Last week I asked people on Facebook a question.
“If you had to sit on a bench in a park alone for a half hour without your phone, or tablet, or book or any prop to distract you from that place and that moment, how would you do?
“In other words: How good are you at being bored?”
The conversation that followed — 115 comments strong — helped me realize something: Boredom is important work, and our phones are making us too lazy to do it.
Now, talking about boredom is really confusing. First, because when I ask “How good are you at being bored” I could be asking any of three different things:
- How comfortable are you with being alone in your environment?
- How comfortable are you with being alone in your own head?
- How comfortable are you with having nothing to do?
Second, because boredom is usually seen as something to escape, sometimes seen as something to seek and rarely seen as what it actually is: an emotion to listen to.
Our phones hurt us by killing our ability to listen to boredom in two big ways.
They provide endless answers to the easiest question we can ask ourselves when we find ourselves at rest: “What’s new?”
You could go as far as to say that the app-packed smartphone is a collection of a person’s preferred sources of novelty. That never dry up.
The phone is also an endless supply of satisfying (read: un-boring) activities. In that way, “your iPhone acts like an endless supply of Cheetos,” as Drake Baer wrote in Fast Company.
This is a problem because when we lack an easy stream of satisfying activity and are forced to let our minds wander un-stimulated, we end up getting more creative.
Author Edward de Bono calls time spent processing knowledge blindly a “creative pause.” My last column, “15 habits of an ineffective networker,” flowed almost exclusively from a creative pause I had while I let my mind drift on a WiFi-less flight back from Mexico. I didn’t think I had a good topic for that week’s column. And then, listening to the drone of the engines and staring at the upholstery of the seat next to me, I did.
To be clear, having the phone around to feed us stimulation we like is not all bad. It’s probably mostly good. It even saves us money. As Brian Hall pointed out in ReadWrite, the “mobile blinders” our smartphones give us as we’re, say, waiting in line at the grocery store, actually result in lower sales of all that crap they put in the checkout lanes — magazines, Chapstick, gum, that kind of thing.
But there’s a second way our phones hurt our ability to wield boredom like the tool it can often be.
They’ve warped our sense of time.
The phone never sleeps, nor does the stream of information behind it. Features like “Do Not Disturb” and “Airplane Mode” tailor phones to our need for rest, but they’re hardly native to the device. The smartphone lives to act.
Why so negative? Because now more than ever, time not spent doing something intentional, especially for the more ambitious among us, feels like a problem we need to fix. A bug in our machine-enhanced, uber-productive lives. A personal failure. Our phones make gaps in activity seem like bigger problems than they actually are, pushing us to rush to fill them rather than sit with the idleness and see where it leads.
Our phones turn the task of relieving boredom into a reaction rather than an exercise.
“I used to think that sitting in a park without anything to do (read: device, phone, book, task, etc.) would constitute a ‘time waste,'” wrote Alessandra Carreon, “but more than ever I realize it is a necessary, re-charging, and calming part of my otherwise unchecked pace of life.”
“If you’re bored, you’re boring,” goes one saying. But if you’re never bored, if you never let your brain take a breath, aren’t you just exhausting?
There’s a test that can tell you whether you encounter the bad kind of boredom, which researchers call chronic boredom, or the good kind, transient boredom. The Boredom Proneness Scale. Check it out. See where you are.
Peter Toohey, author of “Boredom: A Lively History,” calls boredom the most self-reflective of conditions. It’s true.
So next time you find yourself waiting without your phone, don’t run off to get it or panic about what you can’t do without it. Let your boredom surface your most interesting puzzles, and let your brain dance from one to the next.
“I relish those times without any distraction,” Marika Malaea wrote. “I do it far too little, but it’s worth it.”