The broad adoption of anywhere anytime computing into modern culture has transformed not just office productivity and modes of communication. It has also reset expectations. We expect immediate gratification from our devices, instant responses to our texts, and in perhaps the least analyzed transformation, the promise of release from boredom. But think twice before eliminating boredom from your life – it may turn out to be your key to success.
When I worked in the mobile products group at Intel Corporation a decade ago, we often discussed the nirvana represented by anytime anywhere computing. Intel had not yet launched its Centrino platform, which would integrate wireless technology into laptops. And most people used handheld devices primarily for checking their e-mail and calendar. We often discussed how great it would be to have the Internet at our fingertips at all times. A decade later this is old news, of course. And although many companies tried, Apple had the greatest success in bringing the anytime anywhere vision to the consumer market with the iPhone and iPad.
In making the Internet and an endless collection of apps available on demand, the iPhone represents the monetization of spare time. The term “micro-boredom” appeared in a Marketing magazine article in 2001 to describe an emerging usage model among Internet users looking to “kill a few minutes of spare time.” Since then, filling spare moments of boredom has emerged as a massive business opportunity for the technology industry.
Stuck in line at the grocery store? Sitting in a dark theater before the movie starts? Waiting for the subway? Don’t let your mind sit idle – play a game of Angry Birds, send a text, or check Facebook.
Driving? Out to dinner with your spouse? In a yoga class? In a meeting at work? Don’t get bogged down with a sustained focus on your responsibilities – check your e-mail or see how the stock market is doing. I won’t even pretend to admonish you to avoid these last examples.
We all know better, but for some reason, we just can’t help ourselves.
Many people associate boredom with unhappiness or laziness.
We go to great lengths to avoid the possibility of being stuck with no distractions.
“An idle mind is the devil’s workshop” goes the saying. Conventional wisdom holds that boredom leads to trouble. Bored kids start fights, do drugs and look for unhealthy distractions. There’s nothing more dispiriting for a professional than a boring job.
But boredom actually holds the secret to something we all want: contentment, personal growth, and perhaps even professional success. Boredom may be a source of despair and is certainly an undesirable psychological state in which to linger, but it can also serve as the foundation for inspiration, creative breakthroughs and open the space for the beginnings of self-reflection. Boredom can agitate us to take action, reawaken curiosity and serve as a reminder to engage the world around us.
When my kids and I rode connected bicycles for 46 days around Iceland last summer, some friends worried that my 4-year old daughter would get bored sitting in a trailer cycle for many hours a day. “What’s wrong with being bored?” I responded. “That’s what imagination is for.” Learning how to deal with boredom teaches a child to be resilient and creative. All parents should give their children the gift of boredom.
Rather than judge boredom as a negative experience to be avoided, embrace it with a sense of curiosity and openness. Think of boredom as an internal nudge to evaluate your current circumstances, a reminder to set meaningful goals, a challenge to grow. The next time you find yourself bored, don’t complain or feel depressed, and don’t reach for your iPhone. Instead, appreciate the brief and increasingly rare opportunity for introspection.
New practitioners of meditation sometimes hear this advice: when trying to meditate for the first time, sit quietly for five minutes. If you’re bored, remain sitting for another five minutes. If you’re still bored, try to hang on for another five minutes. Pretty soon, the experience will become quite interesting.
What are we losing collectively in a world of anytime anywhere connectivity that attempts to obliterate boredom? What happens when we allow constant distraction to eliminate moments of quiet reflection? Albert Einstein had a prodigious ability to sit in contemplative quiet for long periods. J.K. Rowling explained that she came up with the idea for the Harry Potter series while staring out the window on a train ride. In his book Life Is What You Make It, Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, described his father’s remarkable ability to pour over annual reports for long periods of time: “… he could as easily have been a rabbi studying Kabbalah or a Buddhist monk puzzling over Zen koans. His focus was that fierce – that pure.”
This ability to remain fully engaged and focused for extended periods is, I think, a critical component of creativity, innovation and success in general. I suspect that Einstein, Rowling and Buffett learned at a young age how to turn moments of boredom into opportunities to tap their imaginations and curiosity.
But we are living in a society that caters to and encourages a short attention span. Intel Corporation experimented with attempts to resist this trend. For example, implementing voluntary No e-mail Fridays or dedicated “Quiet Time” – a half day each work week when employees disabled phone, e-mail and IM, and put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their doorway so they could focus on “thinking work” without interruptions. These are good ideas, but in the end, it is up to each individual to set appropriate boundaries in a world that is constantly crossing them.
Are you bored? Do you feel the itch to find a distraction? Don’t reach for your anytime anywhere device. Close your eyes, breath deeply and embrace the value of boredom. You may be surprised where it leads you.
Charles Scott is an endurance athlete and family adventurer. He spent 14 years working at Intel Corporation before deciding to focus his energy full-time on writing, speaking and doing endurance challenges with his family linked to environmental causes. While working at Intel, he competed in five Ironman triathlons, eight marathons and many multi-sport and adventure races. In the summer of 2009, he and his eight-year old son Sho rode connected bicycles the length of mainland Japan, covering 2,500 miles in 67 days. They were named “Climate Heroes” by the United Nations as they raised money for a global tree planting campaign. And in the summer of 2011, he cycled 1,500 miles around Iceland on connected bicycles with his ten-year old son and four-year old daughter, once again sponsored by the UN as "Climate Heroes": www.icelandbikeadventure.com. Charles is writing a book about the Japan ride called Rising Son. If you would like to receive a free excerpt and receive updates on his latest writings, send an e-mail to email@example.com.