I had a realization the other day when I put my phone and laptop in my desk and vowed not to take them out again for 24 hours. I was doing a “digital detox” and my reason for it was mainly because I was getting worried about my mood and how these devices were affecting it. But I noticed something interesting that day, that didn’t really have anything to do with mood, it had to do with creativity.
Before smartphones, there were pockets of time, all day long, when we would have a little rest. And I mean cognitive rest, not physical rest. Waiting in line. Going for a walk. Even going to the bathroom. Remember when we used to just space out for a minute? Remember when time didn’t always have to be filled?
But this isn’t an article about how something marvelous will happen when you wait in line. I’m not trying to make a case for cellphones making us anti-social or saying that you’re missing out on life by having your face in a screen.
No, I’m saying we need to take the time to zone out, because our brains actually need to zone out.
This consumption of information is robbing us of creativity. Studies have shown that zoning out can spark our imagination. And it makes sense, if our mind is spending time getting filled with new information, it’s not spending time creating. We actually need boredom in order to create.
This doesn’t mean that you need to schedule time to be bored. Please, no more productivity hacks and planners and habit trackers. We have little opportunities for boredom all day long. Eat your lunch with no stimulation other than what’s around you. In fact, take your food somewhere you’ve never been before. Nothing fancy, just get out. Allow your mind to wander, and take in your surroundings. Go for a walk with no headphones. Go to the bathroom with no entertainment other than your own mind.
Why have we become so afraid to be alone with our thoughts? I’m a meditation teacher, and that’s the first hurdle to getting people to even consider meditation. Although lots of people are trying it, there are large swaths of the population, especially younger folks, who can’t fathom sitting for 15 (or 10 or 5) minutes and doing NOTHING. In fact, they find it kind of terrifying.
And I think a lot of people kind-of instinctively know that this is not a good thing. But why? Maybe you have some sense that it’s bad, but try explaining to a teenager why they should be bored. They will look at you like you’re crazy. Why make the case for boredom? Boredom is unpleasant. If boredom was good, people would seek it out, right?
What’s interesting to me is how hard it is to relax these days. We dream of going on vacation, where we can just sit on the beach and do nothing. We work so hard to get there, buying plane tickets, booking a place to stay. To finally get to the beach, get set up, snap a picture, and then ok… now what? That feeling of antsy-ness comes creeping in. “What, am I just supposed to sit here?” we think. Where’s my book? But our attention span can’t even handle long-form text anymore, so before long, we are sitting on a beautiful beach, huddled over a little screen. So strange.
We have collective anhedonia. The things that used to make us happy don’t make us happy anymore. Simple pleasures, like watching a sunset, enjoying an ice cream cone and a walk in the park, are disrupted by taking the perfect shot of the ice cream, posting it, and then checking back for likes. Some people don’t even see the point in doing something if there’s not an opportunity to share it.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the woods. I would make fairy houses, and pretend to drink tea out of acorn shells, making little table settings out of leaves and flowers. I would create and act out thousands of stories everyday, with my brother or friends when they were around. But a lot of times, it was just me. Listening to the trees, admiring the mossy patches on the forest floor. Did I get bored? Hell yeah I did! But it didn’t last. I had to figure out what to do. As a writer, what I wouldn’t give to have access to the incredible fountain of imagination I had as a child!
I want to have boredom again. I want to spend time aimless. And I want to have to create the solution to my boredom with my own mind. This is the magic of boredom, it’s not the being in it, it’s the getting yourself out of it.
On that digital detox day, when my phone and computer were put away, I did things. They were little things like, I organized my desk. Repotted a bunch of little succulents that had been dying. Put a cool patch onto my bag. Sewed a pouch for my singing bowl out of some beautiful fabric I’d had for years. They were not much, but they were satisfying. There’s just something about creating, no matter how small. To bring something new into the world, that wasn’t there before, created a feeling of wholeness, of purpose.
How human, to imagine something, and then create it. How simple. And yet, profound.
When was the last time you created something? Anything, a poem, a cake, a song. Even an IDEA. We all have the potential for great ideas, and we could have several a day if we would just give our brains a minute to catch its breath.
Consuming information is just one skill our mind has. It’s great at it, but it can do so much more!
We have many many things bubbling under the surface of our consciousness. Our brain is puzzling over a lot. When it has a quiet moment, sometimes ideas will pop out. Sometimes it’s a solution to a problem, and sometimes it’s just something interesting or creative. But it needs space, it needs rest. We don’t have to compulsively fill every second with something. We can just stare out the window. We can see patterns in the tile floor. We can admire the birds on a fall day.
We can just do nothing, and see what happens.