“…mobile consumers now spend an average of two hours and fifty-seven minutes each day on mobile devices.”
Waiting in line to check out? Fire up Candy Crush.
On your commute? Get caught up on blogs or YouTube vids.
One laaaast round of checks on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter before the theater darkens for the movie previews. (And then another check when the lights come up to catch what you missed.)
We have the option to never, ever be bored. There’s always something, somewhere willing to keep us occupied, and it’s rarely farther than a pocket. According to Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR’s Note to Self program, that’s a problem.
In 2015, Note to Self launched a week-long project to promote boredom. Through a series of challenges, Bored and Brilliant participants were encouraged to think through how, when, and why they engage with technology. This book emerged from that project, giving Zomorodi a chance not only to talk about the outcomes of the project itself, but also some of the rationale behind each component challenge. She interviews scientists and laypersons along the way.
But why boredom? Isn’t it *good* that we can use these otherwise unproductive three minutes at Starbucks to touch base with a friend on Facebook? What else would we possibly do with that time?
Zomorodi argues that the cumulative cost of all these check-ins is creativity and introspection. The brain desperately needs unoccupied moments to tie disparate parts of our lived experience together in new and creative ways. The wandering mind moves backward and forward, updating your narrative of self and the world around you. Every time you fire up Candy Crush, you’re unconsciously cutting off that process.
Zomorodi works hard to present the scientific evidence for this view and to keep it morally neutral–she frequently mentions her own addiction to an online game as evidence that she suffers along with the rest of us–but it’s not hard to see that some readers are going to be defensive about her premise.
The portion of the book that spoke to me loudest was a passage in which Zomorodi interviews a couple of college professors who bemoan how their students prefer to communicate via text rather than office hours. A student points out that a text or email allows her to choose her words in advance, so as not to say the wrong thing. One of the professors points out that makes her own job harder. If a student asks a precise question over text/email, the professor can only answer the question posed. A student who stumbles through an idea verbally, who makes mistakes and corrects herself as she goes along, leaves openings where the professor might probe further or reframe portions of the question… this is how academic inquiry and discovery happen best. Yes, it’s messier, but it’s also more likely to engage the student.
“…perhaps our biggest loss is that of patience. Patience to let someone finish an imperfect thought; patience to read a dense paragraph not once, twice, but three times to understand an intricate point; patience to let a simple thought that crosses your mind grow into a mediocre concept and only then blossom into an outstanding idea. These things take time. And the one thing our phones can’t give us is more hours in the day.”
In describing the premise of the book to a co-worker, she pointed out that distraction has always been with us. Forty years ago, the commuter train car might have been full of folks reading a paper rather than their cell phones. She’s right: screens are a new iteration of an old habit. There was no magical past in which strangers were happy and willing to engage with one another on the morning commute that has now been taken from us by smartphones.
However, Zomorodi isn’t anti-technology. She hasn’t chucked her iPhone into the East River, and she’s not inciting us to rise up in revolution against our electronic masters. Instead, she’s arguing that a healthier relationship with our phones will open up more space in our lives for creative thinking.
You can check out the original Bored and Brilliant project challenges online.
I received an advance copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
PS. I downloaded the Break Free app on my phone to evaluate just how much I use my phone. Because I did so just after reading the book, the numbers are artificially depressed. (And I was beginning to be walloped by the flu on that Sunday.)
For further reading about the merits of distraction-free work, I recommend Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
If you’re a parent, you might be interested in an internet movement to ask parents to commit to not buying smartphones for a child until 8th grade.