Ironically enough, I discovered the Bored and Brilliant project while listening to a podcast on my iPhone. The premise is pretty simple. Staring at a cellphone screen now eats up all of the time we used to spend waiting, thinking, or being bored. And we are less productive (and I would argue, less happy) because of it.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- GABBY ROAD It seems like people are engrossed in their cellphones no matter what they’re doing, so New Times decided it was time for a break.
We don't allow ourselves to be bored anymore, and therefore (the theory goes) we think less creatively than we might. We daydream less. We fantasize less. We problem solve about our own lives and our futures less. We let our brains wander less because we are constantly occupied. Whether it's on the toilet, at a red light, or while waiting in line at the grocery story—yes, you all know who you are and you all do it—we're checking Facebook, looking for that text we've been dying to receive, or browsing the internet.
So, WNYC radio's Note to Self podcast (Manoush Zomorodi) wants everyone to take the Bored and Brilliant challenge (which started out as a podcast series and was recently released as a book) just to see what they can discover. Basically, you cut one small cellphone type thing out of your tech diet every day for four or five days and see what it brings you.
New Times staffers decided they were up for the challenge. Each person who volunteered to do the tech cleanse kept a diary of their progress and failures, and we're going to let you in on what we figured out.
For instance, I discovered that I am severely handicapped by my phone and I check it way more often than I previously thought. It's like a nervous tic I didn't even realize I had. I have a problem, an addiction to the power of the buzz, beep, and lit-up screen telling me that I just got a text message, a Facebook like, a follow on Instagram, or an email that just can't wait for me to look at it. It interrupts my thoughts, my work mode, and my time with people. And it's going to be a tough habit to break.
Thrill of discovery
They say that, sometimes, the hardest part of a new journey is taking the first few steps.
I definitely felt that way on the first day of this challenge, which mandated keeping my phone in my pocket during transit. As someone who commutes into SLO each morning, that means pocketing all my favorite podcasts and blowing the dust and cobwebs off my radio dial.
For the first few mornings, I will admit I was not a happy camper. Instead of hearing exactly what I wanted exactly when I wanted to hear it, I was forced to scan and hunt for something I found interesting. In between the chattering of the morning zoo shows and seeming endless pop music stations, I found some great gems: classical music, old blues, amazing R&B I hadn't heard in decades.
As a journalist, there is nothing better than the feeling of having a world of information and entertainment at your fingertips. In fact, I have been guilty of occasionally snidely side-eyeing those "I'm taking a break from (insert social media platform of your choice)" posts and essays that seem to clog up my timeline regularly. I hate to admit it, but this challenge humbled me a bit, forcing me to consider that such sentiments likely have more merit than I was once willing to give them.
The truth is that, like it or not, the ever-fluid immediacy of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and the internet in general, and its instant gratification can rob us of the rewarding feeling of discovery. Whatever we gain in the few quick taps on our screen may mean we also lose the small and enriching surprises that come from having to do a little work to get what we want. Like a radio station, sometimes you find something even better waiting for you between where you start and where you end up. Bypassing the journey robs you of the thrill of making it to your destination.
While I was and will remain a fan of technology, gadgets, and all they offer us, this challenge made me think long and hard about what I might be missing when I let the blue-white light of my iPhone screen wash over me. What interesting things are happening just out of the corner of my eye? What opportunities and interesting people are passing me by?
In the end, while I don't feel any sudden urge to throw out my phone, I will certainly try and look up from it or, gasp, maybe even turn it off, far more often than I have been.
When I think of a cleanse, I think of the crazy diets that call for drinking fluids filled with vegetables because apparently I don't eat enough healthy foods. Well, I guess my colleagues and I embarked on a technology cleanse because we might just be consuming an unhealthy amount of technology on a daily basis. I speak for myself when I say that I am constantly somehow linked to my computer or iPhone—I have my headphones in listening to music as I type this up. I admit it. I have a problem.
Although each of the daily diet tasks sounded easy, it was actually somewhat of a challenge.
I trade off between walking and driving to work, but in both instances—and at red lights when driving—I sneak a quick look at my phone, checking for a text or email. When I walk to work, I catch up on podcasts and music. Without any type of distraction on my morning routes, I had more time to map out my to-do list. It was a nice trade-off to be aware of my surroundings rather than getting sucked into a story.
I also found it interesting when I deleted the Instagram app off my phone. During the cleanse, I already wasn't able to take pictures with my phone so I didn't have anything to upload. I decided to rid myself of the app because I usually tell myself, "OK, you get to take a five minute break from working on the computer screen." And somehow, I justify these few minutes by opening up my phone and scrolling through Instagram. How that even makes sense, I don't know.
I understand the idea of removing myself from the unending intake of technology. I'm constantly glued to my phone, and I get plenty of computer at work. I can definitely appreciate the need for boredom; it creates a time of creativity that I don't give myself. I don't really know if the cleanse worked very well for me. Every time I hear a notification go off, I still have to take a glimpse of my phone. But I am learning to use my phone less and less when I'm trying to fill a void in time.
Breezy and brilliant
To be honest, Bored and Brilliant seemed like it was going to be a breeze. It wasn't a hard-core tech cleanse, like a ban on all screens or even just my phone. None of the challenges took your phone away for even just a day. Instead, it was a nuanced, tiered concession of some of the most nagging tics we have with our powerful, addictive cellular devices. Weak sauce! Human willpower can beat our tech tics! Piece of cake, right?
Well, it started out pretty easy, at least. I didn't have much trouble cutting out my phone while in transit because I'm either driving or walking a short distance. So if I walked, I would just turn on my music or a podcast before leaving the house and keep my phone in my pocket. I was tested with ads on the podcasts, though. I felt strong compulsions (that I resisted) to press that six-seconds-fast-forward button five times to blow through them like I usually do.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
But easily enough, that first day was on the books. It got a little more interesting with the next challenge: no photos. Look, I'm not even a big photo guy, but I do love taking pictures of my cat. When she's doing something hilarious or photogenic, I automatically open that photo app. While it wasn't the second day when I slipped up, it happened frequently throughout the rest of the week. I would snap the photo of Mitten without any thought, and then go, "Oh no I blew it!" I did that like 10 times. Err, not so easy now.
Then I had to delete Twitter off my phone. Suddenly my biggest time-sucker during idle time was gone. Did I go to read Twitter in the bathroom and discover I had deleted it? Yes, many times. I felt like a crazy person, which I realized is one of the points of this challenge: becoming aware of just how ingrained these habits with our phones are in everyday life.
Once I stopped treating the challenges like an easy joke, I really started appreciating what they were helping me be aware of—both in the inward sense of my addiction to my phone and in the outward sense of paying more attention to the real world. I spent much more time observing my surroundings: the noises, smells, sounds, scenery, and the people around me, who were, more often than not, staring at their phones.
Monday: I liked the idea of ignoring phone while in transit, though I felt some anxiety while walking with my phone in my bag to meet a friend and not being able to check it. What if they were running late and I had to stand there all awkwardly not looking at my phone? It was also a struggle not looking at my phone to play podcasts in the car on my morning drive. Radio isn't that great, guys. Still, it was nice to not check my phone constantly throughout the day.
Tuesday: I don't take a ton of photos so I wasn't worried going into day two. But I did kind of slip up and take a photo of a check that I was depositing via my bank's app. Does that count as cheating?
Wednesday: I actually deleted Facebook from my phone about a year ago, making Instagram the app that sucks the most of my time now. I don't even post super frequently, but I find myself mindlessly scrolling through my feed a ton. With that app gone I felt way less inclined to randomly pick up my phone but also got bored when waiting around, which I guess is the point?
Thursday: There's no way on the iPhone to set an away message for text, and I don't really have a problem with over-checking my email. So I compromised and set my phone to "do not disturb." It was relaxing not to be jostled by any jarring beeps or vibrations throughout the day.
Friday: While out and about I wasn't being super perceptive to the world around me, but I did notice a surprising amount of people walking around in shorts even though it was cold (but deceptively sunny) and one mustachioed man walking around looking very concerned.
Saturday: Watching water boil is the worst and is about as slow a process as you'd imagine. Yet, it's still not long enough for me to get truly bored and allow the chatter of my mind to stop. But watching water boil was a treat compared to building a house from random scraps found in my purse. I took no joy from the activity and kind of just tried to make a passable house-like structure.
Overall I liked the premise behind the challenge, but felt it could have been harder and forced us to step back from technology even more.
App for that
At the mention of a "tech cleanse" I had two reactions: indignation and imagination.
I already know that I do my best creative thinking away from my phone, and I self-righteously told myself I don't have a problem because my phone's only for texting and email ... and photos, music, ebooks, shopping. Oh.
That's when I started to see my habits more clearly and to imagine a better use of my attention.
Not looking at my phone while in transit was a minor challenge. I have the habit of checking something while walking back to the car after my daughters' school drop-off. I kept my phone in my purse this week and was thankful for it.
Keeping the camera off was more difficult. I have the habit of taking photos of my kids and texting them to my parents. I found that I was able to stay more present in each moment; I didn't have to tell my girls, "Do that again so I can get a picture for grandma!" I could just watch and enjoy.
Deleting the app got me. I use email and texting most, so I moved email off my main screen and turned off visual notifications (I'd already turned off sound notifications). This made me feel more in control. Then I realized that my most used app was Bitmoji. I love finding the cutest caricature for my texts ... but, away went Bitmoji. I missed it, but I did feel freed of an engrossing habit. Now, after the cleanse, I don't use it as much.
I confess that once my work week ended on Wednesday, I didn't do challenge No. 4 (an away-message), or No. 6 (something creative). For No. 5 (observations), I noticed that my mom's jewelry matched her eyes that day, and the waitress at the cafe had gotten a cute haircut. Overall, I found my eye wandering to the phone's screen much less frequently.
I know I'm prone to becoming completely reactive to my phone and addicted to notifications and likes. The cleanse showed me that even without certain apps, I still have tech habits that send my attention to a screen; I need to be more intentional. Hmm, maybe there's a Bitmoji for that. Δ