I love my iPhone. I take it with me everywhere. But I am starting to fear it may be killing my creativity.
Numerous studies and much accepted wisdom suggest that time spent doing nothing, being bored, is beneficial for sparking and sustaining creativity. With our iPhone in hand – or any smartphone, really – our minds, always engaged, always fixed on that tiny screen, may simply never get bored. And our creativity suffers.
Peter Toohey, author of Boredom: A Lively History, told the New York Times that boredom is the experience of “wanting to, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.” No wonder those of us with smartphones are able to avoid boredom so easily. We can always engage in some satisfying activity, no matter how trivial – snap a picture of our meal, play a quick game of Angry Birds, check-in on Foursquare or leave a tip.
We may be helpless, despite knowing the deleterious effects of these devices. Consider that Apple’s latest marketing campaign perfectly captures the breadth of functions and fun the iPhone readily delivers to its millions of users. There is so much anyone can do with this magical device, so simply, so quickly, from any place, at any time. The problem is that this may not be a good thing. At least, not always.
Eradicating boredom and banishing downtime has its upside, of course. In a recent Bloomberg report, major advertisers, including Coca-Cola and Hearst, expressed their concern over lowered “impulse” sales at the grocery store checkout aisles. This is not at all surprising. Staring into their smartphones, with their “mobile blinders” on, people are less inclined to buy gum, candy or those trashy magazines.
“For years, publishers could count on bored shoppers waiting in the checkout line to pick up a magazine, get engrossed in an article, and toss it into their cart alongside the milk and eggs. Then came ‘mobile blinders.’ These days, consumers are more likely to send a quick text and check their Facebook feed than to read a magazine or develop a momentary craving for the gum or candy on display.”
Awesome. Score one for the smartphone!
But this victory comes at a cost. Spending so much time texting and updating, tweeting and watching, calling and playing at every free moment, from every location, never alone with our thoughts, never allowing our thoughts to drift, impacts our creativity, which in turn can limit our full potential.
Edward de Bono, business consultant and self-described “father of lateral thinking” has authored numerous works on creative thinking. de Bono calls moments of boredom “creative pauses,” which allows the mind to drift, and avails the person to new forms of input and understanding.
Boredom may be even more important for children than adults. Spending so much time on gadgets may “short circuit the development of creative capacity” in children, according to educational expert Dr. Teresa Belton. Other education experts similarly suggest that a child’s imagination and creativity is ultimately aided through bouts of boredom.
Earlier this year, Science Omega examined the benefits of boredom.
“Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have conducted research into the potential upsides of boredom and found that the time we spend daydreaming could improve our creative ability.”
The lead researcher on the UCLan study, Dr. Sandi Mann, emphasized boredom’s role in society:
“I do strongly believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of boredom and that we all – adults, children, workers, non-workers – need a little bit of boredom in our lives. Of course I’m not saying we should make people attend boring meetings for the sake of it, but allowing staff downtime where they can daydream and let their minds wander could possibly lead to benefits for an organisation.”
There is the possibility, of course, that by killing our boredom smartphones are freeing up time for better, more productive or uplifting pursuits. For example, psychology professor Gary Marcus distinguishes between the two primary types of pursuits we use to defeat boredom.
“Boredom is the brain’s way to tell you you should be doing something else. But the brain doesn’t always know the most appropriate thing to do. If you’re bored and use that energy to play guitar and cook, it will make you happy. But if you watch TV, it may make you happy in the short term, but not in the long term.”
So much of what we do on our smartphones, however, is decidedly short-term: a few moments playing a game while we stand in line, a minute to scan Instagram as the person in front of us at the grocery store pulls out their checkbook.
A study last year by UK carrier O2 examined the amount of time the typical user spends each day on their smartphone. It’s a lot – more than two hours a day, everyday. Most of that is spent browsing the Internet, on social networking sites, playing games, listening to music, calling, emailing and texting – and not, for example, learning a new language.
No Off Switch
At work, employees are often encouraged to ‘think outside the box.’ The assumption is that such thinking will lead to creativity, innovation, and newer, better solutions to existing or expected problems. Spending so much time with our heads focused inside the box – staring at our smartphone – may mean, however, that we are ultimately limiting our creativity. There is no time freed up to see the larger picture, to make connections where they previously never existed, to allow our brains rest, to see and hear and accept alternatives.
Though I confess I hope I am wrong about all of this.
I spend far more time than the average user with my eyes staring into that small, bright and highly receptive screen. I am not sure I am able to shut it off, even now.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.