficiently. Similarly, the scientific research into the phenomenon of mind-wandering is also in its infancy. Still, studies suggest that to think original thoughts, we must put a stop to constant stimulation.
It’s not hyperbole to say that we are at a crossroads in the human condition. Different thinkers have called this period the Information Age or the Intelligence Era. Production is no longer measured in physical quantities as it was in the Industrial Age but by data and other intangible elements. Rita King defines our times as the “Imagination Age,” because imagination allows us to make connections between the intangibles that drive our culture and society. If true, it’s more crucial than ever that we give our brains the break they need to stoke ingenuity.
My Phone, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways …
My laptop, tablet, and phone know me better than anyone or anything else. They know what I like and how to grab my attention. Hell, they even know all my passwords. Here’s how other Bored and Brilliant participants described their relationships to their phones:
“The relationship between a baby and its teddy bear or a baby and a binky or a baby that wants its mother’s cradle when it’s done being held by a stranger … that’s the relationship between me and my phone.”
“I think I treat my phone as sort of this friend, like a best friend, who has all of the best and worst qualities, but if I’m sort of passive, and let this friend take the reins, then they’ll run away with me and distract me and make my life crazy.”
“I feel like I stare at screens all day long, and not only is it unhealthy, but antisocial. Sometimes it feels like the attention I give to my phone prevents me from experiencing the world around me. It is so strange to look up on the train and realize that most everyone is staring into a screen. It’s dystopian. I want to escape!”
“Useful but dangerous if not handled properly.”
After the week of challenges for the Bored and Brilliant Project ended, we did another survey to see if and how people’s behavior had changed over the trial period. I’ll admit I was disappointed that collectively we shaved off six minutes of phone use for the week. But MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle, author of the critically acclaimed Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, said of the project, “The greater result was not just behavior change, but people feeling that they had a way to reflect on their own behavior, on what they were doing; we want to start a conversation to find ways forward.”
Indeed, people told us they felt they had been fundamentally changed by the experience. Seventy percent of them reported that after the experimental week, they felt as though they had enough time to think. “It’s like I’m awakening from an extended mental hibernation,” one person said. Writers finally finished their manuscripts, entrepreneurs solved those knotty problems at work, teachers had more eye contact with students in class. In control of how and how much time they spent with their phones, tablets, and computers, people were more productive and creative. Word of the project spread like wildfire. High schools asked for curriculum plans; corporations wanted entire departments to do the project together; freshmen at the University of New Orleans requested that every semester kick off with a Bored and Brilliant week.
How We Got Here
The Bored and Brilliant series we aired on Note to Self was over, but the larger project was just getting started. I was still curious. I knew I had only scratched the surface of boredom. Why does boredom have such a bad rap? Is our fear of being bored an instinct, or a cultural construct? What really happens in our brains when we’re bored? To our kids’ brains? And if business puts a premium on original thought, what happens when we don’t give our brains the chance to think? There was so much more to our changing relationship with our gadgets.
The result of my obsession with boredom is this book: an exploration of the history, cultural issues, and science of being bored, guided by studies, stories, and conversations with researchers, doctors, artists, and ordinary people. I also refined the original action program that was so successful with my listeners in getting them to reclaim control over their tech lives. The outcome is a seven-step plan that harnesses boredom’s hidden benefits so that we can discover our own personal brilliance.
I want to be clear—this book is not anti-tech. Computers, the Internet, and mobile devices connect us and make us more informed and knowledgeable. Thanks to all this connectivity, I can work full-time and actually see my two kids. I am profoundly grateful for that, and I’m not longing for a simpler time when we all used pay phones. (Remember those?)
Whenever society acquires a new technological skill or ability, there’s an unsettling period during which we’re besotted with the technology, using it indiscriminately without really understanding its effects. While swearing off our devices isn’t necessarily the solution, for many of us the honeymoon phase with our gadgets is decidedly over.
“What we need is to support people in thinking about how they can integrate these technologies most usefully and most advantageously into our daily lives,” says Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. “We need to learn how to manage these online worlds so that they can be advantageously utilized but don’t interfere with our greater potential. We need to figure out how to best leverage and adaptively use them.”
We need to step back and say, “Hey, look at where our phones and tablets are taking us, and is that where we want to go?” Social connection is great, but not at the price of disconnecting from yourself. Becoming strategic about how we integrate these devices into our lives in ways that promote true social understanding and creativity begins with admitting their true impact on us. Once we take a good hard look at our behavior, we can then be purposeful and manage that impact. By better understanding how our devices and our brains compute differently, we regular folks can also advocate for ourselves within the tech industry by putting pressure on its leaders to make digital tools that improve our lives—and not just give us more to do.
From all my research, one thing is clear: We crave reflective time; we seek balance; we want a life full of joy and curiosity. That’s what the Bored and Brilliant Project is all about. A personal guide that anyone can access, this is a tool for teaching digital self-regulation and living a more conscious online existence.
How to Use This Book
When we ran the first Bored and Brilliant experiment, I didn’t think people would want me to dictate exactly how they should modify their behavior. Rather, I assumed they would prefer ideas and assignments they could tailor to their own needs. I was wrong. Most really wanted specific tasks with details so they could understand if they were completing them correctly. I’ll admit, at the time I wasn’t sure what was right, incorrect, or half done when it came to these challenges. But now, having tested out all the steps and having made tweaks based on feedback from that first large group of Bored and Brilliant participants, I have codified the program into a series of effective and clear steps. (I still encourage you to make personal adjustments wherever you see fit.)
There are seven challenges in the Bored and Brilliant program, and they come at the end of every chapter in the book (starting with chapter 2). Designed to build your capacity for boredom, they lead you step-by-step through an understanding of your relationship to your technology and where our brains and technology can conflict. We’ll experiment with different methods to help you create more mental space and engage in deeper and more productive thinking and, finally, help you jump-start your creativity and push you to think on a deeper level.
I suggest reading the book from start to finish without doing the challenges, so you can read at your own pace and absorb material. Once you are done, find a week (but don’t wait too long) in which you can commit to doing the challenges sequentially, one a day. If you want to keep a challenge (or two, or all of them) going for more than a day, great!
You can expect to find certain challenge days far easier than others. Some will come naturally, while others will make you squirm. Whatever happens, I can promise you’ll be changed (even if only in a small, six-minutes-off-your-daily-phone-use way). As one high-level HR media executive wrote to me after he participated in the original weeklong challenge, “I went in quite a bit skeptical, but you converted me. I’m always on the prowl for new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things. It was very different, but well worth my time.”
The Bored and Brilliant Project works as an eye-opening activity on both an individual and group level. Consider recruiting family, friends, or colleagues to do the challenges with you. In the end, no matter why or how you do Bored and Brilliant, remember that the goal is to create more curiosity, creativity, and joy in your life. So don’t be too hard on or rigid with yourself. Simply go through the steps and let things unfold.
A Quick Word About Creativity and Defining Brilliance
What constitutes “creative thinking”? Your ideas don’t have to be life changing in order to be creative. Maybe for you it’s finding a way to help your kid cope with math exams or better configuring your furniture to the awkward shape of your living room. My previous goals have been coming up with new show ideas and figuring out how to help my son make friends at camp. Whatever comes to mind, let’s agree it’s more useful than getting to another level of Candy Crush. As for brilliance, we aren’t aiming for Stephen Hawking–level smarts, just making space to be our best cognitive selves.
The Bored and Brilliant Seven-Step Program
CHALLENGE ONE: Observe Yourself
First you’ll track your digital habits—and most likely be shocked by what you discover.
CHALLENGE TWO: Keep Your Devices Out of Reach While in Motion
Keep your phone out of sight while you’re in transit—so no walking and texting!
CHALLENGE THREE: Photo-Free Day
No pics of food, kitten, kids—nada.
CHALLENGE FOUR: Delete That App
Take the one app you can’t live without and trash it. (Don’t worry, you’ll live.)
CHALLENGE FIVE: Take a Fakecation
You’ll be in the office but out of touch.
CHALLENGE SIX: Observe Something Else
Reclaim the art of noticing.
CHALLENGE SEVEN: The Bored and Brilliant Challenge
In a culmination of all the exercises, you’ll use your new powers of boredom to make sense of your life and set goals.
Copyright © 2017 by New York Public Radio