The demands of careers and parenting mean we’ve lost time to let our minds wander. There are always tasks that need to be handled.
Then there’s the other obvious way we cure boredom should it have a chance to strike: technology. Smartphones give us the opportunity to constantly engage with social media, games, news, or countless text threads. All of these serve as distractions that keep our minds from dealing with boredom for even a minute.
We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. We’re not bored, the kids aren’t bored, we don’t have to listen to the kids complain about being bored, and everyone can grab their smartphones or tablets should boredom arise.
But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.
Why we need boredom
Research shows that people will go to extremes to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Studies found that boredom can cause excessive drinking, gambling, and eating when we’re not hungry.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to engage in these harmful activities to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, we turn to smartphones as a safe option when they are not.
According to studies used in author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk, we now shift our attention every 45 seconds while working because technology makes it easy to do so. We also spend time checking our phones when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Notifications constantly pop up, and we become Pavlovian in our responses to them, searching for them when they’re not even there just because we can see the phone.
A recent study showed that even having our smartphones in the room with us lowers our cognitive function.
Smartphones and the way we use them keep us from allowing ourselves to get bored, and that means we’re missing out. When bored, the brain goes into default mode. It’s in this mindset that we can reflect on our past and problem solve for our future.
When bored, we daydream, we create ideas, and we stick with a train of thought that can lead us to create. A study even found that participants asked to perform a boring task before solving a problem using creativity did a better job than those whose brains weren’t first prepared by boredom.
How to be bored in the technology age
Journalist Manoush Zomorodi launched a podcast in 2015 that challenged listeners to engage with technology responsibly and put some boredom back in their lives. It wasn’t a cold-turkey technology detox. Most of us have to use some form of technology for jobs or communication with others. Zomorodi launched her challenge to help people learn to do it responsibly. She wanted participants to give themselves time during the day to free their minds from simply staring at a screen for no reason.
Her challenge led to a book that came out this year titled “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self”. It details how to engage responsibly with our phones while giving our brains the sacred time they need to be utterly bored.
Challenges include deleting our favorite apps from our phones or walking without a phone in our hands for an entire day. None of these challenges seem that hard until participants are forced to perform them.
That’s when many who signed up for the challenge on Manoush’s podcast realized they were addicted, though some had inklings of that before. It’s why they signed up in the first place. Most of us know we are missing time we used to have, time where our minds roamed and we used wonder and curiosity to cure our boredom. Our brains had room and time to develop ideas.
Children born into the smartphone age need to be trained to use technology responsibly because they will not remember having all that tech-free time. That longing we have to unplug will be foreign to kids who live electronically plugged in at all times.
Parents can set the example by using self-control and making technology work for their lives, but not take them over. In the process, they teach their kids the sacred practice of boredom.
These simple guidelines are a good start:
Keep the phone out of the bedroom
Let those boring moments before sleep get the creative juices flowing and preserve rest. Phones in the bedroom can cause sleep problems.
When walking or driving, don’t hold a phone like it’s an extension of the body. Instead of focusing brain power on looking at the phone or wondering when it’s going to offer a notification, go hands-free and let the brain go into default mode.
Set times for engagement
Those in the technology development industry have no problem admitting they are creating a product, and they want it to be as addictive as possible. Manoush believes that it’s so hard to be bored because our technology is designed to draw us in.
To combat this, set up rules and times for engagement. Don’t let tech designers decide how and when you use technology.
The long-term payoff
Creativity was identified as a leadership competency that CEOs look for in employees. Creative people may be hard to find if we now live in a society that doesn’t value boredom. We are also living in a society full of people who feel guilty about the unhealthy relationships they have with their phones.
We can change the course, though, and raise a generation that benefits from technology while still using their minds to create and problem solve without distractions. We can have the conveniences that smartphones offer without the addiction or the brain drain they cause.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as embracing boredom.