Why being bored should be your New Year's resolution
When I sat down to write this story, I kept getting interrupted.
On the screen to my left, 23 tabs were opened on my internet browser. On the screen to my right, a panel of experts debated whether or not a sitting U.S. president can be indicted. (Verdict: unclear.) All the while, my iPhone sat face up on my desk, buzzing whenever somebody liked an Instagram photo of my dog meeting a llama.
The onslaught of alerts, notifications, comments and likes left my mind scattered. It was more than a little ironic, considering that I was trying to write about boredom.
Anyone who grew up before airplanes had screens in the backs of seats is familiar with boredom – that mind-numbing feeling where time seems to stall and you’re stuck with nothing but your thoughts. York University psychologist John Eastwood, whose research focuses on boredom, defines the feeling as “the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity.”
It’s never been easier to neutralize boredom. Ninety-four per cent of Canadians under 35 own a smartphone and spend nearly five hours per day online, according to a recent report.
All this connection, of course, can feel nice. Being bored isn’t a fun experience, let alone a sought-after one, and human beings have gone to great lengths to evade boredom.
But being bored might not be all that bad. In fact, a growing number of researchers and low-tech advocates believe that smartphones aren’t just rewiring our brains in unhealthy ways – they’re actively robbing us of an essential part of being human. By constantly focusing on the screens in our hands, some experts say we’re missing out on the untapped benefits of a wandering mind.
Does boredom boost creativity?
It’s hard to notice the benefits of boredom until you feel them. Last fall, 28-year-old blogger Britt Bruce spent three days driving from southern Ontario to northern Ontario. Most of her road trip was through vast rural areas without mobile service, which meant Bruce couldn’t check social media or update her followers on the journey.
The time offline paid off surprisingly quickly. Bruce slept better. She took time to stare out the window and take in the scenery. She noticed an unusual lack of tightness in her shoulders and forehead.
In other words, she was relaxed.
Technology detoxes are now a regular part of Bruce’s life. She does one every few months and says each time she feels as though she’s giving her creativity a boost.
“Boredom is everything,” Bruce told CTVNews.ca. “Being bored allows us to tap into our creativity. People love to say they aren’t creative. But everyone is. We’ve just squashed our creativity by always having our phones ready to distract us at the first sign of boredom or discomfort. It might seem counterintuitive, but boredom is fundamental to reclaiming our time.”
That link between boredom and creativity is backed up by research. Teresa Belton, a researcher with the University of East Anglia, has studied the effects of television on children’s ability to tell creative stories. Belton found that TV largely distracts children from “inner processes” and could prevent them from pursuing their own thoughts.
In her research, Belton has also interviewed creative adults about their relationships with boredom.
“They all said boredom can instigate new thinking and prod them into trying new things," Belton told the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology in 2013.
“If people don't have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively, they might do something destructive to fill the void … Those who have the patience to stay with that feeling, and the imagination and confidence to try out new ideas, are likely to make something creative out of it."
But boredom can have its drawbacks. Researchers have linked feelings of boredom to overeating, drug abuse and gambling. A 2010 study found that British civil servants who reported feeling large amounts of boredom tended to die earlier. (The report has been widely cited as evidence that it’s possible to be “bored to death.”)
Can technology solve our phone addictions?
As for excessive smartphone use, tech giants are taking note. Apple recently added Screen Time to its newest operating system. The app calculates how much time users spend on their phones and breaks down precisely where they’re spending their time.
Facebook and Instagram have also introduced features to help users monitor time spent on social media.
Apps like Freedom, Space and AntiSocial offer similar screen-tracking features.
But a Canadian start-up is offering a different approach. Flipd aims to curb smartphone use by rewarding people for time spent off their phones, rather than guilt-tracking time spent scrolling. The app also includes a full-lock mode that temporarily hides third-party apps and notifications.
“It’s about plugging in to mindful activities,” explained Alanna Harvey, co-founder of Flipd.
Since it was launched in 2016, Flipd has drawn 750,000 users worldwide. A recent internal survey of 1,500 Flipd users found that two in three respondents felt that the app helped them enjoy life more fully and improved their mental wellbeing.
Harvey said the culture around smartphones needs to change – particularly the way in which people revert to using their phones in social scenarios.
“I think the biggest issue with phones especially is they’re in your life 24-7, and it causes you to evade boredom,” Harvey said. “So whenever you have a moment of rest you never sit with your thoughts, you’re never alone with your mind.”
To encourage people to connect in real life, Flipd offers a “communities” feature that allows users to set up specific times in the day to all “flip off” their phones as a group.
5 ways to unplug
For those looking to take some time off their screens in 2019, blogger Britt Bruce has some pointers.
- “Start with a small digital detox. Spend a day or a couple of hours sans phone just to test the waters and see how it makes you feel.”
- “Give yourself some space. Put your phone in another room for an evening (if you spend your evenings in your living room, maybe keep your phone in your bedroom or basement). If it’s out of sight, you’ll be less tempted to check it.”
- “Create a tech-free zone. Create a permanent no-phone zone somewhere in your house (like a bedroom or living room). You'll be surprised how quickly this space becomes your go-to relaxation haven where no distractions are present.”
- “Replace the habit. We spend a lot of time on our phones, so if you’re trying to remove that, you’ll need to find something to replace that time. It could be reading a paperback book, going for a walk, or having a face-to-face conversation. Just make sure that your replacement is something you actually enjoy, so you’ll look forward to doing it when the temptation of checking your phone is strong.”
- “Give yourself a time limit. Give yourself dedicated time to check your phone. Whether it’s five minutes a day or an hour, make sure it’s something that is sustainable to you and fulfils your technology urges.”