A few months ago, I sat on a Manhattan street corner for several hours because I wanted to know: How many of us can’t help but use our phone while we stroll down the sidewalk? Of the 1,000 people who passed me, 315 of them were either typing on, looking at, listening to, or just gripping their phone. Considering 58% of Americans own a smartphone, according to Pew Research, that means over half of smartphone owners can’t make it down the street without doing something with their phone.
As part of another not-terribly-scientific study, I’ve been observing my own behavior; watching with disgust as I compulsively play TwoDots every evening rather than just sit there, under the dimmed lights of the living room, listening to my children’s breaths grow longer as they finally fall asleep, while catching my own breath and letting my mind wander after a long day.
Since 2008, when I bought my first smartphone, I’ve never had to be bored. But now, seven years later, I’m starting to find that disconcerting.
Meditation is too hard. I tried it. The orthopedist also told me yoga is bad for my back. And frankly, I’ve realized I don’t want to clear my mind. I want to think more, I want to think better.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood explained to me why I feel my thought process has somehow been depleted: “In a very deep way there’s a close link between originality, novelty, and creativity and these sort of spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle,” he told me.
But what if our minds are no longer idle? Does an unrelentingly stimulated brain only generate stunted thoughts? Are our gadgets keeping our minds from wandering and therefore reaching maximum potential?
I first became a mother in the days before the smartphone, and I was the most bored I’d ever been, pushing around a colicky baby who refused to sleep other than in a moving stroller.
I’d walk aimlessly around my Brooklyn neighborhood for hours, probably around 10 miles a day. My newborn required utter silence so I couldn’t talk on my flip phone, or get coffee from the bodega, or even just sit on a bench.
This went on for months. Sometimes I fantasized about being hospitalized for exhaustion so I could take an uninterrupted nap. And then something happened. I started to just let my mind go and I began daydreaming about building a career that I would care deeply about when I eventually went back to work.
I spent the miles mentally cataloging the skills I’d acquired over the previous 15 years, homing in on my most satisfying and productive moments, and trying to imagine scenarios where those moments could be replicated… and profitable.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my long hours of walking and thinking are what neurologists call “autobiographical planning” and “prospective bias:” When given the chance, our brains love to time travel into the future.
Or, as psychologist Sandi Mann told me, “One of the by-products of boredom is it seems to make us more creative. This is because it’s a connection between mind wandering and day dreaming that allows new connections in our brain to form and come up with creative solutions.”
Mann is concerned that in an always connected world we fill our days with digital stimulation but never leave our brain to their own devices. “Stop trying to fill the time with mindless activities and use your mind instead. You’ll be surprised where it will take you,” she said.
And indeed, years later, after Baby #1 started sleeping and we had a less colicky Baby #2, my wild thoughts culminated into action: An experimental multimedia ebook, a thriving consultancy, and then, finally, the position I have now: host of my own podcast for New York Public Radio. I literally have my dream job.
Follow your brain
So why do we need so much out-of -the-box thinking anyway?
IBM did a survey of 1,500 CEOs in 2010 and identified “creativity” as the most important leadership competency. Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind , recently told Kara Miller, host of the Innovation Hub podcast:
We’re facing a number of problems in our country and across the world that I think are going to require a great deal of creativity to solve. So getting away from multitasking, where you’re only thinking about something for five seconds and getting into this mind wandering mode which turns out to be the creative problem-solving part of the brain, I think is part of the answer.
How do we get into a mind wandering mode? I don’t think swearing off our devices is the solution. My smartphone is the reason I can work full-time and see my kids.
But perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our relationships with our gadgets. Sure, I could also blame e-commerce and the instant gratification economy of Seamless, Uber, and Spotify. Food, cars, and songs appear without the long lines or commercials that used to give our brains time to wander off.
No. I’ve decided to hold the smartphone accountable. My phone is the only gadget to which I feel deeply beholden. A colleague even said to me the other day, “I was thinking about who knows me best and actually, it’s my phone.” It’s time to tell your phone you’re in charge of this relationship.
I’ve downloaded an app called Moment that keeps track of how long I spend on my phone and how many times I day I pick it up, just to check email or whatever. The maker of Moment, Kevin Holesh, explained to me that he first developed Moment just for himself and his fiancee. They’d gone from quiet togetherness at mealtime to eating and Instagramming at the dinner table. As Holesh put it, “You know, there’s a reason why you think of all your good ideas in the shower. It’s because you can’t bring your iPhone in there.”
He says the average Moment user clocks about 71 minutes of phone time per day. I’m more of a check-in kinda gal, which is to say I average around 100 pickups of my phone per day—meaning I check my phone several dozens of times a day in addition to spending about 70 minutes responding to emails and reading.
I want spend less time on my phone and more time letting my mind wander. I’m not expecting to square the circle in the time I spend staring at the elevator wall instead of my phone. But maybe I’ll break through and come up with just one wild idea. I will also consider this project a success if I simply develop a higher tolerance to the whining that happens when my kids have nothing to do and want to play on my phone.
Look for me. I’ll be the weird mom on the playground just standing there and spacing out.