Normally, I put on an audiobook or podcast while I’m driving. Even for short trips.
Last week, I drove home in relative silence. Instead of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I listened to the rain hitting the car, the intermittent rub of the wipers and click of the blinkers, and the spray of the tires on the wet pavement.
Halfway home, I hit a breakthrough. Letting my mind ruminate on the problem I’d spent half the afternoon trying to solve, I made the connection. I could use something I’d stumbled across the day before to fix it.
I had to chuckle, because it perfectly demonstrated one of the challenges we face today, something I recently heard Newport talk about in an interview: we’ve forgotten how to be bored and it’s ruining our lives.
With a smartphone, you never have to be bored. Waiting in line? Check Twitter. Stopped at a light? Check sports scores. Can’t fall asleep? Check email.
We’ve trained ourselves. As soon as we start to feel bored, we reach for something to fill the gap. We never give our brains the down time they need.
By abolishing any chance of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process. #essentialism
— Greg McKeown (@GregoryMcKeown) January 10, 2017
In the 1980s, researchers studied three Canadian towns. The first had four television channels, the second had just one channel, and there were no channels in the third town. They studied the creativity levels of the children in all three towns and found that the children in the first two towns were the same. They found the children in the third town were more creative than their television-watching peers.
Fast-forward two years. The third town now has a television station. The researchers tested the kids again. This time, they all tested at the same level. The children in the third town had lost their advantage in divergent thinking.
The researchers concluded that boredom drives creativity and imagination. When you’re not being fed a constant stream of entertainment, your brain starts coming up with ways to entertain itself. You need to regularly step back and let your brain change gears. Take off some of the load.
It’s not just television. Any focused activity can have the same effect on constraining our thinking. During a focused activity, when do you do when your mind starts to wander? You reel it back in. You tell yourself, “no, brain… I know you’re still trying to solve that other problem, but I want you to think about this right now.”
Don’t be afraid of giving your brain down time. It’s okay to read books in the car and listen to podcasts in the shower. It’s also okay to use that for down time. Quiet time. Time to think. Time to process.
Embrace the still, small moments. Let your mind wander. You’ll make some wonderful discoveries when you do.