In the age where smartphones provide constant stimulation, many of us have forgotten what it feels like to experience the monotony of boredom. And while on the surface that might seem like a good thing, my guest today highlights research that not being bored can actually make us dumber and less creative.
Her name is Manoush Zomorodi, she’s the host of the podcast Note to Self and the author of the book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. Today on the show, Manoush shares her experience of how feeling scattered and less creative led her to create an experiment that tested whether her lack of boredom in recent years was to blame. We then dig into the philosophy of boredom and why we dread it so much. Manoush then goes into what the latest research says about the benefits of boredom, like increased creativity, better productivity, and improved mental well-being. Finally, she walks us through some exercises you can use to help inject more boredom in your life. (Yes, you read that right.)
- The moment Manoush realized her best ideas came when she was bored
- Manoush’s boredom experiment with her audience
- The philosophy of boredom
- What does modern research say about boredom? How is boredom even defined?
- The lengths people go to avoid being bored
- How smartphones hinder our conversations
- The effect of boredom, or lack thereof, on kids
- Why we have to teach kids what it means to be bored and to daydream
- What smartphone cameras are doing to our memories
- Why the key to capitalizing on boredom is not abolishing tech, but self-regulating it
- Learning from the smartphone habits of monks
- Are apps actually addictive?
- The summer camp in New England that allows smartphone use, and why
- Manoush’s 7-day challenge for getting your smartphone use under control
- How games and apps can actually help productivity and anxiety in certain cases
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Note to Self podcast
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- 4 Questions That Will Kill FOMO
- Podcast: The Joy of Missing Out
- Podcast: How to Beat Distraction and Stay Focused
- What Every Man Ought to Know About Focus
- People would rather shock themselves than be bored
- Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
- Podcast: Reclaiming Conversation
- The Presence of Your Smartphone Reduces Brain Power
- Smartphone Cameras Could Be Washing Out Our Memories
- Snapchat Streaks
- Dopamine Labs
- Longacre Leadership Camp
- Bored and Brilliant Boot Camp
- Jane McGonigal
Bored and Brilliant is filled with great insights on the usefulness of boredom, but, more importantly, has actionable advice on how you can get those benefits. Also be sure to participate in the Bored and Brilliant Boot Camp, and check out Manoush’s podcast, Note to Self.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In the age where smartphones provide constant stimulation, many of us have forgotten what it feels like to experience the monotony of boredom. While on that surface, that might seem like a good thing, my guest today highlights research that not being bored can actually make us dumber and less creative.
Her name is Manoush Zomorodi. She’s the host of the podcast Note to Self and the author of the book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.
Today on the show, Manoush shares her experience of how feeling scattered and less creative led her to create an experiment that tested whether her lack of boredom in recent years was to blame. We then dig into the philosophy of boredom and why we dread it so much. Manoush then goes into what the latest research says about the benefits of boredom like increased creativity, more productivity, and improved mental well-being. Then she walks us through some exercises you can do to help inject a bit more boredom in your life. I know it’s going to sound crazy and counterintuitive, boredom’s good for you, but it is. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/boredom.
Manoush Zomorodi, welcome to the show.
Manoush Zomorodi: Oh, Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You recently published a book, Bored and Brilliant, rediscovering the lost art of spacing out. The impetus behind the book was this experiment that you did with your podcast. You’re the host of Note to Self, WNYC, and you had your listeners go through this experiment of reevaluating the relationship with their digital devices. I’m curious, what was the impetus behind that experiment? Did you have a personal experience where you’re like, “I need to get a handle on how my devices control my life.”
Manoush Zomorodi: Like a personal breakdown, Brett? Is that what you mean?
Brett McKay: Exactly?
Manoush Zomorodi: Well, yes. The answer is absolutely yes. I mean, as you know, your job as a podcast host is to come up with great ideas for your show, and I, a couple of years ago, just had this moment where I was like, I just felt dried, like there was nothing going on upstairs. It felt different than writer’s block. It was more like a barrenness that I felt. I started to try and think back when had I had my best ideas in the past, and it was such a cliché. It was like, “Oh, it was when I was staring out the window on a long car ride, or it’s when I didn’t have kids and used to take long showers, or it was when I used to push my kid’s stroller,” and I realized in all those moments, what was not in my hand, it was my smartphone.
I thought that, and now every time I have a crack in my day, sort of a few minutes here, a few minutes there, whether it is waiting to get my coffee or waiting to get on the subway, what do I do? I look at my phone. I mean, we all look at our phones now, and so it made me think, oh, those moments in my day where I used to space out, they were kind of boring, maybe there was something actually super important going on, and actually, if I think about it, I really haven’t spaced out or been bored since I got a smartphone because I never need to be. It made me wonder, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Brett McKay: Right, and did you talk to other individuals like in your field or people you know who are creative types suffering from the same sort of, “I don’t have any good ideas anymore.”
Manoush Zomorodi: Well, for me, I always go straight to my audience, and my listeners have certainly taught me that whenever I am feeling something, I am not that special, I am not alone. There are probably a lot of other people who are thinking the same thing, and they started sort of, stories started coming in about people wondering what was happening to their brains when they were looking at their phone all the time because I think, and what I realized was that a lot of the research is, our experiences are vastly ahead of the research being done in any lab. By the time they figured out what the long-term implications could be of looking at our smartphones all the time or never getting bored, getting rid of the human emotion, we may have been looking at these things, at this point, for a decade.
I mean, the first iPhone came out in 2007. I think for me, it was a wake-up call, like whoa, we have to start asking these questions and try to answer them more quickly than we wait for a double-blind controlled study to come out that maybe is we do or don’t believe.
Yeah, so I said to my audience, I was like, “Okay, how about for one week, we try to tweak our smartphone habits? We see if we can get a little bit more boredom or spacing out back in our lives, and we see if it ignites something, if it jump starts our creativity or something else happens.” We went on this, I mean, this journey where every morning, they would wake up, they’d get a mini podcast with the science explaining either something neurologically that was going on in their brains or how technology was designed to do something neurologically in their brains, and then a challenge to try and change their behavior for that day. Then they would report back and … At first, I thought, oh, I don’t know, like a couple hundred people will do this with me, but we had 20,000 people sign up to do that one week. They sort of gave us a week of their lives.
The book is based on what I learned from that week, taking what listeners told me worked, what they told me didn’t work, tweaking it, codifying it, and then combining it with a ton more research and interviews with cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, marketers, digital marketers, more stories from people, also technologists, and the data that we got from that week because irony of irony is we actually coupled with a couple apps that measured how much time people were spending on their phones, and so we had a ton of data coming in that could show which days were more successful than others and what the final results were.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome, and we’re going to get into some of the science that you’ve uncovered and some of the data that you were able to gather with this experiment, but you also-
Manoush Zomorodi: Cool.
Brett McKay: … you get philosophical with boredom. Right, like people don’t realize that boredom, this is something that’s been a conundrum for philosophers going back couple of millennias. I mean, what’s the philosophical history of boredom. How do philosophers describe boredom?
Manoush Zomorodi: There’s two different kinds. These situational boredom where you’re, “Ah, I wish this play would end,” but then there’s the existentialist kind where you’re kind of like, “Whoa, what is this life that I’m living?” I think it’s what you talk a lot about on the podcast is this idea of looking for meaning and trying to live your best life sort of thing. It’s not easy, right? It’s not easy to confront the unknown and to think through what you’re going to do next, but actually, boredom can be very helpful with that.
Brett McKay: Right. How have researchers today, how have they described the feelings of boredom because it’s like, we all kind of, we know what it feels like, but then, I don’t know, how do you get more descriptive with that feeling? Is it like, you’d rather be doing something? Is it-
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, so okay. I think for … Well, first of all, I should say we are at an extremely exciting moment in neuroscience. Really, in the last 10 years what with FMRIs and the ability to track how the brain and networks work, it’s really exciting. They’ve just started to really understand what happens in our brains when our mind begins to wander.
It turns out, let’s say you’re folding laundry, and you’re doing something super repetitive that doesn’t require you to actually think about your actions or just sitting and looking at the wall and spacing out, you activate a network in your brain called the default mode. They now understand that in the default mode, that is when do some of our most creative thinking, most original thinking. We take disparate ideas and then push them together and come up with new concepts.
We create a sense of self. It’s self-referential processing, literally creating a coherent sense of ourselves. We do something called theory of mind where we imagine what others are thinking. We develop empathy for them, and we do something that I found incredibly interesting called autobiographical memory and planning, which is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the highs and the lows, we build a personal narrative, we take lessons from that, and then look forward. We have something called perspective bias, looking to the future where we build what we imagine our lives could be, and we set ourselves goals, and we break down the steps that we need to take in order to reach those goals.
Incredibly important things. You could argue that this is what makes humans human, this ability to think of, “Who am I? What is my place in the world?” but it’s also, being bored is, why do we look at our phones so much because boring bored kind of sucks. It hurts at first. It’s difficult. It is a painful process sometimes, but I think it’s getting through that initial period, and this is why I was so insistent because I did have listeners who were like, “God, man, why do you have to use the word boredom? Couldn’t you just go straight to daydreaming, use something a little more positive?” and I was like, “No, because I think we’ve lost this capacity to sit through the yucky part, and that yucky part is, you can’t skip it. You must pass through it in order to get to the good stuff.”
My thinking was no, let’s not vilify it in some way. It is not a disease to be bored. It is actually something that maybe we need to name and get more of in our lives.
Brett McKay: Well, and speaking of how yucky feeling boredom is, you talk about the lengths people will go to avoid boredom. You mentioned this research, this study where people had the option to shock themselves?
Manoush Zomorodi: My God, I love this research. It’s, yeah, it’s really, it’s very famous in the psychological world. It was by Tim Wilson at University of Virginia, and he asked people to come sit in a room, and they could either just sit there and relax or they could shock themselves. Sitting there, this was a very plain room. They made this room the most … There was nothing to look at. It had really dull, gray walls, but rather than just sit there and be bored, people shocked themselves. One guy did it like 190 times, gave himself a zap rather than just sit there with their thoughts. That’s a good one.
There’s a lot of research about how just people, and I think it’s interesting, we’re starting to see what happens, why we keep our smartphones out on the table when we are meeting someone for coffee, because what happens? The minute the conversation gets boring or somebody isn’t quite concise or our phone buzzes, it’s great because who needs to be bored even when we’re face to face with someone, but there’s another study that says the quality of conversation goes down, even if a phone is just within sight of two people having a conversation. It’s kind of a fascinating, if you want to get into it about how they measure that, but yeah, so this idea that the smartphone acts as sort of an interrupter of human connection.
Brett McKay: Right, I mean, because besides talking about how the smartphones deprive us of boredom, and boredom is what allows us to do mind wandering and basically helps us create meaning in our lives, you talk about how the other ways the smartphone disrupts us and that you talk about social connection. How did they figure it out? I mean, I thought that was interesting, just the mere presence of a phone, even if it’s silent, just like, it messes conversation up, it makes people feel less connected.
Manoush Zomorodi: You gotta love scientists, that they have to prove these weird things that you and I, normal people sense is kind of true. I mean, we all know that when we go out to dinner, people have their phones out, and they’re looking at them and stuff, but for them to prove it, they literally put people in cafe settings and measure, have them have conversations and put the phone there and put it across the room or took it away, and then had people rank the quality of their conversation, which his really interesting.
There is actually a boredom researcher Dr. Sandi Mann in the UK who used paper cups to, she got people extremely bored and then asked them to come up with different ways to use paper cups. They came up with plant holders or sandbox toys, but the when they got really, really bored, they started coming up with more creative ideas like a Madonna bra or earrings or musical instruments. Yes, scientists have wonderful and wonderful ways of proving what I sometimes think our intuition knows already knows.
Brett McKay: Right, and what’s even scarier is what’s this doing to kids? I think all of us who were alive before smartphones, we know what it feels like to be bored. We know that feeling, but kids, my children have been, they’ve been exposed to iPads since they were two or three.
Manoush Zomorodi: How old are your kids, Brett?
Brett McKay: Six and four.
Manoush Zomorodi: Got it. Yeah, well, we’ve all seen the kid who picks up a device and knows immediately how to use it, which is kind of awesome and amazing that how quickly they pick things up, but I mean, to me, what you’re describing … We had a number of classrooms across the country do the Bored and Brilliant project together as classrooms, and also a bunch of colleges did it. I heard for one teenager who’s like, “I don’t know, this feeling is really … I don’t recognize it. It feels weird.” I was like, “What, like, boredom?”
Yeah, you’re right, like they’ve, if you are, I don’t know, a teenager and you have a smartphone, you may never have experienced bored, which I find a little worrying and quite extraordinary. As one teacher told me in Florida, I was like, “What were the accumulative effects of doing the project together of changing your smartphone habits?” He’s like, “Well, what I saw was actually more eye contact amongst the kids because I think they started to realize how much not only are they on their personal smartphones, but actually, the class room this day and age is mediated with screens. They’re on iPads in class, they’re looking at smart boards, they are on their computers. There is not a ton of face-to-face interaction.”
For me, I think part of it is that younger people these days are extremely performative. They’re doing things for Instagram. It’s not that they’re not acting. They’re definitely acting. They’re doing these for Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever it might be, but it’s those subtle effects, as Sherry, talks about, the combination of the way someone moves their hand and the way that they look at you or the pacing of their sentence, and combining that altogether, and that’s when you really understand the human being, but it requires patience.
Sometimes, people don’t, I mean, Sherry talked about this with me is that she found that her students really wanted to talk to her, they preferred email because they could write their sentences, make them perfect, edit them before they got them to her. She’s like, “No, because when you talk to me, and I see when you stumble or you have a hard time explaining something or you work your way towards completing a thought or an idea in person, that’s when I understand what you’re going through, and I understand better how I can help you.”
Yeah, I think it’s this patience with human fallibility or human mistakes that kids don’t have to have because now they take a, 10 pictures or, and I do this too. I’m on Instagram. Take 10 different pictures, choose the best one, put the best filter on it, find the best hashtag, and, “Oh my gosh, look at that. Look at my amazing life. It’s awesome.”
Brett McKay: You mention … Well, yeah, speaking of Instagram, one of the benefits of smartphones, we have a great camera with this, pretty much at all time, and people take pictures all the time, but you highlight research that it’s actually hindering our ability to actually be in the moment and even remember this stuff we’re taking pictures of.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, this is super interesting research going on Fairfield University, and the woman professor, Linda Henkel, calls it The Photo Impairment Effect, and this is basically the idea that when we go about our day and taking pictures all the time, we’re outsourcing our memory. We’re literally saying to our brain, “You don’t have to remember this. My camera’s got it. Thanks,” which can be great if you are trying to remember, don’t forget you parked in section D13, and you want to use that as a memory aid, but let’s say you’re spending a day at the beach, and you’ve outsourced all of your memory of your day with your family to your camera, and I know from my listeners and from a lot of people, we have thousands, thousands, and thousands of these pictures that we don’t usually actually go back and look at.
She also found that one way to really not remember something is to put yourself in the photo because you start to look at yourself from a third person. You take yourself out of the moment in that you start to, let’s say you want to take a picture next to a statue. If you’re in the photo, you’re thinking of what the photo’s going to look like instead of actually being there next to the statue in the moment, but there was good news too from Professor Henkel, which is that if you want to improve your memory when you’re taking photos, use macro.
Basically, smartphones do this really well. Zoom in on a very specific detail. Really think through about how you’re framing something and zoom right in, and that will actually help you remember it better. There is also the photo enhancement effect, but I just find it fascinating. I mean, I’m taking photos … I just dropped my kids off after school. It’s like the first day of school, and I’m like, “Oh, oh, I gotta capture the moment.” It was like, my kids were like, “Please, put the phone away.” They hate it. They’re not … I mean, my kids are 7 and 10, and I wonder if this is a generation who’s going to be like, “Ugh, stop taking photos already. Enough.”
Brett McKay: Is that why taking selfies feel weird? I’ve never … Once you’re in the picture, you look at it differently. I think I’ve taken one selfie, and I haven’t done it again because it just made me feel weird.
Manoush Zomorodi: It is a weird feeling, right? Well, I think, whenever I think of selfies, I think of where I learned about Snapchat, which … I think this speaks to the technology about it being designed to make, really encourage the behavior of, and not to use the word addictive because the jury’s out on whether it’s additive clinically or not, but … Do you know about Snapchat streaks, Brett?
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah, I do.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay, so basically, you start a streak with a friend, and that means that every day, you send each other a goofy selfie, and sounds benign, except that Snapchat gamifies so that you collect points and emojis and emoji stickers and trophies and those sorts of things, and it has also become a thing for kids where you’re like, “Don’t break the streak,” because if you break the streak, let’s say you’re going for 300 days that you’re sending these selfies back and forth, if you break the streak, that means that whoa, you, something happen, and your friendship might be over.
You start to think about, it just sort of combines all these things that we’ve been talking about, waking up, taking a selfie, taking yourself out of the moment when you could just be lying in bed and thinking about what you’re going to do that day or maybe you’re remembering a dream or whatever, but you wake up, you take a selfie, you put yourself in sort of looking yourself, this performative aspect. You’re collecting points, you’re basing a friendship not on any sort of real eye contact either.
I mean, that’s not to say Snapchat isn’t fun and great, and as you know from the book, I am not anti-tech. I love my phone. I just don’t think that the answer also is on or off. I’m not a fan of detoxes. I feel like what we’re talking about self-regulation, is saying like, recognizing, “Actually, I really like that first 15 minutes of my day to be spent quietly,” or, “I’ve used my phone enough. I’m starting to use that yucky feeling. I recognize this feeling, and I need to put it away and make some time for something else.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, going on that track, you interview some monks of some, I can’t remember if they’re Zen of they were Catholic, but they use social media, they use smart phones, and you asked them, “How can you do this? What’s going on there?” They basically said, “It’s just, it’s a good distraction like any other distraction, like a distracting thought.” That really convicted me because I put up these crazy tools to make sure I don’t check websites at certain time, and I think, okay, I should be a little more mindful. I don’t need all this stuff. I just need a little self-regulation.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, and I think there’s, as many people in the industry say, “Oh, well, the technology’s not making you check Twitter a million times a day,” and I kind of disagree with that. I think right now, the business model for most of these platforms and apps is our attentions, that phrase attention economy that we are paying for these services with our eyeballs every day in and out, and so that’s why they want you to keep coming back. I mean, yes, Facebook wants to connect you with people you love, but they also want you to spend time with them on the Facebook platform. You can’t pay for Facebook, even if you want to.
As they collect our behavior and parse it and turn it into dossiers of data that they then sell on to advertisers, I think we have to question, what is our time worth? I think it needs … It’s not your fault if you feel like you’re coming back over and over again to the Instagram. These platforms are built to make you do that. It is their business model, but similar to cigarettes, when we started to understand that these companies were not being completely honest about the effects of … I’m not saying that all tech companies have malicious intentions, but I think we have to be more honest about what the business model is and how we are paying with our time and with our personal information for these things.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, I mean, there are some companies that are sort of … I know there’s a company called Dopamine? I mean, that’s what it’s called, and they basically, yeah, they help apps learn how to be more addictive, so they know how to tweak algorithms to send updates at certain times so the app becomes more of something people want to check.
Manoush Zomorodi: As podcast listener, or makers, rather, you and I, what do we want people to do? We want people to listen to our shows. I have ads on my shows, so I understand that this is an issue, but I think we need to be more upfront about it and explain to kids how these things are made and built and paid for so that they are making smarter, wide-eyed-open choices for themselves.
Brett McKay: Speaking of like, you don’t like detoxes, I like how you highlight this summer camp where, most summer camps, they have this strict no technology rule. No devices. When you get there, they’re going to take your smart phone, put it in a safe for the rest of the summer, but this one summer camp decided, no, we’ll just have, like anything goes, you can bring your device, et cetera. Why did they do that, and what were they hoping to accomplish with that new rule?
Manoush Zomorodi: I love this guy. It’s camp called Long Acre Camp. It’s actually in Western Pennsylvania. Really rural. This camp has been this in this guy, Matt Smith is his name, he’s the camp director, it’s been in his family for 40 years, and he was just thinking, “What … ” The purpose of the camp, they call it Long Acre Leadership Camp, and he was like, “Well, what is leadership in this day and age?” It’s understanding how to set goals and be a good example to other kids.
He’s like, “This whole … What are kids mostly thinking about right now? They’re mostly thinking about their smartphones, whether it’s games or social media or whatever,” but he was seeing that taking away the smartphones at summer camp, what would happen? They would just go home and then get back on their devices and nothing would change. They wouldn’t have learned any better habits or ways of self-regulation. It was, again, back to the on or off switch.
He was like, “If there’s one safe place where you should be able to experiment with your behavior or try out new things, it should be summer camp.” He had kids come to camp, and the first week, they had to turn in their phones, and they had to go tech-free. They all got to know each other, and this way that people could make friends and all those sorts of things.
Then he was like, “Okay.” After the first week, he gave the phones back to the kids, and as one girl told me, she must’ve been 14, she was like, “All hell broke loose.” People grabbed their phones, they curled up in various cabins and corners, and she said she felt like she had fallen into a time machine, like she completely lost track of time. She went on all of her social media things, she was seeing what all her other friends were doing in other places, and it kind of made her feel bad. She also didn’t talk to her friends who were there with her that she made at camp. All the kids came back together, and they sort, and Matt, I give him a lot of credit for this, he let them figure out what should the rules be for themselves.
They started to figure it out that you started to get dirty looks if you were on your phone too much, or some people said, “You know what? I don’t want my phone,” and gave their phones back to the camp. They’re like, “Actually, I like the way things were before.”
I think the idea being that not only at the end of camp should you have gotten a ton of exercise and fresh air and made new friends, but if you take back new life skills that you understand your own behavior better, that you know when to use your smartphones so that it helps you, that it’s like a tool rather than a taskmaster, then he felt like that was his job as someone who works with young people to help them to do that.
I think about when I was like 13 years old, there’s no way that I was being asked to regulate my own behavior like kids are today. Mine was like, “Should I go for a bike ride? I guess so.” Maybe we snuck some cigarettes on the golf course or something like that, but these kids have incredibly powerful tools in their hands, and parents who don’t know how to use them better than they do. What we’re asking for is a generation to grow up a lot faster than I think we previously had to, which I guess happens every generation.
The difference being, though, that this tool is being updated constantly and personalized to each of us all the time. I think that’s what makes it different than when cars were a thing or the radio came out or TV was a thing. These tools are constantly being updated to hijack our attention and to keep us coming back, and they are personalized to us, and they know everything about us.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s scary. When you stop and you think about, you have that existential moment that Amazon and Google and Facebook know so much about you. If you don’t recommend quit cold turkey, social media detox, et cetera, what are some just brass-tacks things that you found that worked with yourself and your listeners on getting the handle on their technology use?
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, so actually, we turned it into a seven-step thing. What I tried to do was make it so that it takes an aspect of all the things that we’ve talked about and tries a little tweak. For example, day three is called photo-free day, and the idea is don’t take any photos that day.
For young people, that is extremely challenging to go for a day without taking photos, but from what we’ve heard from them, literally, they were using their eyes differently. They were seeing and experiencing the world differently. I think anybody can try a day. One day is all we’re asking you to do. As one professor put it to me, he’s like, “I felt like … My students had been talking about this. They knew that these things were happening to them, but they didn’t have the permission and the very specific structure to try a change.” I think by saying we’ve tested this, here are the rules, just for one day, try no photos all day long, and then observe your own behavior.
What we have since seen, or day three, delete that app. Take that app that is driving you bonkers, bananas, we all have that one app, take it off your phone just for the day. One guy said to me, this was when he first did the project, he’s like, “Actually, I’ve taken six apps off my phone.” I was like, “All right, dude, whatever you need to do.” He took off Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t know whatever else. He got back in touch last week actually, and he was like, “After that one day, I decided to always keep them off my phone.”
He didn’t kill his accounts. He just decided that he preferred using them on a laptop because then he would just keep track of the time that he spent there, and it didn’t turn into a time suck. He also started to realize that for him, he said, I think he said, “Nine times out of ten when I’m on Facebook, I feel bad about my life. I don’t really want to feel that way. I feel pretty good about it when I’m not on there,” and so for him, it was a permanent change, but there were other people who said, “Oh, actually, I like not having Twitter on my phone. I’m going to do it once a month just to remind myself that I’m in charge of Twitter, it’s not in charge of me.”
I think what we’re doing is just saying these little tweaks can actually make big changes in your life, and the neuroscience explains why they make big changes in your life so just try it. See what happens.
Brett McKay: What was your app that you deleted?
Manoush Zomorodi: Oh my God. Two Dots. Do you know that game?
Brett McKay: I don’t know that game. I read about it, but I don’t know what it is.
Manoush Zomorodi: I am not a gamer, this dot, this dot. This dot spread, this game just became my scotch and soda. I would put the kids to bed and just play this stupid game for like three hours, and I was ashamed of myself. I’d hide it from my husband. I felt like, “God, I could be learning a new language,” but no, I’m connecting dots in this game.
I actually confronted the maker of the game, and I was like, “Man, you’re ruining my life,” and he’s like, “Well, you have to be able to put it down and figure it out.” I was like, “Yes, but I can’t.” Then I tried to convince myself that I was actually increasing my spatial awareness and getting better at other, I don’t know, I thought maybe it was helping me in some way, and so I reached out to some people who are specifically studying games who are like, “Yeah, no. You’re not moving through the world more efficiently. You’re just getting better at connecting virtual dots on your screen. That’s what you’re getting better at so … ”
I took it off my phone for a long time, but then I, I have a confession to make, I did put it back, but for science, Brett, for science.
Brett McKay: For science, of course. What happened after you put it back on?
Manoush Zomorodi: Well, here’s the story is I was talking to game designer Jane McGonigal. She’s at the Institute for the Future. She’s awesome. I was telling her I had a flight, I’m a nervous flyer, and I have a really long flight to go on, and she’s like, “Well, you know what you could do. There are ways of using games productively. You could put Two Dots back on your phone.” I was like, “What? Really?” She’s like, “Yeah. What’s the alterative? That you drink your way to Australia or you take a sedative or like … ” She’s like, “Why go that direction when just playing Two Dots takes you out of a situation and calms you?” She’s like, “I think that that’s a fair use situation,” and she also told me also about a lot of other research about ways that we can use games more productively.
The research is starting to show that if you are trying not to drink or not to smoke or compulsively eat, 10 minutes playing a game, you gotta set a timer though. You gotta set a timer. Ten minutes is a optimum length, or if you are trying to switch gears mentally and calm yourself down, 20 minutes is an optimal length. I mean, it’s all very nascent research, but I think the point is with all these things, it’s not good or bad or on or off, it’s like ways, it’s subtle. It’s there are ways to use these things so that they help you, and they don’t hurt you. That’s hard to do. You have to be very purposeful about your habits, which is tough. We’re all busy.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that was a big takeaway from this book was that technology isn’t bad. You just have to be mindful about it in everything you do with it.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, did you make any changes, Brett? I gotta ask you.
Brett McKay: Have I made any? No, so like I … My personal thing is, I have these crazy set up on my laptop. I use this app called, what’s it called there, FindFocus. It’s for Mac. I set it to where I can only access Twitter and my dumb sites, like my dorking around sites is what I call them. Every 45 minutes, I can access them for 15 minutes, and then so for 45 minutes, I can do whatever, and then I have a device on my android called AppBlock so it blocks me from Instagram until like 4:00. I’m one of those people, I’d rather add constraints than self-regulate because I feel like self-regulation can also exhaust you mentally, so I just won’t even have to worry about it.
Manoush Zomorodi: But I think that’s really interesting to me because you are somebody who is super tech-savvy, you put out a podcast, you’re in this world, but what was surprising to me was how many people don’t know the basics, like how to turn off notifications on their phones or change the settings. The idea of somebody installing more technology to help them deal with their technology blows some people’s minds. They’re like, “Wait, what?” I think we are in the minority. The majority is struggling and has no idea, maybe not no idea, I want to give them more credit than that, but is struggling and is looking for very simple non-tech ways to make change.
Brett McKay: Another just simple way that I came across and I experimented last week was when I didn’t want to use my phone, I would just turn off WiFi and mobile data, and so I could get text messages and I can call, but I couldn’t do anything else. Even just going through that hassle of, “Oh, I want to check Instagram. I gotta turn on my mobile … ” even the hassle of that’s sort of like it’s not even worth it so I don’t do it.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, I set up little roadblocks for myself too, or I put apps that I shouldn’t really be using, I’ll put them in a folder called productivity just to be like, “Are you really being productive?” Just little moments where I mess with myself to remind myself like, actually, or even, I used to think that the best use of my time was answering all my email on the ride home, but actually, having written this book and done the research, I am better off staring at people’s shoes all the way home.
The chances of me coming up with a better idea or solving a problem or even just being more available to my children and maybe making them a dinner that I’ve, I would’ve ordered pizza, I came up with an idea for a healthy dinner. That is far more productive and creative. Yeah, maybe I’ll have more emails to answer in the morning, but in the long, we gotta play the long game, right, man?
Brett McKay: Something I did too is, and one of the things you suggest, just like, notice how you spend your time with your devices. Email on my phone, I notice that I read it, but I don’t answer it. I’ll wait until I get home on my laptop, and then I’ll answer it, so I’m like, “What’s the point in having email on my phone?” So I’m thinking about deleting my email app because it doesn’t do anything for me.
Manoush Zomorodi: Well, that would be radical. I would love to hear what happens. You might get a lot of people who are pissed off at you who are like, “Man, don’t you read your email?”
Brett McKay: Well, I mean, I read it on my phone, and then I’ll wait two hours when I’m back at my laptop to answer because I don’t, for some reason, I don’t like typing on the phone with my thumbs.
Manoush Zomorodi: I think that makes perfect sense, like if you want to send someone a coherent response, it helps to have a keyboard, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Well, Manoush, what’s going on with the experiment. Right now, is it just being broken down into steps that people take? Are you still doing, you still running the experiment, gathering data on your listeners?
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, so the latest is in the book, we layout the … I took what we learned when we did the first project with the 20,000 people in 2015, I took all that, took all the feedback, added more research and interviews and turned it into the seven steps you can take. One of the apps that we initially partnered with, it’s called Moment. He’s a great guy, software developer who just did this as a side project for himself. He lives in Pittsburgh. He has turned, he’s created a Bored and Brilliant program in the app.
You can download the app Moment. There’s a Bored and Brilliant site within it that you can sign up for. It’ll guide you through the steps while also measuring how many times a day you pick up your phone just to check it and how many minutes a day you spend on your phone to see if it is effective for you, but I should say, in the original project, we only, collectively, we only shaved six minutes off our daily phone usage.
I was really bummed. I was like, “What? Everyone’s telling me they’re having this amazing experience. How is it possible that we only cut down six minutes?” but then I went back to the neuroscientists and the cognitive psychologist, and they just laughed at me. They were like, “Do you know how difficult it is to change people’s behavior, much less do it in one week?” The fact that people felt so passionately that they were willing to sign up for this project for a week and that they reported back in our survey results that 90% of them felt that they had more power over their phone, that was an incredible feat that people felt that they had the ability to master their phone as opposed to being dictated to by it.
Really, to me, it’s also the stories that are peppered throughout the book of people’s changes that they’ve made in their lives. Some of them are small, like one woman told us that now she goes up and down the subway stairs while she’s waiting for the subway to get a cardio workout instead of looking in her phone, but then another woman, so this woman in Wisconsin, she was going through a breakup with Bored and Brilliant happened, and she had to decide whether to sell the farm or not, and she decided to keep it.
Now, once a month, she opens it up to the community in Wisconsin, and she has something called Make Time where people come to the farm, they hand over their devices, they can take a nap, some people bring their sewing machines, other people paint. She decided that for her, not only was she going to be a farmer, but that she was going to turn it into a place where her community could come together to do some creative thinking and problem solving. She renamed her farm the Make Time Farm, which is kind of amazing, so lots of really interesting stories.
Brett McKay: Right, and that story wouldn’t have happened unless she was bored. She got the idea-
Manoush Zomorodi: Exactly.
Brett McKay: … when she was bored. Well, Manoush, this has been a great conversation. Besides Note to Self, where else can people find out about your work and the book?
Manoush Zomorodi: I’m on book tour, we’re doing a lot of other fun things with our listers. I’m at manoushz.com, and the podcast is notetoselfradio.org. Come join us and check us out. We’re having a lot of fun and rethinking how we live in this crazy, accelerating world.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Manoush Zomorodi, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Manoush Zomorodi: Thanks, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Manoush Zomorodi. She’s the author of the book Bored and Brilliant. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also check out her podcast, Note to Self. Just check it out on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/boredom where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you just take one quick minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 22, 2017