What does it mean to be human in the digital age? That’s the question Manoush Zomorodi seeks to answer in each episode of her award-winning WNYC podcast, Note to Self.
Every week, the 44-year-old host and managing editor encourages listeners to ponder their relationship to technology, offering prompts such as “Is it a good idea to post photos of our kids online?” and “What are the unseen tradeoffs of online shopping?”
In 2014 the New Jersey native had a revelation about her own use of technology while searching for ideas to kick her successful podcast up a notch. Zomorodi turned to go-to methods like brainstorming that had served her well during a decades-long journalism career. “But it felt like I had sand in my brain,” she recalls. “It wasn’t like waiting for something to percolate. It felt like there was a nothingness there.”
That led her to ponder when her best ideas tended to show up. “It’s going to sound kind of cliché, but I realized it was moments like a long car ride or — back before I had kids and used to take long baths — when I spent time doing less and feeling a bit bored,” she explains. “I realized I hadn’t been bored since I bought my first iPhone in 2009.”
Curious about the role that boredom plays in creativity and how technology might be affecting her brain, she created a series of experiments to try with listeners based on her own struggles — including removing the most-used app from your phone and not taking a photo for a day.
Within 48 hours, 20,000 people accepted the challenge, a response that inspired Zomorodi to dig into the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to explore the connection between boredom and original thinking. The findings, outlined in her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, just might inspire you to put being bored at the top of your to-do list.
Experience Life | What did you learn from the weeklong Bored and Brilliant challenge and then from writing a book about it?
Manoush Zomorodi | So much research has been done since 2015, and I’ve found a new awareness about the role that tech companies are playing in our daily lives. People have begun questioning how we make sure they’re helping us and not simply using us to reach their bottom lines.
I’ve also learned our relationship to technology isn’t just about boredom. It’s also about habits, neuroscience, and the design of technology. All of these layered together are creating profound shifts in our communities, society, and ourselves, and we’re all feeling it.
EL | Boredom is often seen as negative. Why did you use that word?
MZ | I insisted on using the word because it’s important to lean into the idea that it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people — particularly younger people. They often tell me, “Well, the minute I have an uncomfortable feeling, I look at Instagram or watch a YouTube video.”
The point is that while being bored doesn’t always feel good, it often leads to good stuff — new ideas, new solutions. But a lot of people aren’t getting to that because it’s easier to distract themselves.
EL | Why do we need boredom?
MZ | In the form of rumination, boredom can be unproductive. But it can also be a gateway to positive mind-wandering. It’s fascinating that when we get bored we ignite this network in our brain called the default mode, when our brains go into constructive mind-wandering. It’s when we solve the big problems and come up with original ideas. It’s also when we do something called -“autobiographical planning,” which is when we look back at our life, note highs and lows, build personal narratives, and then look forward, set goals, and determine the steps it will take to reach those goals.
It’s incredibly important — especially for young people — to develop a theory of mind and self, to plan what to get out of a life and not just to plan the next Facebook post to maintain a personal brand.
EL | Smartphone usage is often talked about in terms of addiction. Your work is about exploring ways to engage with technology positively. What does that look like to you?
MZ | When we hear the word “addiction,” it often brings to mind the idea that you need to stop what you’re doing.
But I don’t look at technology use in a good-and-bad binary — it’s a spectrum. For me, it’s about figuring out how to effectively use the tools that most of us rely on in the day-to-day for work, staying in touch with family, or even tracking goals such as counting our steps.
I want to help people find that little moment before you do something when you ask, Is what I’m about to do helpful to me? Do I feel good about it? If the answer is yes, then by all means go for it. Do I need to get on Google Docs right now to work with my team? Yes, I do. Do I need to check Instagram because I’m waiting in line for coffee? No, I don’t necessarily.
Also, we don’t need to constantly follow the directions that technology’s been designed to give. When we understand how technology has been designed and how the people making it make money, we can be more purposeful about how we engage with it. We can decide to use certain products because we like the way they make us feel, and not to use others because we don’t like how they make us feel. We can use the ones that help us be more productive and delete the ones that don’t. (For more on how our devices trap us, see “Tech Fix.”)
So, I think developing a positive relationship with technology is about learning more self-regulation and executive function. That means we build skills and practices that enable us to check in with ourselves physically and mentally about how something helps or hinders us. From there, we can choose a purposeful way to use it.
EL | You challenged yourself along with your listeners. Which exercise was the hardest for you?
MZ | It was definitely deleting the most-used app from my phone for a day. I’m not going to lie, I still like playing the game Two Dots!
Even though I wrote a book and host a podcast about using technology wisely, I still struggle like a lot of people do. Our devices are very powerful tools, and life is stressful right now.
I’d taken the game off my phone for a while but put it back on ahead of a long flight to Australia. Jane McGonigal, the futurist and game designer whom I interviewed for the book, eased my mind when she explained that testing is being done on the use of games in hospitals for kids about to experience pain from a surgery.
Sometimes there’s a purpose for distraction. If you know you’re going to get bored on a plane and your mind will go to catastrophic places that aren’t productive, then it’s OK to hack that by using a game in a positive way.
But I’ve become more aware over time that if I want to play the game, it often means I’m tired. So I try to ask myself if I’d be better served by taking a long bath or by making a bowl of popcorn and playing a board game with my kid.