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Turning Boredom Into Brilliance

If you’re like most people these days, you rarely spend much time away from your smartphone, tablet and other electronic devices. In fact, we’re all so tied to our technology that it seems to steal every free moment. According to author Manoush Zomorodi, now is a great time to change that.

Three years ago, Zomorodi came to the realization that she was addicted to her devices and suffering from information overload. As host of the podcast “Note to Self,” she encouraged her listeners to take back control of their digital identities and spend more time being “bored,” which she describes as thinking clearly, free of distractions. In that state of mind, she says, we come up with our best ideas and feel inspired.

It turns out that 30,000 listeners joined Zomorodi on this journey. She lays out the strategies they followed in her new book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. Below she shares her techniques for transforming digital anxiety into peace of mind.

You write that we’ve become so dependent on our technology that our minds never have a chance to rest. 

Yes, and I purposely chose the word “boredom” versus something more positive, like “daydreaming” or “mind-wandering.” The reason is that boredom is often thought of in a negative context, but boredom really feels good. It’s that relaxed feeling you have when you’re gardening or cleaning the house. It’s a great muscle to develop. By contrast, apps have kind of taken the place of smoking. When people have downtime, instead of chilling out, they take out their technology and start playing around.

It sounds like you’re recommending a digital detox.

Actually, I don’t like calling it a detox, because it’s not a binary decision to turn everything completely off. The reality is we’re beholden to our technology for good reason. It’s the best way to communicate, do research and stay connected. However, most of us haven’t figured out how to self-regulate and decide which apps and platforms are acting as tools rather than taskmasters. People assume they should use all the apps loaded to their phone, for instance. Remember, they are put there not because you need them but because some company wants you to use them. These apps make money by getting time with your eyeballs. That’s why they build them to ping you and make you want to constantly check what’s going on.

What’s the best way to get started on becoming less dependent on technology and introducing more boredom into our lives?

The first step is knowing your baseline. You can do this in an analog way by observing and keeping track of your behavior. How often are you checking your phone? How much time are you spending on it? Ironically, there are apps that will do that for you. 

What did you discover when you did this analysis on yourself?

I figured I was checking my phone about 30 times a day. Wrong! Turns out I was checking it between 90 and 100 times. I didn’t even notice this. It had become a reflex. I’d walk into the elevator and check it, and walk out and look at it again. Half the time I didn’t even know what I was after. So you start by knowing the baseline and then begin to tweak small things.

Like what?

For starters, keep your phone in your pocket or bag when you’re in motion. You don’t need to be looking at it when you’re walking, driving or sitting on the subway. I also recommend taking no-photo days. 

Do you have any rules of thumb that we should follow all the time? For instance, most people check their phone before they go to bed and again as soon as they wake up.

It’s scientifically proven that the blue light in your screen keeps you awake. Therefore, I recommend avoiding the temptation to check your phone for at least an hour before you go to bed. There’s also research to show that merely bringing your phone with you to a conversation decreases the quality of that interaction. So if I’m in a meeting, I keep the phone out of sight. Another recommendation I have is to get rid of any apps you don’t absolutely need. Just delete them! Out of sight is out of mind.

Any suggestions for the maximum amount of time we should spend with our smartphones and other devices on an average day?

I refuse to be prescriptive because everyone is different. But I think you should find what I unscientifically call your yucky line. That’s the line between feeling good about your phone and feeling like you can’t concentrate anymore because you’re scrolling on it so much. When you get to the point that you’re exhausted and have no idea what you’re looking at, that’s the line. 

Younger people today seem to be especially hooked to their smartphones. Are you worried that this will negatively impact their well-being?

I think we’re starting to see early signs of exhaustion. My theory is that in a couple of years it won’t be as cool to constantly be posting stuff online. That said, it’s possible that someday we won’t even have phones. These devices could be built into our contact lenses or something similar. I really think we’re at a crucial moment of deciding what oversight there will be on technology companies, given how much of our time they control. And we’re also seeing other effects. In fact, one study found growing rates of anxiety and depression, particularly among women and teenagers, over social media. By the way, it’s not just social media but distracting noises in general that are causing exhaustion, including open office workplaces. 

Is there a litmus test readers can take to know when their technology usage is out of control?

Here’s one way to start figuring that out: the next time you look at your phone, stop to ask what you’re seeking, and examine whether tapping on the device will give you what you’re after. If the answer is yes, go for it. If no, put it away. It starts by building in speed bumps. 

Any other recommendations?

Begin taking short vacations from your phone. Decide not to answer emails from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., for instance, so you can work on something. And set expectations among those around you. Let them know you don’t immediately answer emails and texts. And use airplane mode [which turns off cell and wireless communications] more often. It’s just like putting the phone in your bag. I find that I’m a little more relaxed when I do that.

The above article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.