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Bored ... And Brilliant? A Challenge To Disconnect From Your Phone

Illustration by John Hersey
Courtesy of WNYC

Updated Feb. 2, 2015: The challenge officially starts today. To help you put down the phone, WNYC has made a list of 18 places you can survive without it, social media away messages and compiled a bored (but not boring) reading list, among others. We'll be back next week for a debrief on the experiment — stay tuned.

Hey smartphone owners — when was the last time you were truly bored? Or even had a moment for mental downtime, unattached to a device?

Many of us reflexively grab our phones at the first hint of boredom throughout the day. And indeed a recent study by the research group Flurry found that mobile consumers now spend an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes each day on mobile devices.

Are we packing our minds too full? What might we be losing out on by texting, tweeting and email-checking those moments away?

Manoush Zomorodi, host of the WNYC podcast New Tech City, is digging into that question. She talked with NPR's Audie Cornish about a project the podcast is launching called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art Of Spacing Out.

"I kind of realized that I have not been bored since I got a smartphone seven years ago," Zomorodi says.

So the team at New Tech City is asking people to measure their smartphone use with an app called Moment (which we've profiled before — it counts how often you unlock your device and the minutes you spend using it) and then take some conscious steps to limit their digital interactions.

Zomorodi has already used Moment and says she averages 50-100 phone check-ins per day, quite a few of which were devoted to playing a game called TwoDots. (By the way, Zomorodi confirmed with a neuroscientist that playing the game does make you better ... at the game, and not much else.)

Studies suggest that we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored, Zomorodi says. She points to a study by a U.K. psychologist, Sandi Mann, who asked subjects to do something really boring and then try a creative task.

"And the participants came up with their most novel ideas when they did the most boring task of all — which was reading the phone book," Zomorodi says. "And in fact [Mann] is on a mission to bring back boredom."

She talked to Mann, who said that when we're bored, we're searching for something to stimulate us.

"We might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming and you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit in the subconscious which allows sort of different connections to take place," Mann said.

Zomorodi says studies also show that smartphones impinge on our ability to do "autobiographical planning" or goal setting, which may keep us even more stuck in a rut.

And that's where the Bored and Brilliant project comes in. The challenge will take place the first week of February, but you can sign up now. After tracking your usage, New Tech City will collect stories and provide tips for keeping your phone at bay. We'll check back in with Zomorodi — and you — next month to see how it goes.

(As an experiment, Zomorodi and her producers filmed people walking down the street in New York City and counted the number engaged with a phone in some way. You can watch their video below.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.