George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Why Boredom Often Beats Screen Time

Teaching the nuances of when and how to use technology—and leaving room for boredom—can be invaluable, says journalist Manoush Zomorodi.

September 6, 2019
Illustration of a man raking a brain-shaped zen garden inside a man's head
Tommaso D'Incalci / Ikon

Being bored is more productive than you might think, according to journalist Manoush Zomorodi. In an EdSurge recap of Zomorodi’s speech at the 2019 ISTE conference, she recounts the informal experiment she conducted with thousands of volunteers who agreed to give boredom a try by reducing their screen time and becoming more intentional about their use of technology. 

As a podcaster for WNYC, Zomorodi hit a wall on her own creative work and realized she needed downtime for her brain to generate new ideas. The time she once spent daydreaming and coming up with new ideas was now spent glued to her phone.   

Research shows the effects of constantly staring at a screen. “A decade ago, we shifted our attention at work about every three minutes,” Zomorodi says. “Now we shift our attention every 45 seconds—and we do it all day long.” The cost of this change is bigger than the time lost shifting from activity to activity; neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says that the brain spins its wheels and uses more nutrients when attempting to multitask. 

New studies are beginning to quantify some of the risks inherent in social media and cellphone usage, with one study revealing that students were able to stay focused for only 6 minutes when tempted by distractions like their social media accounts, and another demonstrating that the mere presence of cellphones—even when turned off and stored away—reduced academic performance on a battery of math problems.

Zomorodi conducted her own, week-long experiment called Infomagical where more than 40,000 people signed up online for a daily challenge, ranging from sharing a conversation offline to focusing on only one goal at a time. Participants reported greater success in achieving their goals and feeling less stressed by their technology; this trimming back of objectives and distractions is what psychologists call “sticking to the schema,” reports EdSurge, and “it’s been proven to help improve your memory.”

Why does creating—or rather reclaiming—this mental space matter? The neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists Zomorodi spoke with said activating the “default mode” of the brain can open up possibilities for creativity and problem-solving. When the brain is in this mode, one can engage in reflection and autobiographical planning, Zomorodi says. “We literally tell ourselves the story of us. We look back on our lives—the highs and lows—and build a narrative as to why we’re sitting here right now and then we forecast into the future. We look where we want to go and then figure out how to get there.”

Teachers have been big readers of Zomorodi’s book on the topic, titled Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. She says they know phones are not a simple always-off or always-on proposition: “Technology is amazing—it connects us to more information and more people than we have ever seen possible in the history of the world.” Still, explaining to students when and how to best use technology is vital, Zomorodi says. “So many teachers have told me that they now have to teach things in the classroom that they never had to teach before, including human things like how to have a conversation, how to listen to someone, how to make eye contact,” Zomorodi says. “And yes, how to be bored.”

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