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Remember Boredom?

Smartphones Turn Our Lives into a Game of Schedule Tetris


When was the last time you stared hard at nothing? I mean really and truly focused your eyes on precisely zilch, tuned out the clamor and din of your immediate vicinity, followed your unpredictable mind down an unproductive path and just … fully … spaced?

I don’t remember the last time I did that. And I miss it.

Starshine Roshell

My mind has no opportunity to wander anymore; when I find myself teetering on the scraggly edge of boredom — at the gas pump, in the checkout line, in the doctor’s waiting room, even (yes) at especially long stoplights — I gather up every shred of my frazzled attention and heave it at my iPhone screen to see if I can’t lose myself in a trivial text exchange, tumbling-puppy video, or chapter 37 of the audiobook-that-will-not-end.

I realize this is unhealthy behavior. Each time I catch myself doing it, I feel a queasy sort of shame, a sense that I’ve lost or am close to losing something essential and irreplaceable.

I promised myself I’d never become one of those old people who malign new technology as the devil’s work simply because it’s different than what I grew up with. But I’m already lamenting the things we’ve sacrificed to the Digital Age, the stuff smartphones have stolen from us: The ability to remember our best friend’s phone number. Or navigate our own way around a city. Or look something up alphabetically. Or sit and marvel at a sunset without feeling obliged to capture and share it. Or wait for five minutes. For anything. At all.

And now this: Study after study says that smartphones are sapping our creativity — by preventing us from ever being bored. Here’s the science of it: We get a yummy little spurt of dopamine each time our phones ping, buzz, or otherwise call out to us; we’re dying to see what needs our attention. Will it be good (a Snapchat from a lover)? Will it be bad (a low-battery warning)? So we swipe at our pocket screens dozens of times a day, chasing that humiliating mini-high like a retiree at a nickel slot machine.

We’ll even interrupt a business meeting, intimate conversation, or (ahem) otherwise productive column-writing session to read a Jimmy Fallon tweet or appraise a photo of our college roommate’s lunch.

The problem is we leave no room for mental downtime or what researchers call “constructive daydreaming” — which is when we do our best thinking. “You come up with really great stuff when you don’t have that easy, lazy, junk-food diet of the phone to scroll all the time,” U.K. psychologist Sandi Mann told public radio show New Tech City recently.

She’s right, of course. Our lives have become a grand game of schedule Tetris, where we get a rush from filling every tiny, unclaimed pocket of free time with piddling tasks: consulting the weather forecast, perusing the Sephora sale, scanning a movie review. When, by god, do we just … reflect?

When do we work out the small but significant puzzles of life, from what to make for dinner to how to repair that friendship that’s careening south? When does our subconscious get uncorked, to whisper its weighty, big-picture truths in our ears?

I find that lately I do my best thinking in the shower — and now I know why: I can’t reach my phone.

But I’m about to make a change. On February 2, New Tech City (wnyc.org/series/bored-and-brilliant) launches Bored & Brilliant, a week of challenges designed to help us spend less time on our phones and more time thinking creatively. Sign up with me and give it a try. They’ll email us daily prompts to get us back on the road to fresh, original, productive thinking.

I can’t wait to be bored again. I’m gonna be chairman of the freaking bored. And when I’ve reclaimed my daydreams and am churning out inventive ideas again, just look out because …

Oh! Bye. There’s a Bored & Brilliant email now.

Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.



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