Bored ... And Brilliant? A Challenge To Disconnect From Your Phone

Jan 12, 2015
Originally published on February 2, 2015 3:14 pm

Updated Feb. 2, 2015: The challenge officially starts today. To help you put down the phone, WNYC has made a list of 18 places you can survive without it, social media away messages and compiled a bored (but not boring) reading list, among others. We'll be back next week for a debrief on the experiment — stay tuned.

Hey smartphone owners — when was the last time you were truly bored? Or even had a moment for mental downtime, unattached to a device?

Many of us reflexively grab our phones at the first hint of boredom throughout the day. And indeed a recent study by the research group Flurry found that mobile consumers now spend an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes each day on mobile devices.

Are we packing our minds too full? What might we be losing out on by texting, tweeting and email-checking those moments away?

Manoush Zomorodi, host of the WNYC podcast New Tech City, is digging into that question. She talked with NPR's Audie Cornish about a project the podcast is launching called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art Of Spacing Out.

"I kind of realized that I have not been bored since I got a smartphone seven years ago," Zomorodi says.

So the team at New Tech City is asking people to measure their smartphone use with an app called Moment (which we've profiled before — it counts how often you unlock your device and the minutes you spend using it) and then take some conscious steps to limit their digital interactions.

Zomorodi has already used Moment and says she averages 50-100 phone check-ins per day, quite a few of which were devoted to playing a game called TwoDots. (By the way, Zomorodi confirmed with a neuroscientist that playing the game does make you better ... at the game, and not much else.)

Studies suggest that we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored, Zomorodi says. She points to a study by a U.K. psychologist, Sandi Mann, who asked subjects to do something really boring and then try a creative task.

"And the participants came up with their most novel ideas when they did the most boring task of all — which was reading the phone book," Zomorodi says. "And in fact [Mann] is on a mission to bring back boredom."

She talked to Mann, who said that when we're bored, we're searching for something to stimulate us.

"We might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming and you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit in the subconscious which allows sort of different connections to take place," Mann said.

Zomorodi says studies also show that smartphones impinge on our ability to do "autobiographical planning" or goal setting, which may keep us even more stuck in a rut.

And that's where the Bored and Brilliant project comes in. The challenge will take place the first week of February, but you can sign up now. After tracking your usage, New Tech City will collect stories and provide tips for keeping your phone at bay. We'll check back in with Zomorodi — and you — next month to see how it goes.

(As an experiment, Zomorodi and her producers filmed people walking down the street in New York City and counted the number engaged with a phone in some way. You can watch their video below.)

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's a question for you. Do you have enough time to be bored anymore, as in mental downtime? Now, if you have a smart phone, you already know what I'm getting at. Many of us reflexively grab our phones at the first hint of boredom - say, during our commute - like these people we found waiting for Metro trains here in Washington, D.C.

JONATHAN MCBRIDE: You caught me red-handed.

SABRINA JACKSON: Well, I know I stay on my phone all day. I know I would do more things, but I stay on my phone all day, from the time - like, I got off this morning. And I've been on my phone since I got off.

CORNISH: That's Sabrina Jackson of Washington and Jonathan McBride of Lima, Peru. A study done by the research group Flurry found that mobile consumers now spend an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes each day on mobile devices. So are we packing our minds too full? What's lost with all this texting, tweeting, email checking?

Well, our friend Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC's podcast New Tech City, is digging into that question. And she joins us to talk about her reporting for a project called "Bored And Brilliant: The Lost Art Of Spacing Out." Hey there, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So you call yourself a skeptical technophile, right?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).Yes.

CORNISH: And, I mean, I have a smart phone. You have a smart phone. And I assume that you're on yours all the time, right?

ZOMORODI: You know, it's gotten so bad that I actually downloaded an app. And it's called Moment. And it can measure not only how much time you spend on your phone, but how many times you check it. And I'm ashamed to say that I am averaging between 50 and a hundred check-ins a day. And, you know, it's not just because...

CORNISH: Whoa. (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: Yeah, it's a lot.

CORNISH: I'd make fun of you, but mine would probably be the same (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Well, yeah, tell me about your relationship with your phone, Audie.

CORNISH: It's a love-hate relationship. I just try not to sleep with it under the pillow at this point.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So for me, I kind of realized that I have not been bored since I got a smart phone seven years ago. And recently - another admission here - it's gotten particularly bad because I've become one of those people who cannot stop playing a game. And my addiction is a game called TwoDots. If you ride the subway in New York City, everyone is playing it.

CORNISH: Well, the thing is, a lot of times when we're checking our phones - right? - it's time when we would've spaced out anyway, in the elevator, in a checkout line...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

CORNISH: Are we really losing anything here? I mean, what have you learned about the importance of time to be bored?

ZOMORODI: Well, what I've learned is that our brains are doing some really important work when we think we're doing nothing. So research suggests we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and we let ourselves get bored. So one of the researchers I spoke to for the project is a psychologist named Dr. Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. And she actually tested for the connection between boredom and creativity. She did an experiment where she made people do something really boring and then try a creative task. This was a little test she came up with. And the participants came up with their most novel ideas when they did the most boring task of all, which was reading the phone book. And, in fact, she is on a mission to bring back boredom. Here's why.

SANDI MANN: When we're bored we're searching for something to stimulate us, so we might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming. You start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place.

CORNISH: So there is value in being bored. But do we really know if the use of smart phones is affecting that?

ZOMORODI: Well, that's the big question, right? In the last decade or so, neuroscientists have - they've really started to understand what they called mind wandering and how it leads to daydreaming, which is actually the brain's default mode. And that phrase - default mode - was first used by Dr. Marcus Raichle in 2001 to describe the brain's resting function. We go to that place naturally. So psychologists and neuroscientists have only just started to study what the consequences could be of disrupting that rest function. One thing they do worry is that smart phones could be keeping us from doing something called autobiographical planning, and that is goal setting.

CORNISH: All right. Well, remember those smart phone users we talked about earlier? We actually put this idea to them about, you know, whether it might be better just to put the thing down. Here's what they said.

JOE MEYIAN: Better to be bored? I don't know if I agree with that. I think it's a combination of both is good. I think some free time is good, but I also think the brain needs to be engaged and active.

ADRIENNE FIELDING: I would agree that boredom is a good thing. I think lack of nothing to do in your hands or in front of you gives your brain some space to think.

CORNISH: Washington, D.C., subway riders using their smart phones on the platform. That was Joe Meyian of Arlington, Virginia, Adrienne Fielding of Silver Spring, Maryland. And Manoush, on New Tech City this week you were challenging people to think about this, to rediscover the lost art of spacing out. How?

ZOMORODI: So, Audie, we've come up with some ways that people can find the right balance for them with their tech usage. First, what we're going to do is get a baseline. We are partnering with that app that I mentioned that's called Moment that measures how many times a day we pick up our phones and how many minutes we use on our phones. We're just seeing where do things stand now and where could some changes take place?

CORNISH: Explain how this is going to work.

ZOMORODI: OK. So "Bored and Brilliant" - it's this one-week challenge. It's going to happen the first week of February. But you can sign up right now, start observing your own phone behavior and get ready to rethink it.

CORNISH: Manoush, thanks so much for talking with us, and I guess we'll see you in a few weeks.

ZOMORODI: I'm looking forward it, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast New Tech City from our member station WNYC, talking about her show this week. You can find details at the All Tech Considered blog on npr.org. In fact, some of us here at ATC are going to try to cut our own phone usage, and we'll have Manoush back next month to see how it went. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.