Take the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’

By Tracey Dowdy

When was the last time you were bored?

Journalist and host of the “Note to Self” podcast, Manoush Zomorodi asks the following questions in her TED Talk: “What actually happens to us when we get bored? Or, more importantly: What happens to us if we never get bored? And what could happen if we got rid of this human emotion entirely?”

Prior to the birth of her son, Zomorodi had worked as a journalist, traveling extensively and reporting from war zones and disaster sites. Her son was a colicky baby who refused to sleep, and could only be soothed by riding in a moving stroller. Because it was the pre-smartphone era, Zomorodi had nothing to distract her on these endless walks, and initially found those first weeks mind-numbingly boring. But, by the third month of “pounding the pavement,” she experienced a shift, and suddenly her mind wandered as freely as her feet and she began to day dream and imagine like never before.

Fast-forward months later. Back to work with a smartphone in hand and her free time was now spent on Pinterest, Facebook and the like. Her creativity had taken a hit. “I started to think back: When was the last time I actually had a good idea? Yeah, it was when I was pushing that damn stroller. Now all the cracks in my day were filled with phone time.”

The realization inspired her to talk to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. They explained that when we get bored, our brains switch to “default mode.” Think of it like auto-pilot. It’s where you go when you do “mindless” tasks like weeding the garden or household chores.

Zomorodi says, “I learned that in the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems and we do something called “autobiographical planning.”

Before smartphones and laptops, we’d spend our downtime setting long term goals, sifting through memories and problem solving. Now, we read email, tweet, scroll though Facebook and Instagram or play Sudoku on our phones. Our brains are constantly engaged and stimulated.

“A decade ago, we shifted our attention at work every three minutes. Now we do it every 45 seconds and we do it all day long. The average person checks email 74 times a day and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day,” says Zomorodi.

Former Google designer Tristan Harris explained why so many of us are addicted to our devices. “If I’m Facebook or I’m Netflix or I’m Snapchat, I have literally a thousand engineers whose job is to get more attention from you. I’m very good at this and I don’t want you to ever stop. And you know, the CEO of Netflix recently said, ‘Our biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and sleep.’”

To put it more bluntly, as Zamorodi says, “As one UX designer told me, the only people who refer to their customers as “users” are drug dealers and technologists.”

Former Facebook product manager and author Antonio García Martínez says, “The saying is, if any product is free then you’re the product; your attention is the product. But what is your attention worth?”

As an experiment, Zomorodi challenged her listeners to break the cycle and take back the attention that we’d surrendered to our devices. She called the challenge “Bored and Brilliant” and utilized specific apps to measure how much time users spent on their phones. Part of the challenge included deleting the one app that was the biggest time-waster, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, or even Candy Crush.

At the beginning of the experiment, users spent an average of 120 minutes on their phones. After? An average of 114. Six minutes may not seem like much, but the impact wasn’t so much measured in time but in the stories themselves. Participants stated they no longer felt like their phone was an extension of themselves but a tool they had control over.

Zamorodi concludes with, “So the next time you go to check your phone, remember that if you don’t decide how you’re going to use the technology, the platforms will decide for you…It might feel weird and uncomfortable at first but boredom truly can lead to brilliance.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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