How many times do you check your phone each day? You know, just a quick glance – is everything ok? Everything’s ok.
You’re relatively normal if, like Manoush Zomorodi used to, you look at it 65 times a day.
“The minute I walked into an elevator, I checked my phone. It was associated with micro habits: walk into a new place, check my phone. It became a reflex that I was not consciously aware of,” the host of WNYC’s tech podcast Note to Self tells Daily Life.
Zomorodi does not have the latest smartphone, is not on Facebook and just can’t get into Snapchat. She’s also one of America’s most tech-savvy women, a New York mother with one eye on how her iPhone can make her life work better and another on how tech is designed, worryingly often, to get the better of us. In Sydney for ABC’s OzPod: The Australian Podcasting Conference on Friday, she spends as much time revelling in tech’s best bits as she does actively avoiding apps, programs and tech gadgetry – all in the aid of nurturing boredom.
“I think of it as discomfort with your thoughts,” she says of the maligned word that I was warned from as a child. (“I’m bored,” I’d say on a slow Sunday afternoon. “Only boring people get bored,” my mother would reply.)
It turns out that being bored is not only very natural, but is truly nourishing.
“We do very important work when we are bored,” Zomorodi says. It’s all about what is known as a “default mode” in our brains “which is activated when our body is doing nothing but our mind is at work”.
“It’s when we do our most original thinking, it’s when we make links between disparate ideas, it’s when we do something called autobiographical planning, which is when we look back at what has happened to us, draw life lessons from it and build them into how we make next steps.”
Boredom is one of our most potent precursors to creativity. The trouble is, our phones are getting way. We’re not allowing ourselves to get bored. As Zomorodi says, “we’re filling the cracks in our day with our phone.”
She has reason to be concerned. Technology appears to be in no way slowing down, but instead, increasingly cleverly designed to take advantage of the human condition. It interrupts us, hooks us in, sells to us and even listens in, 24/7. With app business models built on eyeball time, developers will try every trick in the book to get us to spend as much time using tech as possible. It’s a flawed model, but not one that we have to swallow.
“This is a medium that we have less control over,” says Zomorodi. “I think we’re at a key moment in history. Our digital tools are not only with us everywhere we go, but are asking us to make choices all day long, constantly. That takes a lot of mental [fuel].
“If you’re making decisions all day long about these little things, how do you ever have literally the brainpower to think more broadly, to think in ways where there is less immediate gratification?”
Last year, she went to cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to question the effect our phones had on our default modes. They didn’t know.
“That freaked me out. I’d already been looking at my phone for [almost] a decade. We’re at this moment when our behaviour is so much further along than where the science is.”
For its Bored and Brilliant project, Note to Self took it upon itself to change that, researching the disappearance of boredom with the help of its massive audience. 25,000 respondents were piqued by Zomorodi’s premise that technology, somehow, is making them “feel weird” and that rediscovering boredom – and changing its profile from something to be avoided to something worth actively seeking – might be a way to counter that.
They browsed on their smartphones for an average 95 minutes a day and 75 per cent of them were women aged 25 to 40. She also has a significant listener base of men in their early 20s, who told her that their lives are bound to their phones and they feel overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted and lonely.
“For some people this is a serious problem,” she says. “If you don’t know what it’s like to let your mind wander, to let it go to uncomfortable places but then maybe past that and maybe you problem solve or understand that life is messy – if you never have that sensation because you always have a phone to stick in your face, that’s very worrying to me.”
“There’s this idea that anything that makes you feel uncomfortable is to be avoided. Sorry, loneliness is a fact of life. At the end of the day, you’re on your own and if we can’t learn to be with ourselves, that does not bode well for our coping mechanisms.”
So, where do we find these moments of potential phone-free boredom in our busy days? We take them where we can, no matter how small. She asked her audience to put the phone away when cooking. When folding laundry. When walking the dog. When in lifts, on escalators and in taxis. They began staring out of the window on the bus. They walked in solitude from the train station to the office. They jogged without earphones.
Her aim was to encourage self experimentation, with no prescriptions and no right or wrong answers as to what creativity looks like. Whether the boredom of sorting colours from whites leads to a concerto doesn’t matter – creativity starts as small and manageable as you make it. It can be about dreaming up a plan for the weekend, resolving to try a new recipe or solving a problem at work. It’s about the individual and is not performative. Zomorodi discovered she problem solves best when she runs. “I try to purposefully make myself bored because I realise that’s when I try to tackle the harder stuff,” she says.
Time without distraction is not the easy way out, she stresses. Once we tackle the addiction to our phones, we have to get used to our own company and all its niggles. Not that Zomorodi is a saint. She has to remind herself that she is attempting to do good when her children complain about being bored. She admits that she was – and still can be – as bad as the rest of us when it comes to relying on her phone (which, incidentally, she loves) for distraction.
“But for me, it comes back to purposeful use of it and deciding when it’s appropriate and when, maybe, it’s time to lay off because you have other things you need to do,” she says. It is about questioning the new norm, setting parameters and learning what tech wants from us versus what it truly gives us.
One man who participated in the project, a museum guard, said he began dreaming up intricate mole sauces to cook at weekends. Another, Billy from Brooklyn, said that he felt like he had woken from a mental hibernation – he picks up his guitar more, is reading more, is sleeping better. Others planned travel, out-of-work projects and re-engaged with old friends. Zomorodi herself plotted a career change from a newsroom into podcasting while she quietly walked her colicky baby around Brooklyn, phone-free.
“What’s life about? It’s about finding joy and feeling like we make the most of our time here,” she says. “And it becomes evermore clear to me how frail and precious it all is and I don’t want to waste it. I certainly don’t want younger people to wake up and feel like they missed out in any way.”