What if there was one simple thing you could do that cost nothing and took no extra time, that would make you much more creative than you are now? What if it would also make you sleep better, and perhaps happier in general. Would you do it?
Well here it is: Put away your smartphone. Not all the time, and not forever, but for a day, or part of a day. That message comes from Manoush Zomorodi, host of the NPR podcast "Note to Self," and author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self.
As the new mother of a colicky baby, Zomorodi, a former globe-trotting journalist, discovered first-hand how boredom can lead to some of our most innovative ideas, as she explains in her engaging TED Talk. It turns out that there's a neurological reason for this, as various scientists explained to her. When you're bored and you let your mind wander, you slip away from purely conscious thought and begin dipping into your subconscious mind. It's a similar effect to when you begin drifting off to sleep. Having that bit of subconscious thought in the mix allows you to have insights and make connections you might never make otherwise.
A second benefit of putting away your smartphone, at least temporarily, is that smartphone use encourages multi-tasking. Multi-tasking not only reduces productivity, it actually shrinks your brain. And there's another good reason to set aside your smartphone--and all other tempting technology: Most of the apps you use are designed to grab onto your attention and never let go. Several former Facebook executives have come forward lately to recount how the service was deliberately designed to be as "sticky" as possible, keeping people glued to Facebook for minutes or hours after they intended to close the app and go on to something else. As a result, Zomorodi says, the average human will spend two years of his or her life on Facebook.
Facebook isn't alone. Netflix, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Words with Friends, Candy Crush, Amazon, even plain old email...they're all designed to draw you on to the next thing and the next, capturing as much of your time and brain power as they can. Your desire to take control of your own time and attention is up against some of the most brilliant software engineers in the world. And, at least most of the time, they're likely to win that battle and you're likely to lose. Which leaves you no time at all for the boredom and introspection Zomorodi says is so essential for creativity.
But you can fight back, and take back at least some of your time. To help, Zomorodi created the "Bored and Brilliant Challenge," a week-long series of smartphone-avoiding, boredom-encouraging tasks designed to help you both take control of your time and create a few empty spaces within it. Ultimately, 20,000 listeners participated in the challenge. You can find the full list here. These are three of the most powerful:
1. Put your smartphone in your pocket.
If you're riding the bus or waiting in line at a coffee shop or otherwise have a few minutes of empty time, you are likely in the habit of pulling out your phone or tablet and checking social media or email or perhaps playing a game or shopping.
Resist that temptation. Leave your phone off and just...be. Stare out the window. Observe your surroundings. You might get bored, but that's the whole idea.
2. Delete that app.
You know the one. The one that eats up all your time even though you never mean it to. The one that's like slipping into a black hole that you only emerge from an hour later, blinking and wondering where you've been. Get rid of that addictive app, even if only for one day.
Zomorodi deleted the game Two Dots (which is also my biggest app addiction at the moment). Her listeners wrote her that they'd deleted Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Vine. They reported feeling lonely and bereft, but also calm, in control of their social media usage, and newly able to do things like enjoy dinner with their families. "Remember that if you don't decide how you're going to use the technology, the platforms will decide for you," Zomorodi says in her TED Talk.
3. Notice something.
What that something is is up to you, but Zomorodi invited listeners to "take note of one person, object, or interesting, uninventable detail you would have missed if your nose were glued to your phone."
Now that you're leaving your phone in your pocket, at least for a little while, take a look around you. What do you see?
More than 20,000 people did the Bored and Brilliant challenge. In the long run, did it make a huge difference to their technology usage? No. It reduced their average phone usage by six minutes a day from 120 minutes to 114. But that small change, and the simple act of setting the smartphone aside some of the time was enough to be significant for the people who did it.
They all experienced a little boredom--and some of the younger ones who had grown up with the mobile web were feeling bored for the first time in their lives. Listeners wrote Zomorodi that they'd had ideas they would never have had otherwise. They were happier. They were sleeping better. They felt in control of their phones, instead of the other way around.
How about you? Could you get a creativity boost from setting your mobile technology aside for just a little while? You'll never know unless you give it a try.