Don’t Squander your Boredom Equity

I remember when I was a kid, and would say to my mom, “I’m bored!” Her most likely response was, “well, find something to do.” And I did.

That would involve thinking, creating, surmising, using available resources (or “MacGyvering” new ones), or even just remaining bored for a while and possibly being a bit grumpy. I was forced to reflect, consider, create, explore, connect to my feelings (tired? hungry? lonely?) and lo and behold, I would find something to do.

Sometimes it even meant literally sitting and thinking for a good 20 minutes, “what the heck am I supposed to do?” And it led to creativity and exercise and exploring and innovation and making friends.

When I was a kid I used to geek out and actually do science projects just for fun. Because I was bored. One of my favorites was doing a report on birds.

It went like this: go out see as many birds as I could; describe them in my notebook; go to the library and find a book on birds; find the birds I saw; draw the birds; color the birds and then write a report on what I learned about the birds; staple the report and show it to my mom. To this day, when I see a red-winged blackbird, it reminds me of my bird reports.

I likely never would have done all of that had I been a kid with an iPhone or an iPad. I likely would have played a video game or binge-watched Netflix. Which, in and of itself, is not bad—but those activities are either passive ingestion of entertainment or active engagement in someone else’s imaginary world, not a world of my own creation.

That’s not to say I didn’t watch TV. I certainly did—but there was a finite amount to ingest. And then I would get bored. And then I would do something else.

The studies show that this kind of free time, even if it means ‘getting up to no good,’ helps kids learn about risks, rewards, consequences, self-sufficiency, independence, and more.

Kids need free time. So do adults.

I regularly observe adults completely immersed in their devices all the time—

waiting in line, on a train/plane, sitting in the park, walking the dog, playing with their kids. I see very few people look up and out at the world anymore. Nobody needs to be bored because there is a constant stream of data in the palm of our hands.

On the one hand, we’re more connected to the world than ever. We can stay in touch with friends, family, events, and have experiences previously undreamed of. We can find information—the weather, what the Sahara desert looks like during a windstorm, watch plants grow with time-lapse video – or create our high-quality films and memories. We can connect and organize vast numbers of people to bring awareness and change to important causes. All of this is incredible. Think about video conferencing alone—in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seemed so far-fetched that one of the characters could participate in his daughter’s birthday party from space. Now we do that all the time! We can increase the speed with which we can administer the business of our daily lives—securing credit, paying bills, sending money, buying groceries, launching businesses, and getting educated. It’s all mind-blowing in terms of making our lives more balanced and less frenetic, all while having more free time for the ‘good stuff.’

On the other hand, do we get more ‘free time?’ Like, really free? Or are we squandering our boredom equity?

We must protect our brain’s white space and make room for adventure, creativity, reflection, growth, and expansion.

How many people answer “busy!” when you ask, “How are you these days?” If they were to do a thoughtful investigation of what keeps them so busy, they would likely be able to articulate and quantify the minutes (nay, hours!) they spend distracted by the technology they say makes their lives better. These are often the same people who complain of being exhausted and overwhelmed and having ‘no time.’ They are squandering their boredom equity.

Reconnecting with solitude can be powerful. Many associate solitude with loneliness, but being alone doesn’t have to be lonely—it can create the creative white space I referred to earlier.  Henry David Thoreau sought solitude to write his famous Walden (Life in the Woods), first published in 1854. He describes his life in a cabin, removed from civilization, and his revelations and experiences, living in relative solitude and contemplation, and the value it brought to his creativity and personal sense of being alive. Of course, there is a great deal of privilege in having the ability to do this. Who has access to things like solitude, freedom from labour, and having their creative work taken seriously? So, how might we all find micro-doses of these things in our daily lives that would support us reconnecting to our white space?

I don’t know many people who take a walk or a run anymore without being connected to a device or having someone else’s thoughts streamed through their minds. Even though being outside and doing these solitary endeavours is a perfect opportunity to let your mind wander, give it a cognitive break, and truly revel in your solitude.

When chatting about this topic and inviting others to explore solitude to reap the benefits of presence, creative white space, etc., others often report, “I love being alone! I spend tons of time alone!” However, they often mean they spend time alone while reading, watching YouTube/Netflix, scrolling FaceBook/Instagram/Pinterest, and listening to podcasts. Solitude means being with your thoughts and feelings, not ingesting someone else’s. Solitude invites personal reflection. You cannot create without solitude. Without solitude, you cannot get clear on who you are, what you want, and how you might get it.

In the early ’90s, I remember reading the now widely known FLOW, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It made so much sense to me—as a business person, multi-disciplinary artist, traveller, insatiable asker of ‘why.’ We’ve all been immersed in something so deeply and fully that time goes unnoticed.

An essential first step is spending just a bit of time reflecting on the following:

  • What are the activities where you have that ‘flow’ experience?
  • How might you reconnect to those activities, even in a small way?
  • How can you make some room for them in your life?

This doesn’t mean shifting everything around to carve out vast swaths of time (although, go for it, if you can/want to!). Finding 15 minutes here and there can provide the benefits of solitude, focus and presence. You’ll notice what works and doesn’t and likely reconnect to things that matter to you.

In June, I decided to take part in a digital declutter. I had just finished reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and it resonated with my innate concerns about being hyperlinked to tech all the time. Even though I only use FaceBook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., on my laptop to minimize pings throughout my day (no phone apps), I still noticed a pull to those time-sucking portals while at my desk.

Some of Newport’s key questions are:

  • Are you using technology, or is technology using you?
  • Do you consciously consider the intrinsic value you receive from a given technology or application?
  • Are you allowing it to distract and clutter your mind? Your creativity? Your deep work?

Of course, he reasons, it’s not that technology in and of itself is evil or toxic (in fact, Cal Newport has a Ph.D. in computer science, so he sees the benefit of the infinite opportunity that tech provides), but rather, the lack of thoughtful decision-making around how and when to use it that leads to our distracted hyper-busy lives.

So, what results did I notice from my digital detox? First and foremost, I noticed a compelling pull to check social media when I didn’t feel like doing ‘deep work.’ I also noticed that when I didn’t engage in the vortex of social media, after a couple of days, I didn’t miss it. I felt pretty liberated. I noticed that I felt more content—that is, I was not regularly, repeatedly comparing myself, my life, etc., with others’ online selves, lives, etc. I walked more. I journaled more. I called people to talk more. I meditated more. I read more. I organized more. I cleaned more. I wrote songs and played guitar more.

I also noticed that I missed a lot of events—that is, people assume everyone is on social media all the time, they post event information and assume it gets seen. So, I found a specific value in checking social media in a limited way to see what was going on.

Interestingly, at the end of the month, I went back online. I was far more aware of the pull to scroll. And I noticed the old familiar comparisons creeping back into my psyche. So I made sure I limited myself to 5 minutes. Check messages, scroll a bit to see what’s going on, step out.

Here are a few of the strategies that worked for me:

  1. Set a time limit on social media. Be specific about your objective for logging in.
  2. Turn off ‘notifications.’ Check-in during specific times. Accept that our brains are wired to respond to “the pings” (hence the engineering of said pings). Nothing will get you out of the flow and white space faster than a Pavlovian response to a ping.
  3. List other activities you’d like to do, but don’t. Instead of scrolling, do one of those.
  4. log your activities for a week and see what you’re up to.
  5. Notice and record how you feel when you use/don’t use technology. What are the real benefits? How can you use online tools even more effectively? How can you eliminate some?
  6. What tools are cooler in concept than in practice? Delete those apps. Delete as many apps as you can at first, and only reinstall them when you understand the value they bring to you.
  7. Find 5 minutes a day to meditate. Don’t know how? Check out a free meditation app, or look at Jeff Warren’s website and get started.
  8. We can’t all go to our own Walden Pond. Is there a park nearby? Can you find a tree to sit under? Do you have a few houseplants you can sit with? Light a candle? Look at the sky—day or night—and marvel at the vastness.

Most importantly, learn to recognize when you use technology because it brings you value and when you gravitate toward it even when there’s no clear benefit.

At a recent client meeting, there was an explicit request that we use a digital Post-it note app instead of the standard pieces of sticky paper—let’s be modern! Digital first!

Although we tried, at their behest, it didn’t yield the results we wanted—that is, collective insight gathering, communication and debate. That’s because the point of a post-it note exercise is to get people out of their seats and talk to each other, mind-mapping, and move ideas around so that everyone can see a large visual. It’s the collective process that matters. So, although the app is cool, in reality, it does not serve the purpose of actually using Post-it notes in a brainstorming session. We were using technology just for the sake of technology, and it ended up distracting some and being dismissed by others.

Interestingly, I often use and recommend technology to help create, measure, and sustain new habits. You may say that sounds antithetical to what you’re professing! The thing is, it’s not about the app. It’s about getting people to have conversations with each other, and commit to something, think about it, reflect on it, write about it, and then talk about it again. Track their own experiences. Then talk about it some more. Drive behaviour change and new habit formation.

Technology shouldn’t be in place for technology’s sake. We can bring a human-first approach to using it to enable change. And change is difficult, even when intellectually you know it’s the right thing to do.

When I finished my digital declutter, I noticed that when I went back to ‘using’ FaceBook, for example, I got stressed again—a niggling negativity of FOMO and of paying attention to what I don’t have. I noticed who was doing what, where and with whom, and started to feel jealous of their experiences. I was focusing on lack, not abundance.

When I pushed past those feelings, I realized that most of what I saw was advertising—all focused on triggering a need for stuff I don’t have and don’t need. That was interesting and solidified my decision to manage my use of these platforms carefully—every few days, check in for 10 minutes. That’s it. This way, I reap the benefits of staying connected with my community, but avoid the adverse effects of being distracted by the technology.

Have you ever seen that YouTube video of the woman lying in the park, and the shot zooms out and out and out, beyond the park, the city, the country, the continent, the planet? That is one of the most visually profound perspectives I keep returning to. Do I keep myself stuck in a myopic, highly restricted space? Do I squander my boredom equity by keeping blinders on and staying hyper-busy and hyper-distracted?

What can you do to study the impact of technology in your own life? What might you do to take more control of your precious time and energy and own your participation in the “attention economy”?

More To Explore

Preview Catherine's new book Three Colors, Twelve Notes for FREE