Last night, I had an epiphany while waiting in line at Walmart to use the self-checkout – I know it sounds crazy, but let me set the scene… It was Friday night when my significant other and I went out to do some last minute shopping. I was attending a bridal shower over the weekend and I needed some finishing touches to complete my gift. After choosing the perfect bag to complement the themed card and tissue paper, we trudged our way over to the checkout lines. In true Walmart fashion, only five of the near twenty lanes were open. Disgruntled by the slow cashiers and their customers hauling abundant carts, we decided the self-checkout line would be our best bet. As we walked, the overflow of stuff in my arms caused me to surrender my phone, keys, and wallet to my boyfriend who then stowed them in his massive pockets. Jealous of his functional clothing, I parked myself in the line and waited. The line was easily ten people long – this was going to take a while. My boyfriend, without hesitation, took out his phone and started playing a game. I glanced over, stretching my neck to be included. With my hands full and with my phone in his pocket, I had nothing to do but just stand there. After a while, the itch to scroll through my phone became insatiable. If I couldn’t do it, I rationalized, Max shouldn’t be able to either. “Put your phone away!” I snapped. He looked at me incredulously, mumbled a response, and continued playing. Was I really getting snippy because he had the ability to use his phone while I couldn’t? Why, yes I was! As the line crawled, the craving to look at my iPhone screen grew, and with a rush of disappointment, I realized that I couldn’t cope without my technological crutch. I couldn’t handle being bored.
A Hard Truth
If you relate to my story – even just a little bit – you may be experiencing a nasty side effect of our technology-driven society. We are always hooked on what is happening RIGHT NOW, and mobile devices have catapulted this addiction into something that is near second nature. In his article, “Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment,” author Clive Thompson discusses this need for being occupied. In ancient times, news and important information were documented on clay tablets written in cuneiform. These massive tablets were hard to move around; because of this, the tablets never contributed much to society as a whole due to their limited reach. If you fast forward a handful of centuries, the invention of paper made communication mobile. The scrolls made of bark and plant fibers could easily be transported via foot or by horseback, making it easier to spread the latest information. The birth of the printing press was a catalyst for the mass production of papers. In the following years, and up until the present day, the papers and their messages were deemed easily disposable. How many times have you seen a littered newspaper or a forgotten magazine on the train? In order to capture people’s attention, newspapers and entertainment centers created daily content in the hopes that it would keep readers coming back – which in turn, would line their pockets. With the boom of the internet and mobile technology, businesses create daily posts to compete with their rivals and other forms of stimuli. As Thompson argues in his article, the reverse chronological timelines of today’s mobile apps prioritize new content over important content – just like those pointless daily tabloids did. This timeline, along with the design of these social media apps, keeps users hooked; constantly refreshing their feed for the newest news. And with that said, then comes the surge of unavoidable irritability when you can’t check your phone in Walmart.
“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”
– Andy Warhol
Boredom and Its Benefits
In Rule #2 of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World boredom and its effect on the human brain is dissected. To open this section, Newport references the research of Stanford University’s late communications professor, Clifford Nass. In this research, Nass uncovers that individuals who have undergone constant attention switching tasks online are more susceptible to lasting negative effects on the brain. This constant switching weakens the mental muscles responsible for prioritizing the many stimuli vying for your attention. According to Nass, people who multitask cannot filter out irrelevancy and therefore, cannot manage a working memory as they involve numerous parts of their brain that are unimportant to the task at hand. This addiction to multitasking is hard to shake especially when technology, like smartphones, do nothing to contribute to this behavior.
Boredom, while annoying to most, allows the mind to be free and explore. Without external stimulation, the brain is able to process complex problems and be more creative. Check out the video below to learn more:
Healing the Damage
To “repair” the damage that has been done, Newport suggests that you learn to rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting stimuli. The first step is to do a digital detox. This detox involves foregoing your favorite apps and/or pieces of technology for an allotted period of time. The detox will help minimize your digital cravings and heighten your awareness. To help you get started, you can read about my personal detox here. The second step is to schedule when you use the internet. By segregating internet use, you minimize the number of times you give into distraction. This allows the attention-prioritizing muscles Nass references to strengthen and become more efficient.
“I think boredom is the beginning of every authentic act. Boredom opens up the space, for new engagements. Without boredom, no creativity. If you are not bored, you just stupidly enjoy the situation in which you are.”
– Slavoj Žižek
While a full-blown digital detox might seem extreme, and almost impossible, Newport believes it can still be done even if your job requires constant internet use. The key is block scheduling. Pick out designated times during the day in which you will check social media and answer emails. The rest of the day will be utilized to focus on the important tasks at hand; this contributes to your deep work state.
Newport also believes that productive meditation could help heal distracted minds. Productive meditation occurs when you become lost in thought during physical activity. If you have ever been on a walk and had a total brain-blast, then you get the gist of Newport’s idea. Physically occupying your body in monotonous, unfocused action helps to strengthen the brain, as well as get you off of the couch – away from your phone and smart TV. While productive meditation can be a means to thinking creatively, be sure to structure your deep thinking:
- Consider the variables: Think about the problem you are trying to solve for on all sides. What is the main point I am trying to make? What could have a potential effect on the final answer?
- Define the next step: What areas am I going to expand in? What could happen if my idea is wrong?
- Consolidate your gains: Review the solution you identified thoroughly.
While Newport’s suggestions may not yield successful results for some, many can find these liberating practices to be refreshing. This process can allow you to break free from the proverbial shackles of your mind and let you explore your inner thoughts. This week, take a moment to embrace the boredom and get lost in the world around you. You could find that it’s more pleasant than you thought.