Manoush Zomorodi spoke to me last year about the importance and joy of being bored. As host of WNYC’s “Note To Self” podcast, Zomorodi ran an experiment with 20,000 listeners. She challenged them to spend less time using their phones and more time idle. Zomorodi found something fascinating in the feedback she received from participants to that project. Boredom, which was widely considered to be an unproductive and uncomfortable state of being, was actually proving to be a source of creativity and productivity.
She turned to neuroscience to explain the phenomenon. Your brain’s default mode flips on. Your mind can wander into many imaginative places when the default mode is active. Your mind makes new connections between all the information in your brain and engages in “autobiographical plan,” which allows you to imagine your future and then work backwards through the steps you need to get there. These conclusions, along with supporting evidence, formed the basis for Zomorodi’s 2017 book Bored and Brilliant – How Spacing Out can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creativeself.
Most people wouldn’t describe their mental state right now as being “bored”. They might be worried, anxious, or scared. Those who would describe themselves as being bored have the advantage of being financially and physically healthy. No matter what your job status or financial situation, you will likely find that you have more time than you need and less to fill it with.
Technology can only give us so many hours per day. We suddenly had more time. This was not something I expected to receive. It’s obvious that the time is very limited when you have two children and cook three meals per day. Before, you could only manage one.
Another thing that surprised me was my inbox’s quietness at the beginning. Then it exploded with invitations to Zoom exercise classes, art classes, virtual meetings, streaming conferences and newsletters. It was overwhelming. I thought, “Oh my God, everyone wants to be heard during all this.”
This is a terrible experiment in many ways. People are losing their jobs, and they are clearly losing their family members. It’s also a chance to observe how we react in different situations. What if things return to normal, but you don’t get back to the way you were before? It’s the Great Reset. It is important that we all sit down and observe the process and make decisions. That’s what I do right now.
You can see the bigger picture when you get older. Even though there may be some spikes in productivity on certain days, you can see that the overall trend is upwards for your life. You are creating things that will sustain you and your work.
Ira Glass gives a commencement speech in which he discusses the importance of an editor and how you want your first draft to be horrible. The first draft is the one that you are thinking, “I must bow to the gods of this draft. The next draft will probably be even more sloppy. The third … is just as important. It’s impossible to skip a step.”
My key is to observe my own behavior objectively. Bored and Brilliant’s message was to get out of your digital rut and change it. Then, be more boring and not judge yourself. Are you more creative? Is it making a difference?
One of the most common comments that people made in the project was about how difficult it was to be alone, especially for younger people. I hope we’re now in a time where people can live with themselves more, take things slower and enjoy the little moments. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds so cheesy. But I hope people find the delight in solitudes instead of thinking about it or finding it lonely.
This would be a wonderful thing: people become more at ease with themselves when they spend time with them and get to know themselves. It was initially boring but they may have moved on to the wonderful world of daydreaming. It is possible to time travel. Your brain can even time travel, even if you aren’t going anywhere. It’s awesome.
To get to the dream, I believe you must get past the “Oh my God I’m bored” stage. You have to do it, you have to do it” panic voice. How can you get past that fear?
It is okay to daydream occasionally. Daydreaming can cause rumination and can make it difficult for people to deal with anxiety. “What’s going on with me?” What will happen to my family? This can lead to a spiral. However, there is also positive constructive daydreaming. This is the good kind.
Boredom is something I refer to as “Oh my God.” My mind wanders, and I don’t enjoy where it’s going. It’s boring.” Or, maybe I just walk outside because I have to and then I say, “Maybe I’ll just just listen to the news all day because my legs hurt and it is uncomfortable and I would rather just lie down.”
Boredom requires discipline. You can be more confident that it will work if you practice it.
After you have crossed the threshold of boredom and entered the default mode, what happens? The default mode is where we do our best original thinking, problem-solving and come up with new ideas. It also houses autobiographical planning. This is basically looking back at your entire life and recalling all the highlights and low points. Then you write the story and make sense of everything that has happened and how you got here.
Next, we project into the future. Then, we begin to envision different scenarios. Then we choose the ones we like, set goals, work backwards from where we are now, and determine how we will achieve them and what steps to take. You can travel in your brain from your past to your future and back to the present. It’s all about feeling a sense that there is always a way to make it possible. That’s powerful, I think.