Why filling every moment of your attention is sapping your creativity, your ability to concentrate and your enjoyment of life.
Something I realised I was doing wrong in 2018, aside from peeling bananas, was filling every moment of time with doing something. Whether it was listening to a podcast when walking back from the gym, playing Angry Birds while on the subway, or having Netflix on in the background while I colour my comic strip, I never had a single moment of silence, much less boredom.
In an interview with Tim Herrera in The New York Times this morning, Cal Newport revealed a small tidbit from his upcoming book Digital Minimalismin which he teases:
The second rule is to “embrace boredom.” The broader point here is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well. A simple way to get started training this ability is to frequently expose yourself to boredom. If you instead always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.
Late in the year, I realised that 90% of my waking hours were spent with Bluetooth earbuds in, listening to podcasts, Instapaper articles or music and 10% was allowed for my brain to catch up on all of that information. The only time allowed to process it and make any sense of that enormous amount of input was during sleep — which, as you can imagine, was pretty restless.
I reinstated my daily practice of meditation which made a massive difference. It made me more mindful of my tendency to reach for my phone or fill some dead time with something.
The reality is: boredom is important. It allows your mind to wander and make connections it mightn’t have had the opportunity to while you were listening to another episode of the Tim Ferris podcast.
Creativity requires quiet. Part of the reason you get your best ideas in the shower is that you don’t have any other input — and your subconscious is on autopilot with something you’ve done routinely for decades — leaving you with the ability to make creative connections and come up with great ideas you might have missed out on having if you plugged up that time with further input.
Taking a walk?
Take out your earbuds. Just walk.
Taking a bath? (a #ScotchBath, I hope)
Don’t take a book. Just sit.
Taking a baby?
Put it back. Don’t take babies.
I now carve out entire blocks of time with nothing in them on purpose. It was an experiment I tried in 2018 and the results were astounding. The space I carved out yielded more creativity than anything I could have activelyscheduled in those blocks of time.
I would implore any creatives to try it and see what comes of making time for nothing.