In 2015, Manoush Zomorodi, a podcast host at WNYC in New York, put a seven-day, seven-step challenge to her listeners that essentially amounted to this: Be bored. In response, tens of thousands of people put away their phones, deleted apps and resisted the urge to post a picture, and then wrote to her about their experiences. Zomorodi documents the results in her new book, Bored and Brilliant, for which she also talked to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists about what’s happening in our brains when we do nothing. (It turns out, a lot.) Here, she discusses why boredom is so important — which is also part of the reason we’re so uncomfortable with it.
Why should people seek boredom?
Chances are you’re walking around with a slab of electronic equipment that you are constantly checking, whether it’s for social media, a map or email. The constant connectivity and being interrupted with notifications hurts our ability to be completely present. It’s not just about mindfulness but being able to connect one thought to another and another one, a form of deep thinking. When we space out, we have our most original ideas. We do everything from problem solving to autobiographical planning.
What do you mean by autobiographical planning?
When you’re playing a video game or checking social media, it’s a form of constant stimulation, the payoff is immediate. What we’ve started to understand is that part of being bored is sitting with things that you’re not that happy about. When you have nothing to do, maybe your mind wanders to think about where you are in your life, and maybe you’re not happy about that.
Those are the moments when you challenge yourself. I have to figure out how I’m going to handle the first week of school with my book coming out, and I need to be considering what my kids will be feeling. Personal issues require a lot of thinking.
It’s Only Going To Get Harder To Put Down Your Phone
Is it possible to be bored while doing other activities?
Doing laundry or walking to work the way you’ve walked a hundred times – to the point where you look up and you’re like, “Oh I’m at the office, how did that happen?”— these are such repetitive movements that your brain doesn’t need to focus on the external activity. It goes into default mode and starts doing internal thinking on its own.
There’s a movement toward high-intensity workouts, which require a lot of mental activity — how long have I been on here? Is it strong enough? Is my heart at the right amount? You can’t do it like that. If you just sat on a bike and pedalled until the point where it was incredibly dull and not that hard, that is the moment where you would go into the default mode network.
What else is happening to ourselves when we’re just sitting with our own thoughts?
I think there’s a level of self-acceptance that has to happen, especially with people who are on social media a lot. You think, “Maybe I should Instagram this?” or “I think this is cool. But how would it appear to other people?” Putting your phone away for a bit and being bored lets you to go to other places where you are not worried about being judged or you just don’t give a crap what anybody thinks. You are just thinking.
In this age where we are watching our own every move and how it would appear to other people — whether or not we should post it or try to get somebody else’s attention — it’s hard to make time for ourselves. When you’re getting bored and just doing things for yourself, you’re the only one who’s going to know it was good for you and you have to be OK with that. You have to be able to have a thought and not share it.
You asked your listeners to take part in a 7-step challenge [see sidebar below] — which task was the hardest for them?
Without a doubt, the one that asked them to delete the one app you feel like you can’t live without, just take it off your phone. It doesn’t mean you delete your account; it just means take the app off your phone so, [if it’s something like Instagram] every time you see something gorgeous, your first impulse isn’t to post about it. If you miss it horribly, no judgment, just put it back the next day, it’s totally fine. There were some people who decided to give themselves Twitter breaks, instead of taking it off completely.
Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant Challenge:
1. Observe Yourself: Track your screen habits with an app such as Moment or Break Free.
2. Keep Your Devices Out of Reach While in Motion: No walking and texting, scrolling or Facebooking.
3. Photo-Free Day: Take in the sunset without taking a photo.
4. Delete that App: Whatever your favourite, most-used app is, take it off your phone.
5. Take a fakeation: Show up for work, but don’t reply to electronic messages (this will obviously be hard in some professions).
6. Observe something else: Go to a public space and people-watch, bird-watch, nature watch — watch anything but a screen.
7. Reflect: Think about the habits exposed by these exercises, and how you might change them going forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.