Last year, I spoke to Manoush Zomorodi about the importance of being bored. In her role as host of WNYC’s “Note to Self” podcast, Zomorodi conducted an experiment with 20,000 of her listeners, encouraging them to spend less time on their devices and more time being idle by issuing a week of simple smartphone-related challenges (like going a day without taking a photo on your phone or deleting your most-used app for one day) and then polling her audience for any changes in how they felt. Over the course of that project, Zomorodi discovered something interesting among the feedback she was receiving from those participating: boredom, widely dismissed as an uncomfortable and useless state of being, was proving to be a great wellspring of creativity and, counter-intuitively, productivity.
Looking to neuroscience for an explanation, she’d discover that when you turn your mind off, it doesn’t actually turn off. Instead, what’s known as your brain’s “default mode” flips on. With the default mode engaged, your mind wanders into all manner of imaginative places. It makes novel connections between all of the information stored in your noggin, and engages in “autobiographical planning,” which helps you imagine your ideal future and work backwards through the steps that you need to take to get there. (These conclusions—and the supporting evidence—became the basis of Zomorodi’s 2017 book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.)
When we had our discussion on idle time, there was no way to know then what resonance that conversation might have in the time of coronavirus.
Of course, most people probably wouldn’t describe their current mental state as “bored” so much as anxious, worried, or scared. And those that would describe themselves as bored likely have the privilege of being healthy and financially stable. But regardless of your situation or your employment status, if you’re not an essential worker, you probably find yourself with more time and less things to fill it with.
So I called up Zomorodi, who wrote the book on boredom (and is now the host of the Ted Radio Hour on NPR), to see what insights she might have on the merits of boredom and productivity in our isolated world.
Last time we talked, you mentioned how you’re a person who likes to get shit done. So I’m curious how you’re thinking about productivity at a time like this.
At first, I was like, “Oh my god. Everything’s canceled.” Part of me—I’m a little bit sheepish to admit—was relieved. My schedule was packed through June, and I was having trouble breathing when I looked at it. Suddenly, all those problems were gone. Clearly, the rest of it felt terrible, but that part kind of felt good.
When we talk about the powers of technology, the one thing that it really can’t give us more of is hours in the day. Suddenly, we had more time. That was never something I ever expected to be given. Clearly that time fills up pretty quickly when you’ve got two kids, and you’re cooking three meals a day, when [before] you tried to get away with one, if that.
The other thing I was surprised by: my inbox went quiet at the very beginning, and then it just exploded with online invitations—to Zoom art classes and exercise classes and virtual meetings and streaming conferences and newsletters. I was like, “Oh my god, everybody wants to be heard during this.”
This is an incredible experiment. In some ways, it’s horrible, in that people are losing their jobs and clearly losing family members as well. But it’s also an opportunity to observe ourselves and see how we respond in different scenarios. What if when things go back to “normal,” you don’t go back to what normal was to you? I’m thinking of it as the Great Reset. I think there needs to be some of us who sit quietly and watch and see what is needed down the road. I think that’s where I am right now.
On days when you give yourself space to ideate and brainstorm, what is your metric for success? I know that on days like that, if I don’t come away with a concrete idea to tackle, I can sometimes feel like, “Oh, I just wasted that day.”
That is something I definitely had to unlearn. Because it’s a process. I do think an artist will tell you—or writers definitely will tell you—that some days you sit down and it just comes out of you and you don’t even know where it’s coming from. And other days… nothing.
The nice thing about getting older is that you can look at the data from a bigger picture. You see that even if there are jags up for productivity some days, and big dips other days, the line, hopefully, trends upwards in your life. Generally, you are coming up with things that sustain you and sustain your work.
Ira Glass has a commencement speech where he talks about the importance of the editor, and how your first draft wants to be terrible. You’re like, “I have to bow to the gods of the first draft. Then, clearly the next one also probably will be pretty shitty. But, then the third one…” It’s just the way it is. You can’t skip a step. You just can’t.
I think the key to me is observing our own behavior in a dispassionate way. The message of Bored and Brilliant was: nest with your digital habits, change them, try to be more bored, and don’t judge it, just observe what happens. Are you more creative? Does it make a difference?
One of the things people said most in that project was how hard it was for them to be alone, particularly for younger folks. I hope that we are in a period where people learn to live with themselves a little bit more, to take it slower, enjoy the small moments. It sounds so cheesy. But, I hope that people are finding the deliciousness of solitudes, as opposed to thinking of it or finding it to be lonely.
That would be an amazing thing to come out of this: that people are more comfortable with themselves because they spend time with themselves, and have gotten to know themselves. At first, maybe it was a bit boring, but then maybe they crossed over into that wonderful place of daydreaming. You can essentially time travel. Even if you’re not going anywhere, your brain can time travel. It’s awesome.
I think to get to the daydream, you have to get through the “Oh my god I’m bored. I have to do something, I have to do something” panic voice. How do you walk yourself through that dread?
To be clear, some daydreaming is not great. It can lead to rumination, and, especially in times of great anxiety that can be tough for people. “What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my loved ones?” That can spiral. But there’s also what’s called positive constructive daydreaming, and that’s the good kind.
I think of boredom as like, “Oh my god. My mind is wandering, I don’t like where it’s wondering. That’s boring.” Or, I’m walking outside because I know I should and [then I go], “Maybe I’ll just listen to the news the whole time because my legs hurt and it’s uncomfortable, and, actually, I’d rather just go lie down.”
[Boredom] requires discipline. The more you do it, the more you can trust that the process will work.
What happens after you cross through the boredom, through the threshold to daydreaming, you activate this network in your brain called the default mode. Not only is the default mode the place where we do our most original thinking and we come up with creative ideas and problem-solving, it’s also where we do something called autobiographical planning. That’s essentially looking back at your life, remembering the highs and lows and writing the story, making sense of all the things that have happened to you and how you got to this very moment.
Then we project into the future and we start to imagine different scenarios. We start to choose the ones that we like and we set goals and work backwards to where we are right now, and figure out how we’re going to achieve those goals and what steps we’ll need to take. This time travelling in your brain—from your past to your future, back to the present—it’s about a sense of possibility if you allow it to be. I think that’s really powerful.
How are you consuming news right now? Obviously, there’s so much, and you can get lost in the spiral pretty quickly.
I actually did another project called Infomagical, which was about information overload and how to cope with it. The problem with Twitter is there’s no schema. It jumps from one idea to the next. You burn through glucose in your brain because of that, which is why you are so depleted. Also, not having a schema is bad for memory and retention. You probably don’t remember anything you read anyway.
News consumption is a conversation going on in this household right now. My brother just did a 48-hour news fast. But I am a journalist and my husband is a journalist, and I’m also a control freak. I need to know what’s going on. I think it’s important that this be a very, very, very personal choice. What is right for you, needs-wise?
For me, knowing what’s happening and going on relaxes me. I’m also an extremely curious person. I’m fascinated by how this is unfolding. So it’s actually relaxing to read and relaxing to have information from my trusted sources. Being informed is very empowering to me.
But I can totally see how it puts some people in a panic or makes them anxious. It’s really important that people set an information goal and decide: when you go online, what is it that you’re hoping to achieve, and when will you know if you’ve achieved it? Is it trying to find out whether New York is flattening its curve or not? Okay, great. Go find that out, and then turn it off. Do something else.