We’ve cured boredom and that’s not good

My colleague at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Chris Rawson, recently explained why most people should think long and hard before installing a beta version of the iPad and iPhone operating system. These betas are typically distributed to developers so that they can test their apps against future updates, but any interested party with $100 can sign up as a developer and get it themselvers. It was a great piece and contained this blurb from a frustrated iPad owner:

I recently bought an iPad right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I [installed iOS 5 beta 2]. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black … It’s just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I’m home.

Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.

Forget the iOS install and focus on the huge problem illustrated by this user: He’s on vacation in AFRICA — a foreign continent — and can’t find anything to do without his iPad.

There isn’t one single compelling thing to do in all of Africa?

I don’t condemn this reader individually, because he has succumbed to an insidious epidemic. Specifically, we’ve cured boredom. And that’s a real problem. In The Wall Street Journal, Scott Adams wrote back in 2011:

But wait — we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.

I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.

I’ve expressed this idea in less articulate terms myself. The insistent nature of Twitter, Facebook, and a thousand games in your pocket has produced a generation that never experiences a dull moment. That means we also never experience a contemplative moment, a reflective moment, a creative moment. Scott Belsky agrees:

Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.

I know this makes me sound like a cranky old misanthrope, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to generate a truly creative thought while the incessant barrage pelts us. It’s like complaining that we’re not dry while standing in a rain storm. You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.

Turn off, be quiet, and be comfortable with your thoughts. It’s OK, I promise.

19 Comments for “We’ve cured boredom and that’s not good”

  1. posted by EngineerMom on

    So true.

    We don’t own a car, so we frequently take the bus or walk to wherever we need to go. I never wear earbuds as I have to watch my kids, and I don’t even own an iPad or smart phone (can’t afford the data plans!). I’m always surprised by the number of people who can’t seem to get through even a 20-minute bus ride without compulsively playing games, checking facebook, or listening to music (loud enough that I know that’s what they’re doing!).

    I’ve also had several female friends say they could never exercise the way I do – sans “motivating” music or podcast. One friend said the reason she doesn’t swim laps is because she can’t take her iPod in the pool, and she gets bored after less than five minutes of lap swimming. I admit, swimming laps is a lot less interesting than walking outside, but when I do it, I relish the uninterrupted thinking time! Especially as a SAHM of two small children, it’s rare I get to think all the way through a topic without someone reaching out to grab my attention or my hand.

    My mom used to say something along the lines that being comfortable with oneself, having a “good self esteem” was actually just the ability to be content with silence and being alone. To be comfortable with only your own thoughts for company is to truly be at peace with who you are.

  2. posted by Greg Moore on

    Spot on.

    As part of our ongoing Decluttering effort, my wife and I are getting rid of our iPhones at the end of the month when our contract expires and switching back to regular “dumb” phones. We’ve also installed a land line back in our house (Vonage-style). It’s much more fun talking with people directly than email and texting all the time.

    We have computers and tablets to access our information – we don’t need it on our phones in our pockets all the time, too.

    Additionally, we cancelled our Satellite radio and are using our old iPods and MP3 CD-RW’s in the car now. We have fun making “Mix-Discs” that are good for weeks, even months (we don’t drive much).

    We’re tired of wasting time because it’s easy to do. Let’s face it – we’re human and wasting time doing things that are easy and stimulating is too easy. It’s why so many people get hooked on drugs.

    I look forward to going places without the temptation to fiddle with my phone anymore.


  3. posted by David on

    Check out “The Shallows” for more of this topic. Slightly different topic than someone who can’t find something to do in Africa besides play angry birds, but probably cognitively related.


  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    I couldn’t get through the movie “Lost in Translation” because I was so pissed at Scarlett Johanssons character Charlotte for loafing around her Tokyo hotel. She was in TOKYO and could only find one temple to venture out to see? One. The entire time she was there, the only thing to see was a single temple. “Oh no! It’s not America! Things are different! I must sit at the bar because there is nothing American to do.” Ugh. (And, my apologies to anyone who loved that movie … it just wasn’t for me.)

  5. posted by Sharon on

    “Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.”

    This statement caused me to physically startle! Who knew Africa… AFRICA was so lacking in interesting sights, sounds and tastes. My startle response was a little jumpstart to remind me to turn off my computer, wake up the puppy and go for a walk on this sort of sunny day. Hello real world!

  6. posted by Corrie on

    Spot on! Great post.

  7. posted by STL Mom on

    Eh, long before modern electronics, I hated to be bored. Back then I carried a book or a magazine everywhere I went. Now I read on my kindle or phone. Is it really that different?
    I am trying to separate truly boring and repetitive activities (for me, folding laundry, weeding, or running on a treadmill)from everyday activities like walking to school. I like to listen to podcasts or read while doing something boring, but if I have to distract myself from every activity that’s a bit much.

  8. posted by Jeanette on

    Erin writes: “You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.”

    Erin, loved this comment and this column.

    As someone who has been many things (frazzled, anxious, overworked, overwhelmed, etc.), I have neve ever been bored and that includes when I don’t have access to the Internet or TV. Even when we have lost power, there are still ways to enjoy one’s self, including just sitting around and enjoying each other’s comany.

    It’s inconceivable to me that someone on vacation and in a place so alive with much that is unknown to most travelers (Africa) needed electronics to NOT be bored. And again, this is not to single out this individual but just an extreme example.

    So many people have simply lost the ability to be in the moment, with their thoughts and with all that is around them. When I have had too much time at the computer, I get up and walk outside. I just let myself feel the air, the breeze and enjoy the sun on my face. I think about NOTHING. Amazingly, some of my most creative ideas have emerged doing nothing…or while walking in my beloved Riverside Park. (Nothing like nature to keep you connected to the “real” world.)

    I’m anything but a Luddite, but it is all too easy to get too reliant on using technology for entertainment and social interaction. but there is nothing like real human interaction and BEING in the world. And not spending your life checking email, twitter and facebook!

    Life is too short to miss it.

  9. posted by adora on

    They are sacrificing quality for quantity. It’s the mental equivalent for a poor diet.

  10. posted by Laura on

    My thoughts exactly.

    I teach Spanish and barely 5 minutes pass without one student or another playing some game/texting on their phone. They are uncomfortable with any silence, any down time and seek to entertain themselves instead of trying to learn the topic at hand.

    I also must credit my parents with a “boring” childhood. We had no TV to speak of and I had to invent all of my own entertainment.

  11. posted by Jane on

    Interesting article. Having worked in an Eastern European country for a few years in my twenties (I”m British), I remember being struck by the difference at first between my boredom threshold and that of my new friends. I soon relaxed into the slower pace of life and found it was so much less stressful than when I was constantly looking for entertainment. It really taught me a great lesson about enjoying what you have and making the effort to be with people you love. I sometimes play a game nowadays when I’m bored walking to or from the bus stop which is to mark a distance in my mind and challenge myself to think up 10 “things I’m grateful for” by the time I reach it. I’m convinced that because my spare time abroad was taken up mainly with talking or hanging out with friends (the tv was pretty dire!), I have learned to be comfortable just “being”, rather than constantly “doing”.

  12. posted by Emily on

    I was just talking with a friend about how quickly I’ve lost the ability to wait since I began carrying a smart phone – it’s a skill I used to be quite good at. This article has given me the nudge I needed to put myself on an ‘app diet’

  13. posted by Pashtsmom on

    Today’s Mutts comic is apropos:


  14. posted by Grace from London on

    The problem is not distraction. Nor new technology (eg Kindle) versus old tech such as a book. The problem is virtual versus real. You think you have cure boredom because you are distracted and pre-occupied. But really? You are confusing what is virtual rather than real. Next time you take a walk, leave the electronic devices at home and instead take a 4-year old with you. I promise you will discover real afresh. Did you notice that airplace that flew over head? The jewel that someone dropped? The ladybug just waiting to be catch? People, get REAL. You may not be bored, but you are missing a whole lot 🙂

  15. posted by G. in Iowa on

    When I work in the yard, it’s rare that I take a radio (I have no mp3 player/smartphone/etc) and I don’t take the phone. The only distractions are the birds and visits from the cats hoping for a cuddle. DH on the other hand must have the radio cranked up.

    On the other hand, when I’m inside, the TV or radio is usually on. Somehow inside sounds, like the furnace/AC blower, refrigerator and washer/dryer, aren’t as calming as outside.

  16. posted by Kyle Hayes on

    I appreciate the sentiment of your post and thank you for writing it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately especially since I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The book at its basics is a lady writing letters to friends and correspondants via snail mail after WWI.

    The book sent me into a phase of thinking about how our communication as a society has changed in some ways for the worse. For example, when we used to handwrite letters, it took some time to do it. It forced us to reflect and take pause. I feel when we are handwriting a letter to someone, it is to someone special and we are more likely to open up our minds and let our feelings out.

    I don’t see this problem as being the cure to boredom but rather the absence of patience. As mentioned in your post and other commentators mentioned as well, we are always having to be engaged with something instead of with ourselves to take our own time and slow down.

    Never have I found the phrase “Stop and smell the roses” to be so timely.

  17. posted by Laura in ATL on

    I just spent three weeks in Africa and LOVED not being connected! That person is an idiot if they can’t find a thing to do there. 😉

  18. posted by Scott on

    Boredom. good or bad.

    For those of us, who grew up with boredom, we need it and cherish. Our creativity and our thoughts rouse most during these periods of letting our minds wander. Yet. I wonder, for the kids who grow up with a constant barrage of always-on everywhere internet and phones, will boredom to them mean something different. Can’t their minds adapt and still have creative thinking periods? Are today’s iphones/ipods/ipads yesterday’s tv/radio/movies? Weren’t the generation of parents years’ ago saying the same thing about CB-Radios, talking color movies, Rock Music, Rap Music, Pac-Man games?

    As we age, do we all become conservative luddites?

  19. posted by Lynne on

    Hey, new “reality series” – take people away from their technologies … mix of generations … and drop them in a place surrounded by heaps tantrumsto see and do, and watch the whining and . Oh, wait, that’s been staged already, yeh?

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