In Search Of Boredom

How Idleness May Restore Our Declining Attention Spans

As I write this I’m finding it hard to focus. My thoughts dart back and forth, scattered and agitated. I could say that it’s the infectious frenetic energy of spring that’s causing my focus to bounce around like a toddler in a bouncy castle, but I know that’s not true. The robins flying around outside my window, with their beaks full of building materials for their nests, may also be doing so with a frantic sense of urgency, but their actions are purposeful. I, however, can’t say that my jumping from one open tab on my computer to another, every forty seconds, has much purpose.
The problem has been growing over the years. When I noticed it for the first time, I wondered if I was developing ADHD. I remember when I was a kid that I could spend all afternoon stretched out on the couch reading a book, or a whole day in the forest playing with nothing but my imagination and maybe my bike (which I pretended was a horse). I was happy and able to concentrate on one thing for hours.

The world has changed since those long Sunday afternoons, around the turn of the millennium, spent reading an entire book in one sitting. These days reading a magazine, or, more recently, a long Instagram caption, have begun to test the limits of my attention span. My brain has become used to instant gratification and now prefers the dopamine rush that comes from mindlessly scrolling on my phone—over the satisfaction of completing a sensible task in one sitting.
Has anyone else noticed this, or is it just me? I suspect I’m not alone since a large number of books have come out, in the last few years, investigating the topic. It seems that many of us are looking for answers and ways to regain control over how we spend our time.
These days we spend mere seconds on one screen before our attention moves to another. Phone to computer to TV, and back to phone. We watch a YouTube video while online shopping, or send texts while binge watching a show on Netflix. And if we’re faced with a couple of minutes of empty time, waiting in line, on public transportation or even in the bathroom, we quickly distract ourselves by scrolling through Facebook.

It could be argued that we’re addicted—addicted to technology, to dopamine, to instant gratification, to digital validation and to constant distraction. Sure, sometimes it’s a phone call or a message notification that pulls our attention away from what we’re doing, but often we actually distract ourselves. A sudden need to check your WhatsApp (or to look something up on Wikipedia) sneaks up on you as you’re working. So, even when we have no external interruptions, we interrupt ourselves.
It’s as if the idea of not being engaged in something all the time scares us. The modern human being is said to be deficient in a lot of things: vitamin D, exercise, iron, calcium and even nature (i.e., nature-deficit disorder). Maybe there’s a new contender to add to the list: boredom.
You can find countless articles online about how to “combat” boredom, but what if boredom is actually the antidote to the negative impact that digital media and technology has had on our lives and our attention spans? Why is it that we often have the best ideas in the shower, possibly the last frontier of our modern lives where we are forced to be alone, with our thoughts, and can’t pull out our phones?
The simple fact is that we don’t know how to be bored anymore. It’s a muscle that we’ve left to atrophy. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be doing or consuming something all the time. Our shorter attention spans get reinforced by Tiktok videos and increasingly shorter content … Even commercials aren’t as long as they used to be.
So why is boredom important?

Our modern lives have created an ever-increasing amount of information overload and sensory fatigue, and when we have a few free moments, instead of taking a break we tune into more stimulation. Boredom is the opposite of that. Boredom is restorative. It lets us reflect on who we are and what we want. It allows us to process information, come up with new ideas, plan our futures and be more creative. Boredom can lead to growth, solutions to problems, and self-exploration. And it forces us to find ways to self-regulate.
There’s a growing movement that’s raising awareness about the importance of empty time, idleness, and play for kids. As Glennon Doyle wrote in her book Untamed, “There is so much about phones and children that parents worry about but I find myself worrying most that when we hand our children phones, we steal their boredom from them. As a result we’re raising a generation of writers who will never start writing, artists who will never start doodling, chefs who will never make a mess of the kitchen, athletes who will never kick a ball against a wall, and musicians who will never pick up a guitar and start strumming.”
I’m grateful that I made it through school right before technology took off as much as it has. I got my first cell phone when I was in university, right around the time that Facebook was still only a social network for college students. I’m glad that I had time to daydream and play outside when I was a kid, even though the last two decades have still managed to erode that once-robust attention span.

I want to be able to entertain myself like that again—without a device. I want to get through a day without checking my email a hundred times, or reaching for my phone without realizing what I’m doing. Sometimes it feels like we’re all on autopilot, now, and the constant distractions are simply a way to avoid that frightening realization.
When was the last time that you took 10 minutes to lay on your back and watch the clouds go by (without pulling out your phone to immediately take a picture to share with someone or post on social media)? It seems to me that we need to begin to build up our tolerance again for boredom and idleness. In Italian, it’s called il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), and the Dutch call it niksen (the practice or philosophy of intentionally doing nothing). Our society, however, prefers to “kill time” if there’s nothing to do, and these days that generally means distracting ourselves on our phones.

There’s an initial moment of discomfort when you realize you’re alone with your thoughts or can’t distract yourself from the task at hand, but it gets easier with practice. If I regularly read for an hour or so every day, I notice a calmness begin to build up in me after a few weeks. When you exercise consistently, you notice your body gaining stamina, strength and flexibility, and the same seems to be the case with your attention span. Start by focusing on just one thing, like reading a book or writing in a journal. Limit yourself to just one activity at a time. Repetitive tasks, without checking your phone, are also great for allowing your mind to wander.
Digital detoxes are very popular right now, but our search for boredom doesn’t necessarily have to mean a complete disconnect with technology. An afternoon spent gardening; or an evening walk spent without listening to a podcast, audio book or chatting over the phone, is a great start. Exchange the technology-induced dopamine hits for other happy-hormone-producing activities like smelling flowers and getting some sun. Put your phone in airplane mode for a couple of hours, or go fishing and save the selfies to post for later. Let’s learn to be more intentional, once again, with the most precious commodity we have and will never be able to get back—our time.

A few books on the topic:

Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, by Gloria Mark

The Power of Boredom: Why Boredom is Essential for Creating a Meaningful Life, by Mark A. Hawkins

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, by Johann Hari

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, by Anna Lembke

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