In praise of being bored.

I just finished Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

Although I do have some quibbles with it, and would dearly love to read a version of this book written by a woman outside of academia, I’m certainly glad I read it. I found it both affirming and eye-opening, both as a person who works in the online space and a parent raising the most connected (as in, to their devices) generation ever.

Much of the information in the book is not new, and I enjoyed Newport’s call backs to work I’ve previously read and enjoyed, by authors like Winifred Gallagher and Sherry Turkle.

Funny thing: Gallagher’s book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life was the subject of one of the very first posts on this blog. I’ve since taken it down, because the writing was truly terrible, but it’s still sitting in drafts, waiting for a brush-up.

I came to Turkle’s work more recently. Almost exactly three years ago, I read her newest work Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Her insights affected, and still affect, my day-to-day life, and isn’t that the highest compliment you can pay a nonfiction title?

Newport must agree, because he quotes Turkle extensively in Digital Minimalism.

Today I’m reposting my favorite of those posts, about being bored. It’s really important, we don’t do enough of it these days, but there’s hope.

I’m sure you have thoughts on being bored AND on Digital Minimalism. I’m interested in hearing all about both in comments. 

*****     *****     *****

Lately my kids and I have been spending a lot of time in the waiting room.

It hasn’t been easy.

Last week, halfway through yet another 90-minute waiting room session, my eight-year-old looked up at me and said I’m bored. She’s a spunky kid (if we’re being polite about it) and she didn’t say it so much as a statement of fact but as a challenge: a what are you gonna do about it, Mom?

Poor girl. She wanted sympathy, or some ideas on how to occupy her time, or at the very least, yet another snack. I feel bad about our accumulating waiting room hours, which, though temporary, are taxing.

A big part of me wanted to jump in and fix it for her. But I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation, which is all about the value of real-time human interaction in a digital age. So instead of a Honey, how can I help? she got a swift You’ll be fine. And when she protested that she hated being bored, I told her everyone needs to be bored sometimes. Boredom is good for you.

Lucy looked up, clearly surprised, but I put my head back down and kept reading my book.

(There probably was a better strategy, but oh well.)

It’s not just my 8-year-old who’s complaining about boredom. According to Turkle, it’s the greatest fear of 18-24 year-olds, who are accustomed to a constant stream of stimulation from their digital devices that keeps their frontal lobes occupied and eliminates any need for them to be alone with their thoughts.

Technology makes it easy to avoid boredom and anxiety, but that’s not actually a good thing. Kids need to be bored. Grown-ups need to experience boredom, too.

Lucy doesn’t know or care why I want her to be bored; she just thinks I’m being unsympathetic. She’s still learning to appreciate the value of quiet moments. She hasn’t heard Erickson’s theory that children need “stillness” to find their identity. She doesn’t know that boredom is directly linked to creativity.

And yet when I look at my child, I see the good things that happen when she takes some time to herself, with just her own thoughts for company. The fruits of those hours are obvious.

My daughter doesn’t yet know that solitude lets you hear your own thoughts, or that the ability to sit with one’s thoughts is a gift, and a skill that needs cultivating. She’s still learning how boredom is not a curse, but a cue—a sign that you need to recharge, or that you’re learning something, or that it’s time to turn to your own imagination for comfort, for a change.

She can’t yet articulate that these things are important, but I see what happens when she spends time alone—and what happens when she doesn’t escape her 3 siblings for a bit—and I see its value.

And so I let her be bored, and I kept reading my book.

When I looked up a little while later, she was sitting in the chair, staring at the ceiling.

You still bored? I said.

I’m not exactly bored, she said. I’m thinking.

I didn’t say anything. I just nodded, and returned to my book, silently thanking Sherry Turkle.

P.S. The 7 minute rule, and the spiritual discipline of the long walk.

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Leave A Comment
  1. Lisa says:

    I’m interested to know what perspective you think a woman outside of academe would give that is different? I am currently reading Digital Minimalism and have found his books all broadly applicable. And yes, I do have children at home.

    • Chloe says:

      Lisa, my perspective, as a single working mom also in graduate school, is that Cal’s work is great but he doesn’t ever directly address the ways in which his job or his spouse allow him the space to work in his particular style. Academia, for example, precludes the need for social media to some extent because the expectation is that you are co-authoring papers and conducting research with others in your field, presenting at conferences, on the public speaking circuit in relevant ways. Academia has built-in mechanisms to facilitate that. I, however, utilize social media “aimlessly” but that’s led me to realize I have mutual friends with potential professional connections , given me the ability to publicize my work without the backing of a university travel or promotion stipend, etc. Further, as a man who chooses not to address the work his wife does in home keeping, Cal doesn’t acknowledge that he has significant help which—if he needed to pay for—would force him into a different kind of work. I give up a lot of the things he recommends because I am solely responsible for dinner and laundry and housekeeping as the mom of a four year old without a partner in the home.

      • Beth Bender says:

        Yes,this! He also doesn’t seem to understand that some of us have jobs that require us to spend time on mind-numbing tasks like entering payroll and managing/browsing social media.
        Also, as someone who grew up in academia I have to imagine that many of his colleagues are frustrated with his lack of participation on committees and other such tasks he deems useless. Some of these things are merely busy work but others are actually necessary, if not the most riveting use of one’s time. So by him choosing to opt out he is essentially forcing other people to step up and take on that burden.

    • Ana says:

      Was just coming here to mention that book! I haven’t read it yet, but am hopeful it may address some of the challenges faced specifically by women and mothers.

  2. Jennifer Mennella says:

    I am dying to read digital minimalism and now I added the conversation book you mentioned to my list. My 11 year old told me he was bored during a free period at school the other day so he sketched. I told him that was the best thing I heard all week.

  3. While I find myself a fascinating women, a stimulating conversationalist, my grandchildren are bored around me. Pleasant memories of being with my grandmother make me disappointed when the kids can’t wait to get away from me so they can play a game or see a TV show on their phones.

    • mara says:

      My son’s, 16 and 14 have the opposite issue. My mother in’ law would rather play games on her computer or play mind games on her tablet than converse or interact with my sons. It’s so bad that they prefer to spend minimal time with her. This has been an ongoing issue since they were little but has increasingly become worse as she has aged. It is not a matter of my son’s being incapable of holding a stimulating conversation, my mil would rather play on her electronics and then wonders why her grandsons don’t want to spend time with her. In their and my opinion, why bother?

  4. Fantastic post. As someone who works on a computer five days a week for my full-time job, I’m always trying to reduce my screen time when I’m not working. Digital minimalism is a difficult thing to achieve, but in my mind, it can be done. I love being “unplugged” when I visit my in-laws’ farm. I’m forced to, a bit, since they have an odd arrangement with their WiFi and data plans for their Internet service. But, it gives me a chance to put down the electronics and re-charge my own batteries. I recently started journaling again, with a pen and notebook, and I’ve already noticed a huge difference with my diagnosed anxiety and other things. Giving myself the freedom to write out my thoughts by hand is something I’d forgotten for a long time, and I’m finally re-discovering how powerful, and valuable it is.

  5. Deborah Ball says:

    Since I am actively involved with my grandchildren who live three miles away, I particularly related to your eight year old’s comments, as I face a full time with a beloved seven year old thru the summer break of school. Swimming and VBS and camps loose their luster all too soon for both of us. I love how you allowed her to grow by expressing and processing her own feelings, not trying to solve as we often do. You sound like a great mom!

  6. Katie Newc says:

    This was so interesting to read, Anne. Especially as how it relates to raising children in this modern world, as I try to raise 2 toddler boys NOT addicted to technology. I just purchased “Notes on a Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig, and I’m looking forward to reading that. I think even just being aware of how technology/devices/constant access to information is a step in the right direction. I wonder – are we no longer creating because of this, but instead becoming curators of what’s already created? Hmm.

    • Kat says:

      I just finished Matt Haig’s “Notes on a Nervous Planet,” and I wholeheartedly recommend it. He makes a lot of really good points about the digital world and how compulsive it becomes. Just one more tweet, one more like, one more … hey, where did the last two hours go? His angle is that while there are a lot of things that are wonderful about connectivity, you also need to be aware of when it’s just become a compulsive action and to step away and involve yourself in actual life. It’s a really thoughtful, very readable book.

  7. Pam says:

    This post is especially relevant today with Facebook “down for maintenance “. As a society we are so addicted to knowing what is happening right now, at this very minute, even if it is just the dog being silly.

  8. Dana Qualls says:

    This is so timely! Turkle’s book has come back around to me three or four times now and it is time I read it. I see this communication problem in my adult daughter and in my grandkids and even in myself. I need to let myself be bored more often. Thanks so much for reposting!

  9. Kate says:

    I haven’t read Digital Minimalism but am in the middle of Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. I think you might like it! Hopefully it wouldn’t be too repetitive of what you’ve already read; it does seem like it echoes some of the same ideas regarding the importance of allowing boredom to exist in the interest of furthering creativity. Bored and Brilliant gives concrete steps for attempting to jump start that process in our own lives.

  10. Katie says:

    Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch is a great one to add to you list if you haven’t read it yet. I like how he expands the conversation of technology beyond just our phones. Short, simple and practical!

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