Boring Yourself Into Creativity

Manoush Zomorodi

I’ve talked more than a few times about creativity and its relation to boredom as well as technology. Heck, I’ve even read and reviewed a whole book about that called Autopilot. There’s a lot to this newer notion about boredom that it’s helpful, necessary and gets the creative juices (via your default mode in your brain) going.

At the same time, and as I’ve pointed out before, there’s also some issues with these types of thoughts. All too often people will accept that, sure, boredom is a good thing and it can be easily linked to creativity. But the problem is that we spend too much time on technology. whether that be our phones, our laptops, the TV or something else.

I’ve taken umbrage with this line of thinking before, not because I think it’s completely wrong, but because I think the people who make these sorts of claims tend to overestimate how much technology is to blame. I think it’s good to point out that technology can distract us in harmful ways but it’s also important to say that technology is a big part of why we can get many important things done to begin with.

To be clear, I don’t think any of the people involved in the sorts of statements I’m addressing or have addressed before are some sort of Luddites or are otherwise anti-technology. But I do think their criticism can be slightly paternalistic in some problematic ways. It always irks me when I hear that checking Facebook is “meaningless” or that taking pictures isn’t something that has any sort of value because you’re not “present”.

And while there always benefits to being active and present in a given moment, I don’t think it should be seen as some sort of loose cultural requirement for every situation. Sometimes life requires us to disconnect and take stock of what’s going on with our favorite apps, play one of our favorite games or phone a friend for a meaningless chat.

Again, I don’t think the people who criticize the overuse of these habits of ours mean to say that these things are default bad. But I do think that they can have a sort of  moralizing creep in which they start using more value-laden terminology to designate the sort of time we’re using in our own lives. So, for example, checking Facebook becomes this inherent sort of “time-suck” and even the phrase “time-suck” seems to implicate that wasting time isn’t good for us sometimes.

What I think these critics are missing out on is that the world is often very overwhelming and some of us just want to stare at our phone for an hour or two just to catch up with our friends and look at great doggo memes. I don’t think anyone means to stigmatize this type of relating to our technology but I think it leans towards that at times.

Take for example this (overall really great) conclusion from a talk by Manoush Zomorodi on boredom and technology:

So the next time you go to check your phone, remember that if you don’t decide how you’re going to use the technology, the platforms will decide for you. And ask yourself: What am I really looking for?

Because if it’s to check email, that’s fine — do it and be done.

But if it’s to distract yourself from doing the hard work that comes with deeper thinking, take a break, stare out the window and know that by doing nothing you are actually being your most productive and creative self. It might feel weird and uncomfortable at first, but boredom truly can lead to brilliance.

There’s some truth to this for sure and I don’t want to discount that. But I think between the reasonable criticisms of multitasking (it’s not actually a thing and your brain is not built for it) and overuse of technology, I think people forget that using technology can be it’s own kind of break. They don’t seem to realize that technology can often make relaxing easier, whether it’s apps that help with mindfulness or meditation or help you run more effectively, etc.

Some of the respondents said that the Bored and Brilliant challenges helped them get away from “meaningless” use of technology or otherwise made better use of their productivity and time. But again, I want us to be careful about this supposedly clear line between what is productive and what is not. I don’t think that line is nearly as clean as people often like to see and as Zomorodi admits in her talk, what it means to be creative (or productive) is subjective.

So watching Youtube on a video about boredom and technology (as well as creativity) was something “productive” because it helped me write this article and think deeper about the world around me. It also helped me think about my own actions and the ways that I relate to technology as well as the rest of society. All of these are things that I personally value and thus I got quite a bit out of the video, despite ostensibly spending my time on a site made for entertainment.

But see, that’s the thing: One person’s entertainment is another person’s thesis statement.

Or something like that.

In any case I found Zoromodi’s talk intriguing and her ideas well researched and worth considering. I’ve decided I’m going to try some of the challenges on the site I linked above. I’ll let y’all know how the results of those challenge go. I will most likely still use my phone more than I “need” to, but I’ve already deleted Snapchat and that was a good thing for me.

Generally, I think there’s a lot of promise to this new movement that wants to celebrate boredom (and hence creativity) and is (appropriately) critical of technology and its role of distracting us. But the whole “from what really matters” part irks me because that means they are assigning universal expectations to people. And if you somehow don’t meet those expectations then the activities you are engaging in are less meaningful or “productive”.

And I think that this hierarchy of activities is ultimately harmful not only to discourse but people’s lives. Which isn’t to say we can’t value things, judge things or think critically about the role of technology in our lives. I think all of those things are wildly necessary to one extent or another. But, again, the moralistic creep that can sometimes comes in is not only unnecessary for making the attempted points, it’s limiting the effectiveness of otherwise reasonable points.


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