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If You’re Feeling Burnt Out, You’re Handling Boredom The Wrong Way

kaboompics.com_Cell phone in hands

Wondering if you’re addicted to Facebook? Here’s a fun experiment:

For a day, a half-day, or even a few hours, delete the Facebook app from your phone. You can keep the Messenger app, but delete the Facebook app.

Great, your phone doesn’t have Facebook on it. No problem, right?

Now, for the rest of the day, pay attention to what happens with how you use your phone.

If you’re like me, something quite embarrassing happens. Without thinking, your thumb reflexively tries to open the Facebook app every time you pull your phone out. When this happened to me a couple times, it was actually embarrassing, even though nobody else knew about it. I spoke to a friend recently who tried the same thing.

But why?

The Agony of Boredom

In the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal talks about Facebook in an incredibly interesting framework:

What Facebook wants to create an association with is every time you’re bored, every time you have a few minutes, [you pop open their app, or enter their URL.] We know that, psychologically speaking, boredom is painful. Whenever you’re feeling bored, whenever you have a few extra minutes, this is a salve for that itch. 

I love the description of boredom as “painful.” With how saturated we are with technology, boredom is an exquisite kind of torture for me. Idleness makes me anxious. Somehow, I’ve grown up from a kid entertained by growing a freaking plant to an adult sized kid who can’t sit in a 4 minute long subway car ride without pulling my phone out and playing some stupid game.

This isn't me. But in 3rd grade, we had an assignment to grow plants, and I ate that shit up. I was stoked every day to go to class and see how much my plant grew the next day.

This isn’t me. But relevant side story: in 3rd grade, we had a year-long project to grow a plant in the classroom, and I ate that shit up. I was stoked every day to go to class, water my plant, and see how much it grew from day to day. Unfortunately, it grew the shortest in the class, and the other kids made fun of me. But I still rooted hard for that little guy every day.

Of course, it’s important to ask ourselves why this matters. Yes, we’re engaging in a powerful habit, but just because one possesses a compulsive habit does not make that habit inherently bad. Showering every day when you wake up in the morning is a favorable habit. Eating a yogurt every morning is a favorable habit. There are good things that come from doing those things compulsively. So what’s the harm in us checking our phones, looking at Facebook, or playing TwoDots whenever we have a dull moment?

Turns out, you’re actually crippling your ability to be a creative, non-zombiefied human being.

What Boredom Even Means

I think it’s important at this point to clarify what the hell “boredom” even means. 1

According to a 2012 research paper by York University, boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” This definition makes a lot of sense when we contextualize it with Facebook usage. We’re, in moments large and small, dissatisfied with our own lives, so we engage in the satisfying lives (see: inflated representations) of others.

In an ideal world, every waking moment should be filled with an action directly related to your goals, right? That is, after all, the mantra of many motivational speakers, and the culture of American society at large. If you’re not doing something to further your success at every moment, you’re behind the 8-ball. Hell, look at this 35,000,000+ viewed motivational video:

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful…
…if you REALLY want to be successful, some days you need to stay up three days in a row.
Because if you go to sleep, you might MISS the opportunity to be successful.”

Damn it. As a lover of long hours of sleep, here is my Jalen Rose counter:

Thankfully, that’s not entirely true.

The Two Types of Boredom

In my experience, not every boredom is the good kind. While psychologists theorize that there are five different emotional states of boredom, 2 I break boredom down into two states, based on the type of actions they induce:

Escapist Boredom is the bad kind of boredom. Escapist Boredom is done with a principal motivation of avoidance, so that you do not have to deal with life problems. When I’m in my blog zone and staring at that white screen, I often twitch over to a new Facebook tab without thinking. Hell, somehow I found myself at the end of an amusing BroBible post about some girl who stumbled incoherently drunk into two guys’ apartment (nothing nefarious; they left her some sticky notes). Escapist Boredom is an active boredom–an immersion into another reality that doesn’t involve you having to complete the task that you’re involved in.

Creative Boredom is the good kind of boredom–where the magic happens. Creative Boredom is done with a principal motivation of replenishing, without active stimulus.

Take a look at this research:

…evidence that the brain at rest, even while remaining awake, is conducting meaningful activity. “Your brain is doing work for you even when you’re resting,” says Davachi, who just published a study in Neuron showing that certain kinds of brain activity actually increase during waking rest and are correlated with better memory consolidation. “Taking a rest may actually contribute to your success at work or school,” she adds.

Turns out, another study 3 done by the University of Central Lancashire that backs up the case for boredom. 40 people were asked to complete a task that required creativity: coming up with uses for two polystyrene cups. The study showed that those who were given tasks designed to induce daydreaming prior to the cups came up with more uses for the cups than those given the assignment cold. Creative Boredom is a passive boredom–you allow life to happen, and you relinquish control over any facet of your life. Thus, in the part of your brain that was previously used to engage in something, whether it be social media or a video game, you now have space for new ideas. To put it another way, your subconscious finally has the energy to work on all of the problems in the back of your mind and come up with solutions.

As another unintended benefit, boredom may even encourage the pursuit of new goals. Often, when we’re bored practicing a lick or trying to write a paper, we admonish ourselves with a lot of negative self-talk: “why can’t I focus! I’m so shitty!” However, it might just be our brain telling us that we may learn more efficiently and satisfactorily if we do something else instead. Often, when I get bored in the practice room, I take a second to walk, or call a friend, with the intention of attacking the task anew after 10, 15, or 20 minutes. My energy is always replenished, and I get much more done than if I try that extra ten minutes to power through and give up and go home.

Think of the difference like two different moms. One mom is always getting on you every time you do something wrong. She constantly bombards you with improvements you should be making in your life, enrolling you in clubs and programs, and makes sure you’re doing something every second of every day. The other mom lets you explore on your own and make your own mistakes through adolescence, gently guiding you with lessons here and there before you do anything too dangerous.

Which kid do you think turns out more ready for the world? More enthusiastic about life? More flexible to new challenges?

When you constantly check Facebook, the kid is your brain. And you’re the overprotective mom.

Does your brain really need all those stimuli?

Does your brain really need all those stimuli?

Companies Make Billions off of Your Fear of Boredom

Just like muscles need time to rest in order to heal and grow, the brain needs time to rest in order to solve your life problems. You can’t constantly lift weights without breaks and expect huge lean mass gains, and you can’t constantly stimulate your brain, whether with work, Facebook, or video games, and expect creativity to foster. It’s bad common sense, and bad science, too.

Unfortunately, we have been tricked into the opposite: that any moment not used doing is a moment wasted. Why? Because companies have a vested interest against Creative Boredom, where the consumer doesn’t engage in any media. Companies want you to be consuming–Escapist Boredom–whether through their social networking site, their brand of food, their Instagram posts, or even their xenophobic statements. 4 The more you’re on Facebook, the more attention you bring to them, and the more money you generate for them.

Why be a part of that, especially if it’s not good for you?

Smartphones Don’t Have To Rule Your Life

I remember when the first iPhone came out. I was fifteen and a high school sophomore, still rocking my Jet Black Motorola Razr. A group of people stood anxiously, congregating around a trumpet player in the band hall, craning their necks to see something. Ryan got the first iPhone on the release day, and everyone was peppering him with questions. What does it do? Can I touch it? How much was it? Are you scared you’ll drop it? I was annoyed, and uninterested. Who needs that shit?

Today, years later, even the most plebeian 5 of consumers owns some type of smartphone. I’ve updated my iPhone every two years since 2010. Clearly, the landscape of the world has changed–so many businesses, workplaces, and student. As a musician at Juilliard, we’re expected to have access to our emails virtually 24/7. You lose out on gigs if you respond to mass messages three minutes too late.

And of course, there are indeed social benefits to be gained by being constantly connected. For instance, in my post about the Paris attacks, I wrote a bit about the initial hours during and after the incident on social media:

It having been about 45 minutes since news broke of initial deaths, I wondered if anyone else in the audience had heard the news. Indeed, in whispers before Lauren walked on stage, I heard “did you hear…“s and “Oh my God”s.

I got the sense 6 that there’s a small sense of pride in being able to break a story, even tragic ones, to your friends or the stranger next to you. You know something important going on that they don’t! Being connected. I get the other side of the coin, too. It never feels good to be that guy in conversation who’s talking about what was trending two days ago that everyone already knows about. People kind of give you that bemused look, almost of pity that you’re two days behind. Conversely, I never really see any backlash for being the first to know about something. You have an air of being informed, in the know. Sometimes you’re even the recipient of a touch of envy. I’ve been on both ends of the candle. 7

But those things are not worth the costs they incur long term. For all of the incredible benefits of having a handheld phone that literally outperforms some 2015 laptops, technology now gives us more opportunities than ever to avoid tackling problems head-on, whether that problem is social anxiety, accomplishing a single task, or even just pursuing your own damn dreams.

The feelings you get from being in the know… it’s just an ego construct. None of that matters. Seeing other people’s successes scrolling on our news feed is a special kind of addicting masochism, but we should be worried about how we’re contributing to the world, not how everyone else is pretending to.

So take a break from tech, even just for ten minutes. Let yourself miss out. It will be difficult at first; you’ll itch for your phone, your thumb will do things with a mind of its own. It helps to cut yourself off entirely–leaving your phone at home, even switching to airplane mode. Eventually, you can build anti-technology habits, and associate a detoxed, creative mind with happiness. You can get addicted to a lack of unnecessary stimulus and make your brain stronger, less tired, and full of insights–some of them life-changing.

And take your time with those breaks. Facebook will still be there for you, I promise.


Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone. If you like what you read, I’d love for you to share it on Facebook or Twitter–I like the idea of a world where people share substantive content over “10 Reasons Why Jello Is The Best Food..” articles, don’t you?

Art Photo: LINK

Notes:

  1. Apparently, “ennui” is a cool word that is also a synonym for boredom. I almost never see this written in literature. Who knew?
  2. Holy shit, science is cool.
  3. Really firing off the research today, for some reason. Don’t ever say I didn’t do nothin’ for ya!
  4. Yeah! Round up the Muslims! Assault the blacks! Trump 2016!
  5. Not going to lie, the urbandictionary definition is pretty funny.
  6. Of course, I was doing this myself as well. Never said I wasn’t guilty!
  7. There’s a 94.6% chance I made that phrase up for this context, but I like it and it’s my blog so I’m forging ahead.

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