Believe it or not, sometimes not doing anything at all is the most productive thing you can do.
Remember when you were a kid and you used to say, “Mom, I’m booored,” and she’d tell you to go entertain yourself? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you weren’t as whiny as me. Or maybe you were born sometime in the last two decades(ish), and had a childhood that perpetually involved a screen. But there was a time before the iPhone (and after the Industrial Revolution, which, really, gave birth to leisure time) when we humans desperately tried to avoid the dark embrace of boredom. Having nothing to do meant spending time alone with your own thoughts. Which: Ew.
Then? Phones got smart, and so did we, with easy access to more information and entertainment than we’d ever had before. Now, every moment you spend being bored—while riding an elevator, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or biding time until your date returns from the restroom—is a moment you don’t spend reading a book, skimming the news, or catching up on social media. Basically, being bored in 2018 is a slap in the face of technology. Never again will we have nothing to do. This is a good thing… right?
Not so fast, says Manoush Zomorodi, whose New York Public Radio tech podcast "Note to Self" turned into a project called “Bored and Brilliant” that was designed to get listeners to spend less time on their phones. That then turned into a book of the same name, a deep dive into the neuroscience of boredom, and the discovery of an important new insight: it’s actually when we are bored that we’re able to quiet the part of our brain that talks all day and turn up the part that’s more creative. The unthinking mind wandering that happens when you’re bored takes all the information you’ve entered and makes use of it in innovative ways. In other words: being bored is the difference between being good at Jeopardy! and being someone who actually uses the knowledge that you've learned to come up with solutions to fix problems (both of the personal and societal kind).
In a culture obsessed with productivity, boredom seems like a sin. (Not to mention impossible when so much of the everyday stimuli we take for granted—email, ads, Facebook—is bent on robbing us of our attention.) But sometimes sitting back and doing nothing is, ironically, exactly what you need to do in order to get more done. We were so scared of being bored at all that we failed to appreciate the frightening repercussions of not being bored enough.
GQ: Could you put some guardrails on what we mean when we say boredom?
Manoush Zomorodi: For our purposes, I think we should call it that moment when you're like, "I'm not doing anything. I don't have a focused activity for my brain and my mind is beginning to wander and I'm just going to look at my phone." For those of us of a certain age, we remember waiting for the subway to come, and then you realize you forgot to put The New Yorker in your bag. That was back in the day. Now, we have our phones to take that space. For me it was like, "Well, that seems like a good thing that we never have to be bored anymore." Everyone says only boring people get bored. We inherently think boredom is to be avoided at all costs. But then it made me think, well, there must be a reason why we got bored. What's going on in our brains when we get bored? And what, more importantly, would go on in our brains if we never got bored?
Then I learned this really amazing thing that actually when you get bored and you're not focused on an activity but you're either lounging—fucking off—or you're folding socks—something super repetitive that doesn't need your brain to be engaged—that's when you ignite this network in your brain called the default mode. Now neuroscientists know that the default mode is when you do your most original thinking. You do your problem-solving. It's where you have imagination, where you have empathy. Your mind does something that's kind of like time traveling. You go back and you think of things that happened and you make sense of them and then you extract lessons from them. They call it autobiographical planning. Then you can imagine yourself in the future, and set goals and all those things that the type A freak show that I am wanted to do.
Did you find that explanation for why we do get bored? Was there some evolutionary reason?
Nobody knows the real reason. But the way I like to think of it is: boredom is the gateway to mind wandering. If every time that your mind might wander, you look at your phone, you've interrupted the process. It's like a muscle. That makes sense because that's what the technology has been designed to do. It's been designed to exploit that split second where you decide, "Should I look at my phone? Yeah. You should check Facebook. You should retweet something." That, we're told, is how you build a personal brand. It's how you stay connected to friends and family.
"One young teenager said to me, 'What you're describing is scary to me. I don't want to be alone with my thoughts.' Well, that worries me, because you're gonna be with you for a very long time."
It's almost like we're confusing productivity with reactivity: the more reactive you are and the more output there is, that is productive. But actually to do the deeper work—as Cal Newport calls it, the deep work—or to find solutions to problems that're in your life, your community and society, it's harder. And especially since we're going into this automated era where: what will humans be good for? We'll be good for the bigger problem solving. We'll have so much access to information, but it's how we put that information together to find new solutions to bigger problems—that's where the real work is.
How do you think about navigating these challenges, as a mom?
In a lot of places, there is this idea that if your child is bored, it somehow reflects poorly on you as a parent. You're not sending them to tap classes or swimming classes, or maybe they should be learning a second instrument, or another language—that you're not tickling their brain in some way that will enrich them. If they're bored, that means that you've screwed up. But that's not the relationship that a lot of us have with our kids. In many ways, that's more wonderful and rewarding. We talk about our feelings. Children are no longer expected to be seen, not heard. But at the same time maybe we're a little bit too involved.
I remember [as a kid] being so bored and walking around and collecting all the plants in the house and then naming them all and giving them name tags and performing a concert for them. That would never have happened if I had been carted off to Mandarin lessons. So I think there's a healthy balance to be found. Like, one young teenager said to me, "What you're describing is scary to me. I don't want to be alone with my thoughts." Well, that worries me, because you're gonna be with you for a very long time, and you really need to rely on you. You better figure out the relationship you have with yourself. It’s pretty important… There's a sense of: why do we go on Instagram? Because it's a nice place to be as opposed to in our thoughts, which can get dark.
...I really don't like sounding like an old fogey: Oh kids today, they don't know how to be—I don't think we're saying that. We're just saying that their experience is very different and so we have to try and understand the human things that are being affected by new technology, and try more than ever to remind ourselves what is good about being human.
I wonder what the connection is between the seeming rise in anxiety among young people and the constant need to be stimulated.
Some people think it's a little bit crazy to draw this line, but I think it comes down to the incentives of the tech platforms that we use. If the way that they pay the bills is based on the amount of time that they spend with your eyeballs, then they're gonna maximize the design and feedback loop to get to spend more time on them, right? We all know this. But until they change the way that they make money, then that's going to continue to be the way that we interact with those platforms. And that annoys me because then it's, "It's either on or off.” And I don't think that's the answer. That's bullshit. To be a person in the world today, you need to have a social media presence and people who don't are considered sketchy. So if on or off is definitely not the answer, it's a two-pronged attack.
On the one hand, it's about explaining to ourselves and to kids that there are good reasons why you feel this way. Don't blame yourself. The way that the internet has evolved, the product is you and the reason why you feel anxious is because it's a design choice: the constant scroll makes you feel like you never reach the end. But also, we need to explain that self regulation is a thing. Until we have real regulation of big tech, self regulation needs to be practiced and taught, too. Which is really hard. I wrote the book on it, and I still really struggle. It's not a one-time fix. This is a constant conversation that you need to be having with yourself. “How do I feel right now? I feel anxious. Okay, time to close the Twitter app then 'cause then it stops serving you.”
Unfortunately, it took the hacking of a presidential election for people to start to peel back what's going on in the guts of these tech companies, which are essentially putting earnings above the well being of society a lot of the time.
"Your brain needs time to get weird. Otherwise, you're just posting cute pictures of your dog."
What are some good ways to go about exercising that boredom “muscle,” as you call it?
I heard from numerous people who were like, "Oh, I never get bored." And I was like, "What do you mean? Do you mean because you're always busy?" And what I think they meant, my interpretation, is that they knew how to pass through the uncomfortable part of being bored more quickly. A guy said, “I guess you could say it's super boring to mow my lawn every week for an hour, you can't listen to anything because it's so loud. But I kind of love it and I don't find it boring.” It's how you reframe it: he lets his mind do whatever it wants to do while he mows the lawn.
For me, I started running without listening to anything, which is torturous for the first minutes. Then I start to think about my day, and then I'll notice that I'll replay a bunch of different things that have happened to me in the previous days, and I start to actually process what happened in a meeting instead of just going to the next thing. I also find that I start to imagine myself delivering a talk. Like, what's it going to be like when I walk up on stage? What shoes am I wearing? Are my feet going to hurt? Is that going to distract me? It's like working out your shit so that you're not feeling anxious and freaked out all the time.
Running, mowing the lawn, folding laundry—these are all really good options. There's so much literature about how the best writers in the world were always fans of constitutional walks. [Being bored is like] the stuff that feels super uncomfortable if you're not used to it, like going to the gym. It really hurts [at first]. But then you start going maybe three, four times a week and it gets a little easier and maybe you get the little high and the sweat starts to feel good and it just suddenly becomes part of your life.
I heard from my 20,000 who did the [Bored and Brilliant] project that amazing stuff happened. They figured out ways to confront big problems with co-workers, or they came up with a new idea for a business, or they finally understood what they needed to do to finish their thesis. Lots of big things that make not incremental, but big changes in their life. Your brain needs time to get weird. Otherwise, you're just posting cute pictures of your dog.
Someone who's playing devil's advocate might be like, okay, but if I'm folding laundry and getting in touch with myself, how is that better than folding laundry and listening to "The Daily"? I'm getting laundry done, but I'm also learning about the news and that seems a little bit more advantageous than folding laundry and getting to a place of personal revelation.
I don't think there's anything wrong with folding laundry and listening to The New York Times. What I do think is—I find that a lot of people tell me they do [this], and I certainly do—this idea of feeding ourselves more and more and more information and then never actually doing anything with it. Not ever taking a moment to think about it or to synthesize it or to connect it to something you might be doing at work. “Climate change is a disaster.” Well, okay, yes. But then what? Does that mean that you are going to make a donation? Does that mean that you are going to start an initiative at work? Does that mean that you are going to talk to your kids about it?
When you think through how you want to respond to something, that cuts down on what a lot of people do on social media, which is have a knee jerk reaction. I'm outraged. I'm angry. I'm pissed. Go cool down or go sleep on it or whatever. Think it over a little bit before you respond. We want hot takes in this society, right? I think there should be a version of slow Twitter… some way of having messages and conversations, but slowing it down just a little bit, [being] a little more thoughtful and less angry or pissed or whatever. Nobody does well when they freak out.
If you can figure out some way to make it so you succeed—whether that's by crafting a response, or thinking through how you are going to tackle a problem, or making a plan to woo your boss or get them to see your side—that to me is not just about getting in touch with yourself, but improving your life, too. Basically, boiling it down, you're telling people to think. I feel like that's where we’ve sadly gotten to in this society. What I’m talking about is not rocket science.
It's almost like you have to put “Do nothing” on your to-do list. We've just slipped priorities in our society. When things move slower, and there is less connectivity, you had to work harder to get it all done and then the day was over. Now, it all happens instantaneously. I think for those of us who love to get shit done, this is awesome. But then, [we’ve got to] realize that other stuff is missing in our lives, and we have to acknowledge that it's just as important and build it back into our life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.