"I'm feeling as if I'm awakening from an extended mental hibernation." That's what one listener wrote me midway through The Bored and Brilliant Project, a week-long series of challenges to rethink your relationship with your cell phone and boost your creativity.

It worked.

We heard from teenagers who suddenly found schoolwork easier to understand, authors who completed their manuscripts, employees who felt less burned out, and entrepreneurs who had time to think through issues that had been plaguing them and their businesses. There is a downside to being constantly connected, and it feels great to admit it.

I host a tech podcast, WNYC's New Tech City, that explores the personal side of living in the digital age. This is the kind of thing we talk about. The genesis of the project came about a few months ago, when I was feeling nostalgic for the days before smartphones, when I used to just space out while riding the subway or waiting in line at the coffee shop. Now I am relentlessly "productive," answering emails, reading saved articles, moving things around my calendar. I had a sneaking suspicion that the neuroscientists whom I subsequently interviewed confirmed: Never being bored can, potentially, be a bad thing. It turns out we do our most original thinking when we allow our minds to wander. This is when our brains flip a switch and start using a network often called the "default mode." Aha moments in the shower? That's the default mode lighting up.

Our goal with Bored and Brilliantwas to see if we could activate our participants' default modes more often by encouraging them to use their smartphones less.

Here's how it works: Participants download an app that monitors how much time they spend on their phones and how many times a day they check their phones. After a week of "normal" phone usage to establish a baseline, participants embark on a week of daily assignments. These range from seemingly easy tweaks to daily habits, like putting their phone in their bags instead of their pockets, to creative prods, like stopping to notice surroundings. Instructions come in a newsletter and a podcast, with research and personal stories to back up each concept. I, of course, tried all the experiments too.

In the end, participants said they most planned on continuing Challenge #1: "Keep It in Your Pocket." That day the instructions were to never look at your phone while in transit...so no walking and texting.

Personally, I found the "Delete that App" challenge particularly tough. The participants we surveyed agreed: Removing the app that wastes the most time is hardest of all. 

My personal addiction was a game called 2Dots. It remains off my phone to this day, but I miss it, like a smoker fondly thinks of cigarettes. I was not at all surprised to learn that, at the end of the week, those who said gaming was one of their top three phone activities dropped the most time on their phones, with 20 fewer minutes per day. 

More striking than usage numbers were the stories we heard about how purposeful gadget use helped people do deeper thinking and just feel better about themselves.

Patrick from Los Angeles wrote, "My relationship to my phone has totally changed. My phone feels more inert, less precious. It's a tool again, not a confidant or loved one."

Schools have asked for curriculum plans, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have asked to see our data, companies want departments to do the challenges together.

I had a feeling I wasn't alone in my craving for boredom. But I had no idea just how many people love their phones too much and wanted to do something about it. It's time for us to be more purposeful with our technology; to cultivate a mindfulness about our reflexes to tap and swipe and check for new tweets and likes so frequently. Why do we do that? Do we need to? And what happens if you jam your smartphone habits? Good things, it turns out.

I think it's important to clarify that we weren't asking people to ban technology, just use it more thoughtfully. After all, there's something inherently paradoxical about downloading an app, listening to a podcast, and reading a newsletter all while using your phone less. The key here is balance: We try to get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. Why shouldn't we be more conscientious about our digital consumption? Use it when we need it, not just because it's become a reflex? I'll take one big amazing idea over answering 20 emails any day.

Try the Bored and Brilliant challenge for yourself.

Published on: Mar 2, 2015