The next morning, I slept in. We enjoyed breakfast on the deck and walked the dogs. I read a bit. I flipped through magazines. I determined the lake wouldn’t be warm enough to swim in until afternoon. When I mentioned a trip into town, Claudia reminded me we’d agreed not to drive that day.
We unplug when we vacation. I don’t bring a computer; we don’t watch TV on vacation (except for one evening of watching Doctor Who DVDs); I rarely use my phone and when I do, I use it only as a phone or camera (not any other apps).
Ironically, the next chapter in the book I was reading, Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focuses Success in a Distracted World, was “Embrace Boredom.” I tossed the book aside. I wandered up to the road, then down to the lake. I was restless, even anxious.
To put it bluntly, it was Day 2 of vacation and I was jonesing for a distraction.
When was Your Last Distraction?
What percentage of your average day is spent in the blue glow of electronics? I was going to say ‘what percentage of your waking hours’ but that would fail to account for the hours so many people spend sleeping with their phones.
New Distractions in Old Wineskins
Being constantly distracted by, engaged with, entertained by and enslaved to input from omnipresent electronics is undeniably new in human evolution. Our awareness of the consequences of perpetually shifting our attention and fracturing our focus is only just beginning.
Yet, the tendency to fall prey to the short-term pleasure of avoiding boredom at the expense of long-term accomplishment and satisfaction has been part of the human condition since the Romans.
In 1930, Bertrand Russell wrote in The Conquest of Happiness: [modern equivalences are mine]
“A life too full of excitement [aka distraction and the dopamine hit that accompanies novel input] is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli [aka more frequent distractions] are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.
“A person accustomed to too much excitement [distraction] is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes at last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke.
“There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement [distraction], and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations [dopamine hits] for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness [and instantaneous Google searches on casual, fleeting and inconsequential questions] for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty.” [And I would add, substituting Likes and Followers for real human connection.]
Let’s Embrace Boredom Together
In upcoming posts, we’ll explore “deep work,” what Cal Newport defines as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”
This week, I offer you two challenges:
- Track how many hours you spend in the presence of electronics (include, for example, the hours you spend with the internet or TV running in the background and the time you keep your phone handy ‘just in case’)
- See how long you can stand to do nothing without external distractions of any kind (no social media, no reading, no Sudoku, etc.) – just you and your thoughts.
Please post your observations (or objections) in a comment.