Tap into Your Inner Brilliance

Brooklyn-based innovator Manoush Zomorodi talks about how to use boredom to unleash your creativity.

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Her baby is colicky. That’s how it begins. The only way Manoush Zomorodi’s infant son can be soothed is when she walks him in his stroller through the streets of Brooklyn. She walks for hours. Any noise sets him off, so even talking on her flip phone is off limits. She grows bored. She finds herself spacing out, her mind wandering in a way she hasn’t experienced since childhood. Years later, she has a new job as a radio reporter. She’s given the chance to host her own show. It’s called Note to Self, about how technology is shaping our lives. She sits down to brainstorm. You know, as many ideas as you can dream up. No idea is a bad idea! There’s only one problem. She has no ideas. She tries to think back to a time when ideas came easily. And she remembers: those long walks with her son. Before her smartphone. When she was bored. That’s how Manoush came up with the Bored and Brilliant challenge, in which she asked her listeners: Will you join me in a week-long experiment? Will you change your digital habits, get bored on purpose, and see what happens? Twenty thousand people signed up within 48 hours. I sat down with Manoush to find out what she and her listeners learned. 

Q. Why do you think boredom can be a good thing? 

Our parents always said, “Only boring people get bored.” So you think, “If I’m bored, I’m insufficient!” Then when we have our own kids, we’re told we have to make sure those little minds are constantly stimulated. We think boredom is something to be avoided. But we’ve gone to an extreme, which is that technology means we don’t ever have to be bored. Because all those little cracks in our day, those moments of walking someplace or waiting in line for coffee or sitting on the subway, are filled with our phones. The moment we get that uncomfortable feeling, we can immediately be distracted with texting or scrolling. So once I started to notice I was never bored anymore, I wondered: Is that a good thing? What would happen if we got rid of boredom entirely? Would we be missing something? 

Q. What did you find out?

I discovered that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are coming to understand that boredom is actually very important because it’s the gateway to mind-wandering. And allowing your mind to wander—some people call it daydreaming—is necessary to your creativity. It’s the time when you take one disparate idea and another disparate idea, and you smash them together to make something new. When you’re bored, you find the space to ask, “What if?” It ignites a network in your brain called the default mode, which some scientists refer to as the imagination network in your brain. 

Daydreaming is the time when you take one disparate idea and another disparate idea, and you smash them together to make something new.

Q. Is the default mode the same thing as being on automatic pilot?

So yes, physically you’re on automatic pilot, right? You’re folding laundry or you’re walking or you’re not doing anything that requires focused attention. And so you click over into the default mode, and you just kind of space out. And it turns out this default mode is where you do your original problem solving—including something called autobiographical planning. This is where you look back at your life, you build a personal narrative, and you plot out the steps to reach where you’re going to go next. When I learned this I was like, Well, what if we changed our digital habits? Could we make ourselves more bored on purpose? So I came up with this seven-step program to do just that. 

Q. But doesn’t it seem like the state we really want is “flow,” where you’re totally immersed in what you’re doing? 

Yeah, but how do you get into flow? You don’t just snap your fingers. I always think of how, when I was a kid, I’d draw and then two hours would be gone. And I’d be like, “What just happened?” It was this wonderful feeling of having lost yourself in time and space, and I wanted to feel like that all the time! But how did I get there? It requires the proverbial blank page. It requires me to feel the discomfort of “I don’t know what to draw. But there’s nothing else to do. All right, well, I’ll just start with a circle.”

And then suddenly the minutes fly by. And what I hear from young people is that the moment they could press on and get away from the bored and into the flow, that’s the moment where they’re like, I’m just going to check Instagram or get on Snapchat. 

Q. You say our desire for novelty is an urge that’s as hard-wired as our desire for sugar or fat. While it’s great that technology makes it easy to find out what’s new, what’s the flipside of that? 

I think of the food analogy in relation to information overload. I personally am a glutton for news and information. I just want to read everything. But what is the point in stuffing my brain with all this new information if I’m not going to use it somehow? For many people there’s also this insatiable appetite for social connection. Getting a “like” or a “favorite” is like having a piece of candy. It tastes so good! But you’re going to be hungry again really soon. So where’s the nourishment? Where do you find the satisfaction so that you’re not swiping, swiping, swiping…? 

Q. It’s like we think our phones are helping us stay connected to people, but there’s a paradox there.

Yeah, like today we connect on Twitter or Facebook. OK, that’s a connection. But would I recognize you in real life? Would we be happy to see each other? Would we be able to sit down and have a real conversation? It’s OK to be connected to a lot of people on social media platforms, but I want to make sure we don’t lose sight of real connection with people. Like right now you and I are having lovely eye contact. You have these beautiful blue eyes and cool cat glasses. When you see someone eye to eye, and you’re on the same wavelength, and they totally understand what you’re talking about? That’s connection! And you can’t do that in a text. 

Q. One of your listeners equated his phone to a baby’s binky. Another described theirs as a four-year-old in need of attention. How would you describe your relationship with your phone? 

I would say codependent for sure. The phone needs me because that’s how it makes money for all those free apps. But I definitely need the phone. I mean, my son right now is with my husband getting an X-ray on his foot. We can be in touch all day long. My phone tells me where I need to be in the next half hour. I have all my interview preparation in my phone. So don’t get me wrong, I love my phone. But what I’ve also realized is that I have compressed time in a way that sometimes my body cannot keep up with it. 

Q. Before I read your book I was kind of smug, thinking: I don’t have a problem because I’m just using my phone to be productive.

Our phones mean we can always be planning, always be productive. And I think we forget that being reflective actually helps us be productive because it helps us set goals. If we haven’t taken the time to sort out what’s important to us, then when we respond to an email, we’re letting other people set our goals for us. We’re confusing productivity with responsiveness. You know, computers have infinite capacity. Human beings do not. And that’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, particularly as a type A person who has so many things I want to do. It’s hard to get the meditation stuff into my life. 

Q. So do you meditate? 

I’m trying. I’ve started many times, but it’s very hard for me. I used to think I was the world’s worst meditator. But when I heard you’re supposed to fail over and over so you can just start again, I was like, Oh, I can do that! 

Q. One of the habits you asked your listeners to change was to stop taking pictures for a day. What advice do you have for parents like me who take a ton of pictures because we want to capture certain memories?

Part of being a parent is knowing that these moments are super fleeting. But why can’t we be OK with the fact that we’re not necessarily going to remember a certain moment? That’s why we’ve gravitated toward Facebook: because no chapter ever has to end. No one passes out of your life. Why not? It’s a sad thing when you lose touch, yes, but things do come to an end. Life comes to an end! So I’m really trying to be more comfortable with the idea: You’re right, you won’t remember it, and that’s why every moment deserves to be savored, because the ride is short, and it’s not easy. Who told you it was going to be? Nobody. 

Q. So do you think that we’re at a turning point in understanding the way technology might be interfering with our ability to space out and savor the moment? 

I would not have said that when we started the Bored and Brilliant project. But I took all the data that we collected, and I also did a ton more research. And I do think people are starting to understand that the idea that tech is always going to make things better is a utopian ideal—it’s not reality. There are fundamental questions about the next chapter of the internet. And while we wait for regulation or new business models or maybe it’s a Hippocratic Oath for software engineers, that’s all going to take some time. Meanwhile we have immediate work we can do on ourselves, on self-regulating. That’s something we have to teach ourselves and teach our children in schools. The people who participated in the Bored and Brilliant challenge were able to reduce the amount of time they spent with their phones. But more importantly, they created habits—like keeping their phones out of sight, and not using them while in transit—that made them more likely to connect with their own thoughts and with other people. 

You have to sit and be uncomfortable and go deep. That’s hard, but that’s where the good stuff is.

Q. You’re a fan of the tiny hack. Can you think of one small step that you would suggest people try? 

I guess it would be to realize that we have to schedule time for reflection into our lives. What we’re discovering is that the constant connectivity and easy access to information and other people means that we have to prioritize things that we’ve never had to teach before like eye contact, conversation, reflection, boredom. Because the future economy will require you to sit with a problem and work it through and not move to distract yourself with something else. You have to sit and be uncomfortable and go deep. That’s hard, but that’s where the good stuff is. 


Bored and Brilliant: The Seven-Day Challenge

Here’s a chance to take a week to see whether you’re injecting enough space into your life.

Day One: Observe Yourself

First you’ll check your digital habits—and most likely be shocked by what you discover. 

The important thing is to accurately report on how often you check your phone. What are you checking—email, social media, missed phone calls, the weather? Do you read on your phone? What do you read—those long emails from your mom, The New York Times, or hashtags on Instagram? When do you pull it out most? Or is it always in your hand? Are you alone, or do you use it when you’re in a meeting or with another person socially? Do you take it to the bathroom with you?

Day Two: Keep Your Devices Out of Reach While in Motion

Keep your phone out of sight while in transit—so, no walking and texting.

When you are on the bus or walking down the street, you’re not doing nothing. We think of these moments as unproductive, inefficient, or lost if we’re not checking our mail or doing other tasks.But these are ideal times for letting our minds wander. 

Day Three: Photo-Free Day

No pics of food, kitten, kids—nada.

Take absolutely no pictures today. See the world through your eyes, not your screen. Instagrammers, it’s gonna get rocky. Snapchatsters? Hang in there. Everyone is going to be OK. I promise.

Day Four: Delete That App

Take the one app you can’t live without and trash it. (Don’t worry, you’ll live.)

Ask yourself: “Is this product serving me or hurting me?” When I asked myself that question, I knew I had to delete Two Dots, the game I stayed up playing well past my bedtime. I wanted to delete it. And yet the process was literally nauseating. This was by far the hardest challenge for the original Note to Self listeners who followed the Bored and Brilliant program—myself  included. But if I can do it, so can you. 

Day Five: Take a Fakecation

You’ll be in the office but out of touch.

Decide how long you need. An afternoon? An hour? Twenty minutes? It’s up to you. If there’s no way your boss will let you off the grid for an hour or 20 minutes, set aside time for yourself tonight. The important thing is to set a fixed period and to stick to it. 

Day Six: Observe Something Else

Reclaim the art of noticing.

Go somewhere public and stay for a while. It could be a park, a mall, the gas station, a café, the hallway at work or school. Once you get there, hang out. Watch people or birds or anything that strikes you. If you feel uncomfortable lingering in a spot to observe, then you can do this exercise while walking. Just make one small observation you might have missed if your nose were glued to a screen. 

Day Seven: The Bored and Brilliant Challenge

Use your new powers of boredom to make sense of your life and set goals.

Step I. Identify an aspect of your life that you’ve been confused by, avoiding, or downright terrified to think about.

Step II. Set aside 30 minutes where you’ll be completely free from distraction. Store away your phone, tablet, laptop, or any other digital device. Put a generous pot of water on the stove and watch it come to a boil. Or find a small piece of paper and write “1,0,1,0” as small as you can until the paper is full.

Step III. Immediately after you’ve completed Step II, and are mind-numbingly bored, sit down with a pen and pad and put your mind to the task of solving the problem identified in Step I. If you are a visual person, feel free to draw. If you’re a list maker, make a list. The point is to come up with new ideas and get them down on paper. 

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About the author

Barbara Paulsen

Barbara Paulsen is a freelance writer, editor and podcast producer, who was formerly the longtime award-winning story development editor at National Geographic.