For most of us, if we ever start to feel ‘bored,’ a nearby escape is usually available. Technology ensures there’s almost always something we can watch or read or listen to if we choose. Smartphones, for instance, can put us within arm’s reach of our favorite podcasts, the latest news, and whatever is trending on social media. But is having that kind of always-on access to the internet a good thing?
It depends on how you use it. If I’m out and have a question about directions, having GPS on my phone is helpful. Access to a mobile web browser allows me to check the hours of a store or restaurant when I’m not at home. Having a portable means of communication is invaluable in an emergency. But how about all those times where I’m tempted to reach for my phone because, well, there’s nothing else to do? How many times is my use of it not so much intentional as it is a Pavlovian response to the feeling of boredom?
Feeling like there’s nothing to do can be distressing. Being alone with my thoughts can be uncomfortable, especially if I’m not used to it. But using technology to immediately escape these moments also robs me of their benefits.
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“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said shortly before his death. The “not worth living” bit may be an overstatement, but it highlights the value that reflection can bring to our lives. What do we miss in our trek through life if we fail to consider where we’re at and where we’re headed? Are we content with merely staying preoccupied along the way? Or are we choosing to pay attention and live with intention wherever we go? Now, making time for reflection doesn’t entail becoming a wandering philosopher, but it does require us to give at least some thought to what we’re doing.
But finding time for this kind of reflection is difficult if you’re always plugged in. Having nothing to do becomes even more uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. And every time you immediately go looking for the next thing to do or watch or listen to, the more of a habit it becomes. And in time, making any space for reflection becomes more difficult.
One way to break this pattern is to intentionally wait to pick up the phone or put in the earbuds in those moments where you find yourself reaching for them out of habit. Taking a few minutes to be alone with your thoughts can provide a chance to think proactively about various areas of your life. You’ll find a little more space to be reflective, and thus more intentional, about how you live.
Choosing to resist the temptation to immediately grab your phone when impending boredom arises also provides another benefit. It helps develop the skill of sustaining your focus in the face of possible diversions. And in a world where distractions abound, the ability to focus your attention is an increasingly valuable skill to have. Imagine the benefit it can bring to your work, your conversations, almost everything you do. But it’s an acquired skill that takes practice.
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Breaking well-worn habits won’t happen overnight. It will be a process. And awareness is the first step. If you’re mindlessly turning to a device to keep yourself occupied, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing—it’s a learned response. But if you’re aware of those moments when they’re taking place, you can also take steps to change them. To start, this may be choosing to wait for a short time before proceeding. In doing so, you may find that even a brief pause can be uncomfortable. But if so, this discomfort may be an indicator of how dependent you’ve become on being preoccupied. I know this first-hand and am well aware of the difficulty of breaking established habits.
I won’t deny that technology can be useful. It’s incredible how much you can do through a device like a smartphone. But, if you become dependent on these devices to keep you occupied—if you find it impossible to be alone with your thoughts, even for a few minutes—remember that you’re also missing out on some benefits of having nothing to do. Those moments can provide space for a little reflection, opportunities to practice focusing your attention, and the chance to be a little more proactive and thoughtful in the life you’ve been given.