How Mobile Devices Rob You of Creativity

Last Updated Jun 30, 2011 10:18 AM EDT

In the pre-mobile device days, when you waited for a train or a plane, or on your commute to work, you would probably do nothing but think or read. It could get pretty boring indeed. Today, on the other hand, every time you have a second with nothing to do, you go online, you text, you make a call. Boredom be damned.

But therein lies the problem.

"The thing about mobile devices," says Genevieve Bell, Ph.D., the director of interaction and experience research, at Intel, "is the promise that you'll never be bored again, you'll never have to be anywhere without something to do."

Bell, an anthropologist who has spent hundreds of hours observing families in their homes, believes that by avoiding boredom, you're doing your brain (and your career) a disservice. "Boredom is linked to creativity. You have your best thoughts in the shower, when driving, painting fences, and weeding the yard," she says. Other researchers have stated that boredom is central to learning and creativity.

On the flip side, when you're constantly consuming information via your devices, you stop processing the information and developing your own ideas. You have less time to think about what you're consuming. To be effective in most jobs, you need to stop and reflect and that takes down time.

Your brain on boredom
Boredom is a period in which your brain is restless, but that turns out to be the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander or try out new ideas. Remember doodling and daydreaming (now that I mention it, mobile devices have likely put a dent in daydreaming too). These somewhat mindless activities can allow you to solve problems or at least constructively entertain yourself.

Though it may seem as though the cognitive part of your brain shuts down when you're bored, MRI studies of people when they're bored show that their brains are only 95% as active as the brains of the fully engaged.

But mobile devices and all other electronics tap into that restless feeling and provide your brain with stimulation--so there's no need for you to entertain yourself. But that's exactly what you have to resist, says Bell.

Here's how to recoup a bit of boredom in your day-to-day.

  1. Stop being obsessed wtih doing. "There's a work ethic in the U.S., the notion that working and being productive is how you get ahead, a sign of goodness," says Bell. "Doing nothing is a rejection of the work ethic," she says. Try it.
  2. At work, carve out technology-free times. "If you spend your entire day triaging your inbox, you're not really doing a lot of thinking work," she says. Instead, set up your email to only come in twice a day or simply ignore it until designated email-checking times. You control your devices rather than letting them control you.
  3. Create technology-free rooms at home. Its helpful to have a physical space to go to to unplug, and take advantage of the trend towards cell-phone free cars on the train (just don't succumb to texting or checking your emails).
  4. Be bored with others. You don't have to do it alone. Nothing wrong with hanging out with friends and doing nothing.
  5. Spend a weekend without the internet or time commitments, meaning a day with your kids that doesn't start with soccer practice and end with a trip to a baseball game. Think of those days when you were young and your parents kicked you out of the house and told you to come back when it was dark. You managed to entertain yourself without structure.
  6. Take unplugged vacations, deliberately seeking out destinations where you cannot connect.
  7. Go to church or temple or the mosque (or any spiritual house). Not saying those are boring places to be, but they do require you to sit and think, unless you're sneaking a glance at your mobile device, g-d forbid.
  8. Next time you have a moment of down time, resist the urge to check in with your devices and remember what it feels like to let your mind rest.
Do you let yourself be bored and has that been a source of creativity or rejuvenation?
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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Funkdooby
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.