As a parent, the smart phone is a helpful tool. But it’s also a pit of distraction. There are constant notifications from emails, social media and texts, not to mention actual phone calls!
Manoush Zomorodi is the host and editor of Note to Self, a radio show and podcast about technology. She’s literally written the book on boredom. More specifically, what happens when we stop the tech distraction and let boredom flourish in our lives (it’s called Bored and Brilliant: how time spent doing nothing changes everything for the readers and book club members out there).
For our Screen Free Challenge, Manoush gives us insight into how constantly using screens affects our mindset and why we need to give brains a break.
Listen to Manoush at Kinderling Conversation:
How much do we really use screens?
The Note to Self podcast did some research and found the average listener was on their phone two to three hours per day, checking it at least 60-90 times per day. Manoush says this is actually on the lower scale of the spectrum compared to other research.
The smart phone makes us less comfortable with being bored. Manoush became so sure about this when she realised none of her ideas were good ones, a dangerous thing when you’re a journalist. The reason? She pins it down to the fact that she hadn’t been bored since 2009; the year she got her iPhone. This personal epiphany sent her down a rabbit hole of trying to understand what happens in our brains when we do get bored, and on the flip side, what happens when we never get bored, since that little screen that comes with us everywhere!
“It’s almost like boredom has become a human state that we are breeding out of ourselves,” Manoush says. “But the more I learned, the more I thought, wow, actually it’s incredibly important.”
What happens when we’re bored?
If you allow yourself to get bored you ignite a network in your brain called the default mode. It’s when you do your most original thinking. You take two seemingly unlike ideas and smash them together to come up with something new. “It could be as mundane as thinking about how you can re-work the leftovers for dinner, but that’s creativity,” Manoush explains.
Then there’s the autobiographical planning that occurs when you’re not focussed on anything else. You look back at your life, take note of the highs and lows, and develop your own personal narrative. We also think forward to the future; which psychologists call perspective bias. This is when you set goals and start to figure out the steps to meet those goals.
But Manoush warns, “You can’t tap that brain power if you’re constantly tapping your phone.”
Isn’t it bad for our minds to wander unfocussed?
What we call ‘the monkey mind’, wandering erratically from thought to thought, is different to boredom Manoush believes.
The University of California Irvine’s Dr Gloria Mark has developed the theory of self-interruption, which affects our ability to work properly. In her research, Dr Gloria found that when people have a busy period of emails, people and work coming through, even after it calms down, people would self-interrupt their tasks. We begin bouncing around in our mind. The same thing can apply when we’re bouncing around in our gadgets, Manoush says.
If we reconceptualise and change how we think of the monkey mind, calm it, guide it to where you want to go, it can allow you to savour the places you go in your mind.
“It’s okay for my brain to go places. That’s what it needs to do to come up with solutions to big problems,” says Manoush. “It’s like sprinkling glitter throughout your day, that’s how I think of it.”
How can we be productive and slow down at the same time?
“I think we are prioritising responsiveness and we’re getting confused. We’re calling responsiveness ‘productivity’,” Manoush adds.
Our daily commute is a perfect example of changing our perceptions of busy vs productivity.
The train or bus home is a great time to do that deeper thinking that your co-workers and family need you to do, instead of jumping on social media. We need to respect each other for doing deeper thinking, which requires being alone and not as responsive.
People are worried about burning out and that’s because they’re not having that quality deep work alone Manoush believes.
So where should we stand on screens?
“I don’t think the answer is a binary, I don’t think the phones are not on or off and that’s it. I think this is about helping our kids understand when their technology has turned from a tool like it’s supposed to be, to a taskmaster,” Manoush notes.
The technology has been designed to hijack our attention. We have to explain from an early age why they want to use these things so much, and that they're not naughty for wanting to use screens.
“There’s something fundamentally different about our phones,” Manoush explains. We’ve never had something so portable before, that is so up-to-date and personalised. We’re at a crucial moment where we need to recognise the positives, but also the negatives in equal parts.
Screens are wonderful communication tools, they connect us and give us information. But we are the masters of these tools. Let’s make sure it’s not the other way around.
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