Over 30,000 feet in the sky, in a plane without WiFi (which is more and more of a novelty these days), my eyes caught someone through the seats in front of me staring at the home screen of their smart phone.
They flipped through the app icons, searching for…something. They opened the Facebook app only to find a “No Internet Connection” banner. More flipping through icon screens followed after a few minutes of staring at the blank WiFi connection list in Settings. Then back to the home screen to stare at the icons for a few minutes. They opened a major news app only to find “Cannot connect to server.” After more staring and flipping of icons, they discovered their email app staring right back at them with a similar message. This sort of pattern continued for nearly 10 minutes before the person tried Facebook one last time — just in case — before resigning themselves to the somber purgatory of Airplane Mode.
In our modern era of near-perpetual connectivity and endless notifications vying for every second of our attention, this sort of desperation is really common (I freely admit finding myself in the same situation in the past). We have the ability to gather information about almost anything in real time from anywhere in the world, and because of this we feel a sense of urgency to know everything instantly — even when the information isn’t actually urgent or even pertinent at all. This sense of urgency is why you’ll find most people reaching into their pockets as they enter a line waiting for basically anything. It’s why you’ll suddenly find yourself unlocking your phone as you sit down on the bus or you’re sitting at a table waiting for your colleague to join you for lunch in two minutes.
Our culture is obsessed with business and Getting Things Done™. Boredom isn’t sexy. Boredom is a “waste of time.” We therefore fill every second of our time with things that we convince ourselves are Important®. This mindset extends itself in to the time when we knowingly aren’t “getting things done,” and the [albeit impressive] technology we are surrounded by makes distraction a constant, numbing norm. BuzzFeed, Reddit, mobile games are right at our fingertips. With smart watches becoming more of a thing, we don’t even need to reach in to our pockets anymore.
It’s now hard to feel bored.
However, there are countless benefits of boredom and getting lost in one’s own thoughts — a keener awareness of the world around you and creative brainstorming with your own ideas instead of just consuming others’, to name a few — but the one I’d like to mention here is honing the ability to focus.
In the book Deep Work, author Cal Newport explains that constant distraction can actually harm our ability to focus when we need to; even when that distraction is outside of our working hours. He likens mental performance to athletic performance:
Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon after eating a steady diet of ice cream and Juicy Lucies. Why would you expect that after desperately distracting yourself every “boring” moment outside of work, you will suddenly be able to sit down and concentrate deeply, ignoring distractions?
The next time you find yourself waiting — for your food in line, your friend at the cafe, or the plane to hurry up and get there — embrace boredom and allow yourself to get lost in whatever thoughts come to you. You’ll be all the more ready to concentrate in the future. You’ll learn a surprising amount about yourself and the world around you, too.
This post was originally written for Software for Good’s Theme of the Week for May 29th, 2018
Link: “Embrace Boredom” on the Software for Good engineering blog