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The Creative Benefits of Embracing Boredom

5 girls in matching red dresses put their hands in the air on a green field.

I grew up in the mid-2000s in a household that used dial-up internet. Thankfully, this meant that I had a childhood that largely took place offline. My afternoons at home were spent rereading my three comic books for the umpteenth time, reading the back of milk cartons, reading my textbooks…Well, you get the idea.

But things changed rapidly when the 2010s rolled around. Phones were getting smarter; the internet was getting faster and information was bombarding us at a breakneck speed. Gone were the days of being bored. 

I spent the next decade going down the rabbit hole of the internet. I devoured the bite-sized servings of news, musings and diatribes on my never-ending Twitter feed. YouTube served up videos, one after another.

I took to the habit of multitasking. I would absentmindedly shuffle between the multitude of tabs in my browser, I would scroll through the comments of YouTube videos while vaguely tuning in, and I would crank up the pace of podcasts and audiobooks to the point where the speech morphed into an almost incoherent blabber, resembling the sound of a chipmunk. .

But earlier this year, things took a turn after a trip to the bookstore. I had long stopped reading books in favor of the feed, but I always harbored the thought of reigniting that passion. I went home that day with several books that promised to help me lead a more meaningful life. 

Digital decluttering

In Digital Minimalism, computer scientist and writer Cal Newport extols the virtues of being a digital minimalist–one who enjoys a better quality of life by being highly conscious of the time they spend online. Newport’s concept of “digital declutter” consists of replacing passive and mindless scrolling with more fulfilling pursuits, oftentimes pursuits in the physical world.

The promise of a healthier relationship with technology spurred me on my own month-long journey of digital declutter. On the first day of the summer break this year, I switched off all of my electronic devices and stowed them away. Out of sight, out of mind. Or so I thought.

Newport suggests that we spend 30 days during which we refrain from using any optional technology and that we experiment with different offline activities to discover those that we truly find meaningful. After the 30 days, we can then gradually reintroduce technology back into our lives. However, this is with the caveat that the particular technology is one that adds value to our lives.  

The first couple of days were uncomfortable and even, dare I say, intense. I often found myself abandoning my offline activities at hand in favor of heading to the drawers for my phone. And every time, as I excitedly attempted to unlock my phone, I would be jolted back into reality as the screen remained dark. It was as if I were running on autopilot and that these base urges had simply taken over my being. The regularity of my compulsion to go on the internet to browse something was embarrassing. 

As Newport notes in his book, in the initial stages of the “digital declutter,” many past participants have had urges to go on their electronic devices. He quotes Brooke, who attempted his detox. Brooke’s experience felt familiar to me:  

Moments of waiting in line, moments between activities, moments of boredom, moments I ached to check in on my favorite people, moments I wanted an escape, moments I just wanted to ‘look something up,’ moments I just needed some diversion: I’d reach for my phone and then remember that everything was gone.”

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Reducing stimulation 

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about how technology is extensively rewiring our brains such that profound changes are made to the way we think, read, and remember.

Carr was inspired to write the book in 2007 when he noticed that the past 10 years he had spent on the Web had significantly impaired his ability to read and absorb long articles. He believes that the design of the internet, and the vast amount of information presented, results in readers who are more efficiency-centric and less patient. 

“When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better,” Carr writes, emphasizing that we should avoid overloading our brains with information “in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts”–the mode of content dissemination that is prevalent on the internet today. 

It seemed that less stimulation was the key to the cultivation of a more rewarding interior life. Heeding Newport and Carr’s advice, I went on to make a list of activities that I wanted to incorporate into my life, in place of being hooked onto the hamster wheel of Instagram Stories, tweets, and memes. 

Learning how to do one thing

With vague goals such as read, write, and exercise, this list could have been my usual list of New Year’s resolutions. But I implemented the rule that I had to fully immerse myself in these activities. This meant absolutely no multitasking–tuning in to a podcast while dragging my heavy feet along the running tracks was out of the question; listening to music while I read was a no-no. I also consciously chose to consume slower forms of entertainment. I listened to my audiobooks at regular speed. Quelle horreur!

My decision to focus on focus was inspired by Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In this book, Odell writes about the withdrawal of one’s attention as a potential political and social force. Odell is less concerned with the physical act of taking part in “digital detoxes.”

Instead, she is interested in being mindful of all the stimulus that is around us and consciously choosing to immerse oneself in the present and the local. For instance, instead of responding immediately to conversations on social media, we should choose to extract ourselves from the chatter and take time to reflect and connect with our own thoughts.

Much like my compulsion to check my phone, I faced urges to multitask. Concentrating on a single activity proved to be difficult. My mind wandered and at points, I was bored to tears. In this Information Age, being bored is difficult and unnerving. In a series of studies conducted by psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard University, a sizable number of subjects chose to give themselves electric shocks in a bid to distract themselves from their thoughts. 

However, I’m thankful that I didn’t give in to the idea of sticking my finger into a wall plug, because I was able to experience the many benefits of boredom.

Boredom as rest

In Bored and Brilliant, Manoush Zomorodi, the host of popular tech podcast Note to Self, writes about the benefits of “mind wandering.” Zomorodi argues that daydreaming allows for one to develop “prospective bias.” In other words, it spurs us to think about the future and our long-term plans. People who think about the future are found to possess higher levels of attention control and are better able to delay gratification. 

In another one of his books, Deep Work, Newport suggests that instead of taking breaks from distractions, we should take breaks from focus. Newport believes that we should all engage in “deep work,” which he defines as “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes [our] cognitive abilities to their limit,” rather than “shallow work” that does little to create new value in the world. 

Apple founder Steve Jobs is also known to have praised boredom. “I’m a big believer in boredom…out of curiosity comes everything. All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.”  

The benefits of boredom for creativity

Being bored in our downtime can also translate to better performance at work. The ability to do deep work hinges on one’s attention span and ability to resist the craving for instant gratification–both of which can be improved upon by embracing boredom. 

According to Zomorodi, boredom can also foster creative and original thinking. She writes about the work of Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist who studies the effect of boredom on cognitive ability. In one of her studies, Dr. Mann investigated the impact of boredom on the ability of two groups of subjects to repurpose everyday items.

In the first part of the experiment, subjects in the first group were tasked with the mind-numbing exercise of reading out numbers from a telephone book. The subjects of the second group were made to copy numbers from a telephone book by hand–a task that was more tactile and called for more active engagement. Both groups were then asked to repurpose two paper cups.

Subjects in the first group–who were made to experience higher levels of boredom–were found to be more creative than those in the other group. The former came up with varied and interesting ideas such as earrings, musical instruments and a Madonna-style bra while the latter had ideas that did not deviate much from a cup, such as plant pots and sandbox toys. 

With time, there came a noticeable shift for me, too. I started to find more joy in the little things, and I was happier and calmer. I observed the bees flying by the flowers outside my window. I was tickled by a silly little joke I came across. Ideas for personal projects sprung up in my head; I had a clearer sense of purpose in my life and I was better able to concentrate. My work improved as I became more productive, creative, and motivated–and all because I allowed myself to embrace boredom.

August 25, 2020