Building your ability to be bored could actually awaken your greatest ideas.
When my kids were little, I went to a talk by Kim John Payne, an educator and author of Simplicity Parenting. One parent asked what to do when their kids say they are bored, his response was, “Tell them ‘Wonderful!’” This idea, that being bored is key to unlocking our imagination, is being embraced by tech gurus and kindergarten teachers alike.
It used to be that there were gaps in our day; standing in line at the bank and the grocery store, sitting in the car waiting to pick up the kids from soccer practice, waiting for the stream of traffic to move through the intersection. Those short gaps, and longer ones too, were times when our mind was not filled with anything. We would look around us, perhaps consider why that sign was blue or where those birds were headed-essentially, we were bored.
These days, those moments are no longer empty. At the first sign of nothing to do, we grab for our smartphones to check in: on the news, on social media, on the game we can’t seem to stop playing. Every minute of our day is filled with input from somewhere else. Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast Note to Self became curious about the effect this was having on people all over the world after she found herself burnt out just as she was feeling the most accomplished in her life. She had a suspicion that part of why she was not inspired was because she had no time to be bored.
As a New Yorker, surrounded by people constantly glued to their phones, Zomorodi decided to dive into the subject of what happens to our inspiration when our attention is always on something. In speaking with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, she found that “mind-wandering”—a term that describes our brain when it is not focused on anything specific—activates a mental state called “default mode.” It’s in this state that we problem solve and come up with our best ideas, we make sense of our own lives and come to an understanding about our relationships with others.
Zomorodi wanted to find out what would happen if we gave ourselves more time to be bored, more time to “space out.” She quotes Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, an expert in mind-wandering at the University of New York, “In a very deep way, there’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.” Zomorodi created the Bored and Brilliant Project to test her theory that by changing how we relate to our devices, we would “generate bigger and better ideas.” Her book, Bored and Brilliant distills the project that more than twenty thousand people participated in.
The challenges she presents are meant to help you sit with the sensation of boredom rather than running away from it.
Observe yourself. She suggests using an app, (Moment for Apple users or BreakFree for Android users,) in order to reliably track how much time you are spending on your gadgets. She asks questions about what apps you use most, the time of day you are most active on your phone, where you keep your phone, and how much time you’ve spent just thinking about projects you are working on.
Take a fakecation. Choose a time frame that you will remove yourself from all digital communication. This challenge is about making space, (in your brain), by not responding right away to all the dings and pings that signal someone wanting something from you. Have an auto-reply to your emails and text, letting people know you are currently not available, and when you’ll be back.
Observe something else. The instructions are to go to a public place and simply notice what is going on around you. Look for a small detail of something that you would not have noticed if you had been focused on your screen. Spend some time zooming in on the details of what is happening around you.
As you build your capacity for not being distracted, and actually remaining in a state of boredom, Zomorodi insists that your brilliance will emerge. You will come up with more ideas, have more insights, and feel more inspired. Compare that with the dullness you feel after, (finally), putting down your phone after being sucked in for far too long. Building your ability to be bored could actually awaken your greatest ideas.