Pay Attention: Twitter co-founder Ev Williams on the virtues of boredom

In our series, Pay Attention, we explore ways to sharpen our focus and recapture our attention from distracting technology. "CBS This Morning" co-host John Dickerson spoke with Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, who Forbes called "the LeBron James of online publishing." He stepped down as Twitter CEO in 2010 and later started the blogging platform Medium. Williams, who remains on Twitter's board, regularly steps away from technology through meditation, yoga and walks in the woods.

Below is an excerpt of their conversation:


JOHN DICKERSON: Are you intentional about how you spend your attention with respect to technology?

EV WILLIAMS: Yes. Very very much so. Everything from what notifications are on to what apps are on your home screen. So, for instance, if I'm on vacation… I'll move my e-mail off my home screen and I won't check my email as much when I'm on vacation. So little things like that that, or even having a watch… I know a lot of people are just like, 'I don't need a watch. I'll just look at my phone.' If you look at your phone, you're in a whole another world. If I look at my watch, I know what time it is.

DICKERSON: It's a discreet thing. You've done it. It hasn't pulled you off your intention.

WILLIAMS: Exactly… And what I like to do in the morning is – I don't check email. I don't check news or anything. So mornings are pretty quiet. I mean, not quiet with the kids, but quiet in terms of technology and information… And once I leave the house, then I'll often turn on a podcast or an audio book, and sometimes I'll keep it off and just like, 'OK, what's going on in the mind?' Just kind of, like, look, or maybe I'm focusing on a project, but that start of the day I carve out.

DICKERSON: Do you think there's a value in being bored?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I do think there's a value in being bored. I was tremendously bored as a kid. I think it forces you to use your imagination. And when my kids are bored, which is rare, I always say, 'That's great. That's so exciting. You're bored. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna think about?'

DICKERSON: What is their response when you say, 'It's great to be bored?'

WILLIAMS: They roll their eyes and complain, of course, just like any kid and I'm sure what I did as a kid.

DICKERSON: Is one of the dangers of this moment we're in where there's always something to keep us from being bored?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think there's a danger of not having boredom, and not having silence in our minds. And I think that's why meditation and having a formal way to actually quiet the mind – that's so important is because it's constantly inundated.  

DICKERSON: Do you think Twitter is responsible or is part of that inundation period or feeling?

WILLIAMS: I think people can get swept up in Twitter just like in, or any social media for sure, and people need to be conscious of how they use it.

DICKERSON: Is there any way in which Medium is a kind of antidote to Twitter in that we've become so focused on the now, and the twitch, that we need really to be pulled into something deeper?

WILLIAMS: Well, the way I think about it is, like, an information diet, and that you can't live on social media alone… Often it's that hamster wheel of, 'What's happening right now?' What we try to do with Medium is provide a space for things that aren't necessarily of the moment.

DICKERSON: Whose responsibility is it to solve this challenge that we all feel, which is the shredding of attention?

WILLIAMS: I think, first of all, the responsibility is on ourselves for ourselves, and for our children.… We're in charge of what we put in our minds and to blame anyone else for that I think would be not fair and not wise.

DICKERSON: What about the technology companies though who are playing on our attention?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that there is some responsibility there, certainly, and I think there's a new awareness in the companies that I'm familiar with that – it's not all good necessarily. It can be too much and anyone building technology, I would expect, if they're being responsible, their goal is to actually serve people. And if that's not the goal, then I think that they should rethink it.

DICKERSON: You have kids. You talk about kids. And what are the rules for devices with them?

WILLIAMS: We have rules. They're 6 and 8. They don't have any social media accounts. They have iPads. We let them use them on the weekend for a limited amount of time, an hour or so.… So we're figuring it out as we go though and we're trying to set good examples. But we don't always do that…. My little one the other day, I was on my phone and I was with him and he said, 'Argh. Why are adults always on their phones?' And I was like, 'Oh. Yup. Yup. Thank you for that reminder.'

Jack Dorsey, who was a co-founder of Twitter with Williams, spoke out recently about the company, saying it had a "toxic" content problem. Dickerson's interview with Williams took place before Dorsey's remarks. In a new statement, Williams wrote that media companies should have some responsibility but, "Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with all of us as individuals and parents to be both critical thinkers and open to ideas that don't conform to a narrow view of the world."