We Need to Spend More Time Alone with Our Thoughts

This one’s been on my mind for a while.

It started with something small — I found myself playing music off of my phone whenever I was bored. I realized I was using music as a way to fill the silence, to dull the restlessness I experienced when I was left alone with my own mind. This isn’t particularly surprising in light of recent research — a study at the University of Virginia showed that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.

Intrigued by this realization, I started to list out other things I did to stave off boredom:

· Listening to music while running errands (washing the dishes, doing laundry, cleaning my apartment)

· Reading/watching videos while eating

· Reading emails or checking Facebook while waiting in line

Any of this look familiar? This inability to focus on singular tasks and occasionally be alone with our thoughts seems to stem from several intertwined causes:

· We’ve cultivated a deep aversion to boredom. This aversion is only further enabled by technology that shortens our attention spans and is actively rewiring our brains.

· Our standards for stimulation are increasing. When we have unfettered access to a universe of unending information and stimulation through our phones, our thresholds for being entertained climb higher and higher.

· We’ve harnessed counterproductive obsessions with multitasking and being busy.

So to recap: we have lower attention spans, higher thresholds for what qualifies as entertaining, and a fascination with multithreading activities when we’d actually be better off focusing on one thing at a time.

Unfortunately, when we engage with these aforementioned impulses, we are only hurting ourselves.

It turns out that the boredom we are desperately fighting off can actually drive creativity (the benefits of boredom are covered anecdotally here and scientifically here).

Whether we are carving out dedicated periods to reflect or simply refraining from filling every moment of our lives with distractions, it’s critical to free ourselves from a constant cycle of external stimulation. We need to learn to be alone with our minds again. By doing so, we tap fully into our creative capacity and reestablish our ability to think deeply.

Action plan (i.e., so what do I do about all of this?):

Of course, I didn’t write this simply to bemoan the state of current affairs. Below, I’ve outlined 3 different steps (in order of time commitment) you can take to act on what you’ve just read.

· (30 seconds) Commit to a new mantra. Write down, “I am okay with being bored.” on a sticky note and put it somewhere in your working area as a gentle reminder.

· (10 minutes) Leave your phone at home and take a walk. Channel Henry David Thoreau by culling distraction from your life and embracing a mindset of presence.

· (15 minutes) Identify one activity you normally do while multitasking — eating dinner, washing dishes, cleaning your room — and instead, choose to focus entirely on the task at hand.

Further reading:

If you’ve gone through all the links above and are still craving more, I highly recommend these two pieces. The first is a broad overview of scientific research on boredom. The second, only tangentially related to my essay here, details the writing process of Jonathan Franzen (one of my favorite authors) and his complete dedication to cutting out external distraction.

The Telegraph — Is boredom good for you?

The New York Times — Jonathan Franzen’s Big Book

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk.