Bored and Brilliant a Few Weeks Later


A few weeks ago I set out to try the “Bored and Brilliant” challenge from Manoush Zomorodi’s book by the same name (link). The challenge has 7 days of activities designed to help you reflect on your use of technology, mobile phones in particular. The book itself grew out of Zomorodi’s podcast “Note to Self” and an experiment she tried with her podcast listeners.

The rest of this article will summarize the challenges briefly and some of the thinking in the book and finally relate my experiences from the challenge.

The Challenges and the Theory

  1. Monitor. For the first day just track how much you use your phone. Zomorodi recommends Moment on iOS (link).
  2. No devices while in motion.
  3. No pictures
  4. Delete “that” app
  5. Take a “fakecation,” be in the office but out of touch
  6. Observe something else, reclaim the art of noticing
  7. Get bored and think about a problem you’ve been trying to solve

The underlying theory behind this effort and the challenges is that modern society has forgotten the importance of being bored, letting our brains unwind, etc. Zomorodi has the detailed neuroscience explanations about how boredom is important for allowing our brains’ default networks to activate and more generally about why not being (over-)stimulated constantly is important.

Futher, all of the notifications on our phones can be a bit like a slot-machine junkie as you go in for intermittent reward of a notification, a like, an email, etc. seeking a dopamine hit.

Zomorodi is not anti-technology or anti-smartphone. All she’s pointing out is that we probably are not fully aware of how much time we surrender to our phones and whether we are happy with that use of time. Worse still, perhaps while that time seems to relieve boredom, maybe overall it’s making us less happy.

Only one way to know: monitoring.

Day 1: Monitoring Usage

I dutifully installed the Moment App for iOS on day one of the challenge and went about my day. Aside, I paid the $4 for the premium version that OCR’s screenshots of the battery report on your iPhone and breaks usage down by application, very cool.

I know for Day 1, I was self-conscious about being monitored and I saw a quick drop vs. prior day (based on 7-day battery screenshot for prior days).

Easy peasy. Monitoring is one of the challenges I’ve been maintaining. I try to look at the results non-judgmentally and just ask, “given the amount of time, am I happy with that usage level?”

Day 2: No devices while in motion

Wow this was hard. I noticed that when I walk to the bathroom at work, I reflexively take my phone out my pocket. As if on the 300 step journey between my desk and the bathrooms some all important email had come in.

On challenge day I failed one time, but caught myself at least 10 times just reflexively pulling my phone out of my pocket to start to check.

This is a harder challenge to maintain. While I was visiting London for vacation and using maps for street navigation I found myself falling back into old habits. I have definitely cut back on this type of usage.

Day 3: No pictures

Sounds easy, except I often take pictures of receipts for work, or whiteboards, and so forth.

This challenge was selected by Zomorodi because of research showing taking the picture reduces our memories in many cases because it seems like we outsource recording our memories to the camera and don’t observe as much. Zomorodi is not saying never to take pictures, but to be aware that taking pictures can detract from experiencing the moment. As a photography aficionado parts of this fall flat for me and parts are true. My ~300 pictures/day 7 day vacation is proof I like taking a lot of photographs. But the flip side is on a daily basis I’m not a Snapchat-er/Instagram-er/Pintrest-er type taking tons of photos.

I went into Day 3 with positive intent but had already failed first thing when I started photographing lights that were out in my condo complex to report to the management. (Closely followed by failing at Day 2 by emailing the managers while I was walking.) Multiple additional failures followed and I repeated this challenge before moving to Day 4.

In the subsequent weeks, I’ve mostly ignored this challenge and my vacation photos prove it.

Day 4: Delete “that” app

This was easy: Facebook had to go. I had previously followed Gretchen Rubin’s advice to delete soul sucking apps so the obvious Candy Crush/Two Dots-style games were already gone. But Facebook is a dopamine feeder with notifications that are seemingly important, but ultimately not. I mean why do I need to get notified for each like on a post of mine? Is that really important information or would that be better summarized a day later? I sort of know the answer, the little notifications are strangely addictive, drawing you in.

Facebook was deleted and not reinstalled, not missing it on my phone. Also it removed the endless bottom scrolling for new stuff. More boredom and a big win in Zomorodi’s book.

Day 5: Fakecation

I skipped this challenge and took a real vacation, might revisit in the future. I think the point of blocking chunks of time for focused work is a good one and is something I periodically do — including working from home when I need extended periods of concentration.

Day 6: Observe something

It’s harder than it seems in our ever connected world to “just be.” I found this challenge hard and enjoyable. I’ve done it a few more times subsequently, taking 15 or so minutes to just experience the world. I’ve found this challenge useful.

Day 7: Get bored

This was one of the more complex/detailed challenges, so I’ll provide a bit more of the step-by-step:

  1. Find something you want to think about, e.g. something confusing, something you’ve avoided, etc.
  2. Set aside 30 minutes free from distraction. Get really bored. Zomorodi recommends either watching a pot of water boil or filling a piece of paper with alternating 1/0’s in small writing.
  3. With pen/paper, set you mind to solving the issue from Step 1 while bored.

I will be honest, I did not attempt this challenge yet. Though I think it is intriguing.


Aside from the specific challenges, I’ve made some other changes to my i-Devices, turning off (even more) notifications to a much greater extent. Also even for those I’ve kept, I’ve reduced notification intrusiveness (badges only instead of banners). One example, do you really need notifications for email? You always have new email right? (This last idea I think came from Tristan Harris who is working on the Time Well Spent project.)

I’ve also tried to reflect when I get my morning usage report from Moment on overall app usage about whether I’m happy about the way I’m using my devices. Overall, I’m realizing that I’ve reclaimed about an hour on a typical day and pushed that into reading more, talking more with friends and family, generally engaging in life, and most of all being bored now and again.