I recently read this post by Ogilvy’s David Long, espousing the creative benefits of using a pen and notebook over purely digital means. Call me an old fuddy duddy, but I’ve always felt my best work comes from putting pen to paper.
Reading David’s first point (“digital is distracting”) I was reminded of this TED Talk by Manoush Zomorodi. Its title, “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas” immediately grabbed my attention.
Manoush says that when we become bored, a network in our brains called the “default mode network” is ignited. When autopilot takes over mundane tasks we’re carrying out, our brains can get busy elsewhere. We imagine futures that may or may not ever eventuate, we establish goals for ourselves, we ponder issues. But the ever-presence of smartphones and their associated distractions mean that we never allow ourselves to get close to boredom.
It can be a bit upsetting to think that, although we have innumerable better things to do than scroll through our Instagram feed for the 56,895th time, we’re simply choosing not to. But it might be bigger than you.
Former Google designer Tristan Harris spells it out in a way that mightn’t have occurred to you before: each of these platforms – Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – employs literally hundreds of very highly skilled engineers whose sole purpose it is to ensure we don’t look away. When asked about their biggest competitors, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings listed Facebook, YouTube, and sleep. Does it feel like you’re in an episode of Black Mirror yet?
When I was a kid, and even a teenager, the droning cry of “I’m booored!” often drifted through the hallways of our house. Do kids these days get bored, or are they constantly and permanently entertained by the myriad devices within arms reach? Or has their threshold for entertainment increased as a result of always having endless apps and games to scroll through, such that these things no longer provide enough stimulation, and they do, in fact, still find themselves bored?
I vividly remember being in high school at the time that teenagers started to get their own mobile phones. They were our parents’ old ones, with external antennas and black and white screens. The thing was that we all knew about nine people, and of those probably only half had phones, so when any one of us would receive a text message, the alert would be followed by a chorus of, “Well, someone’s popular!” These days, alerts and notifications are pushed through to our phones faster than we can read them. It’s not that someone is thinking about us – it’s just been too long since we last looked at our screens.
In her TED Talk, Manoush recalls giving birth to her first child the same week the first iPhone was released. While tens of thousands of people lined the streets in queues to buy them, Manoush paced around her house with a colicky baby. As it turned out, there was but one thing that would put him to sleep – being in a moving stroller, in complete silence.
So she walked, pushing a stroller 10, sometimes 15 miles a day just so her child could get some sleep. She spoke of the absolute boredom of walking in silence upwards of four hours a day, until she noticed that during these times, her mind would wander. All kinds of hare-brained schemes would work their way in there, and she had so much time to ponder on them that she eventually had an epiphany: she was going to start a show on public radio.
Time passed and she did in fact start her show, not long after she finally bought herself an iPhone. She marvelled at how productive she was with iPhone in hand: updating spreadsheets while cooking, editing while cleaning. Until at last, she sat down to brainstorm for a story, and came up with nothing. No ideas were forthcoming; no gems were hiding away just waiting to be mined. Perplexed, she thought back to the last time she had a great idea. It was while she was aimlessly wandering, pushing her son in his stroller for hours on end.
She noted a correlation between the constant engagement afforded to her by her smartphone, and the dissipation of her creativity, and thought there must be something to it. And thus a new project, Bored and Brilliant, was born.
Manoush asked listeners to participate in an experiment and attempt to extract themselves from the clutches of their devices. She’d hoped a few hundred people would play along – 20,000 people signed up for the Bored and Brilliant challenge. Now, that’s some data you can work with!
She’d teamed up with researchers to assist with the project, and they recorded some initial statistics through an app they released (while fully aware of the irony of conducting this experiment through an app).
Before starting the challenge, the average amount of time people used their phones for across a day was two hours. Considering we’re asleep for eight (if we’re lucky), at work (and presumably being model employees who don’t check phones) for eight, that leaves us with eight hours a day during which to shower, eat, drive to work, exercise, do chores, buy groceries, cook meals, play with our kids, visit our friends, spend quality time with our partners, be creatively fulfilled, and feed our dogs, and we spend a quarter of that time on our phones.
Additionally, they found the average person picked up their phone (to check emails, read notifications, or just unlock it and forget why they were looking) 60 times every day.
So Manoush set participants daily challenges such as not using their phones while in transit, not taking photos of everything they saw for a day, deleting an app that consumes their time, and so on.
Of the 20,000 participants, 90% did cut down their phone usage, and 70% felt they had more time to think.
She received amazing responses from countless people. People who reported sleeping better and actually feeling happier. People who said they felt as though they were once again the masters of their own destiny. During that week, young people reported feeling emotions they didn’t recognise. That’s when Manoush realised: If you grew up after the rise of smartphones, you may never have experienced boredom before.
A study conducted by the University of Southern California of young people and their phone usage found that, two years into the study, those who used their phones most were less creative, and less imaginative about their own futures and about solving societal issues. Surely it’s no coincidence that CEOs in an IBM survey recently listed creativity as the most important leadership quality.
Is this the future we’re headed towards? Are creatives a dying breed? It’s a sobering thought, and one that’s not at all outside of the realm of possibility. Creativity and imagination truly are what move us forward as a species. The advancements in AI plus peoples’ declining engagement with their surroundings are certainly on the concerning end of the spectrum.
I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the first five minutes of Manoush’s talk scrolling absently through Instagram, before I really started to take note of what she was saying. But you better believe I deleted it from my phone the minute it was over. And Facebook went, too, for good measure.
Check out Manoush’s talk in its entirety below.