Think “More Boredom” Not “Less Phone”
I recently appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast to talk about my new book, The Comfort Crisis. It explores how our physical, mental, and even spiritual health can benefit from a reinjection of some evolutionary discomforts. Our modern comforts and conveniences are tied to many of our most pressing problems, like obesity, chronic disease, depression, and even feeling a lack of meaning.
During the podcast, I told Joe all about the benefits of boredom. Here’s the clip:
So here’s the deal: There are thousands of articles and tips on how to use your cellphone less. But they all miss a larger point. When people start using their cell phone less, they often just swap it for some other screen. As I said to Joe, your brain doesn’t know the damn difference between your cell phone and Netflix. This is like quitting smoking and picking up chewing tobacco. Screen time, after all, includes all screens (and even audio podcasts).
The average American today spends more than 11 hours engaged with digital media. Boredom is indeed dead. Anytime we feel the discomfort of boredom we reflexively pull out our cell phones, watch TV, listen to a podcast, or surf the net.
But boredom is an evolutionary, beneficial discomfort we’ve engineered from our days. As humans evolved, we’d become bored anytime we were doing something that had a low return on our time invested. For example, think of picking berries from a bush. It’s engaging as you pick all the big, easy-to-reach berries. But as you pick the easy-to-reach berries, it eventually becomes harder and harder to find berries and you have to reach deeper and deeper in the bush. Boredom kicks on because you aren’t getting as many berries for your time invested. It tells you to do something else.
Traditionally, when we became bored we would go inward and mind wander. Mind-wandering is a rest state that restores and rebuilds the resources needed to work better and more efficiently any time we’re focused on the outside word (from writing to coding, to having a conversation). It also allows us to introspect and develop creative ideas to improve our lives. Time in unfocused mode — rediscovering boredom — is critical to get shit done, tap into creativity, process complicated information, and more.
The way we dealt with boredom before we began surrounding ourselves in constant comfort delivered benefits that are essential for our brain health, productivity, personal sanity, and sense of meaning. We’d often use it to improve our situations (finding food, building better relationships, think of creative ways to improve our lives). But there’s been a cosmic shift in boredom. The way we now deal with it is “like junk food for your mind,” one neuroscientist told me.
It wasn’t until the 1920s when radio was broadcast to the masses that there was a full-time, easy escape from boredom. Then came Big TV in the 50s. Finally, on June 29, 2007 boredom was pronounced dead, thanks to the iPhone.
In The Comfort Crisis, I traveled to meet a brilliant young neuroscientist who’s discovered the best ways to re-engage with boredom. Some are better than others. Her work shows that specific forms of boredom are the best way to curb anxiety and burnout. The book also dives into more of the evolutionary discomforts that can radically improve our health, happiness, and perhaps even help us understand what it means to be human. It’s available now on Audible, and in ebook and print wherever books are sold.