Digital detox

In Defense of Boredom

minds matter

Sree Mitra

May 2, 2024

Author: Dr Steve Hickman

How many times in your childhood did you find yourself complaining (in that oh-so-familiar plaintive whiny tone): “I’m borrrrrred!” In the back of a car on a long trip, on a rainy day, or in a gathering of gossipy adults. It was always uttered in an imploring tone that implied that someone else needed to provide some stimulation soon or we might very well spontaneously combust. 

One definition of boredom is “the feeling of dissatisfaction or restlessness that arises when the mind and body lack stimulation or engagement.” It’s hard to imagine how one could be bored with the pervasiveness of stimulation that comes from all forms of screens right at our finger tips.  

But what if we thought about boredom as an important life skill instead of something to be avoided like the plague?

So much of what captures our attention is simply distraction or stimulation for its own sake, and designed to get us to watch, click, share and follow. But all this activity is in the service of doing something OTHER than what we are actually doing! What’s so wrong with the present moment that we need to be catapulted out of it by cat videos?

What if, periodically and intentionally, instead of going down the rabbit hole of checking email, texting friends, or scrolling social media, you simply paused and did nothing for the same stretch of time you were about to flush away into the digital ether? Imagine what you might learn, invent or discover by simply spending a little quality time with yourself and your incredibly human mind.

When artists do this they create poetry, sculpture and music. Scientists formulate hypotheses, solve problems and generate important questions. Philosophers muse. Children invent invisible friends, transform blankets into magic capes and have fantastical tea parties. 

A comedian once noted that his wife complained about how much he changed the channel, and he had to explain to her that “for us men, it’s not about what’s on, but about what else is on.” 

Instead of relentlessly channel-surfing our lives, we can take the time to settle in to this channel and see what is right in front of us, instead of what else we can find to occupy our attention.

Digital detox and embracing boredom

There is a lot of talk these days about taking a “digital detox” which may sound a lot like checking yourself into a rehab facility, but might very well be worth considering. According to research from the Nielsen Company, the average U.S. adult spends around 11 hours each day listening to, watching, reading, or interacting with media. There is growing evidence that overuse of digital devices can have a direct negative impact on your mental health, your ability to get good sleep, form solid social relationships and find the right balance between work and personal life.

According to Kendra Cherry, MSEd, if you are feeling any of the following, you may benefit from taking a break from technology:

  • Anxious or stressed out if you can’t find your phone
  • Compelled to check your phone every few minutes
  • Depressed, anxious, or angry after spending time on social media
  • Preoccupied with the like, comment, or reshare counts on your social posts
  • Afraid that you’ll miss something if you don’t keep checking your device
  • Finding yourself staying up late or getting up early to play on your phone
  • Trouble concentrating on one thing without having to check your phone

The hardest part of a digital detox can be the prospect of being bored, so give yourself permission to start small, with realistic expectations for how you can take a break throughout your day, rather than going cold turkey for long stretches. Sometimes a digital detox can simply mean setting firm limits for yourself as to when and for how long you will engage with your device. This can mean something as simple as not using it during mealtimes, or resolving to not use your phone in bed.

Think of these periods when you are off technology not as wastelands of interminable boredom, but opportunities to pay attention to your surroundings, your body and your thoughts.

According to Tolstoy, our human minds tend toward having a ‘desire for desires’. It isn’t always easy to tolerate just ‘doing nothing’. But when we do, we feel more alive, engaged, creative, and connected to others. All well worth the effort of tolerating a little boredom.

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