BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, yeah, okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know what I’m talking about.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Our phones? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Show me Two Dots.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Ah, no, you play?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: It’s bad, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. Recently, in the studio with Manoush Zomorodi, host of the WNYC podcast Note to Self and author of the new book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. In it, she confessed to an addictive devotion to a game called Two Dots.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I’ve gotten to a level where there’s these little dots turn into cocoons [LAUGHS] with butterflies that come out of them and, when they come out, they like crack open, like --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These games played on the phone are among the countless digital diversions sucking the down time out of our lives, the time we need, she says, to be bored. She thinks she's licked the problem, mostly. So I shared my problem, too.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Oh, what’s your thing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Words With Friends.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Oh, I knew you were into that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m currently in games with five different people. Sometimes it’s eight. It’s how I keep contact with my daughter who lives in LA.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: But that’s nice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: My friend on the Upper West Side in the Words With Friends chat function told me that his mother had died.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: A chat function of Words With Friends?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, yeah. “Bored and Brilliant” is her assessment of the challenge taken up by 20,000 volunteers to see if a few tweaks, one each day for a week, could change the way we manage our devices to create more time for boredom and, thereby, make the world a better place. Honestly, I had trouble buying that.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Oh, okay. Can I try and convince you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So here's my thinking. And I will say, listeners really pushed back when we announced the original project. They were like, come on, do you have to use the word “boredom,” can’t you use something more positive, like “daydreaming”? And I said, absolutely not, because the key thing here is that boredom doesn't feel good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It doesn’t! As you wrote in the book, novelty helps us release dopamine, which is the mother of invention --
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and pleasurable. But it's also been found that you can exhaust your supply of dopamine. So I understand the risk of constantly trying to relieve our boredom on stupid things, ‘cause we’re wasting our dopamine.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I was not as shocked as I thought I would be to find out that people would administer shock to
-- you cite this study in the book --
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, the UVA.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- just to relieve boredom. So I know boredom feels bad. I feel like my entire life has been a flight from boredom.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m still not convinced of the value of boredom.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So Brooke, your flight from boredom is the reason why you host On the Media right now and that you are doing groundbreaking work and that you have won a Peabody --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let us not overstate the matter.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Let me -- come on, let me kvell a little bit about you, but the point being that boredom is the trigger to get you to get up off your butt and make a change in your life or someone else's life. You know, you’ve seen that when you’re bored --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I screw up, by self-sabotage.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: But you also plot an escape, don’t you? That’s the key here now, right? Now, let’s say you didn’t have to plot an escape, you didn’t need to make a big life change, you could just start putting stuff on Instagram, instead. My argument is that we have to build back the muscle. You don't get served the happiness on a platter. You got to go through a, a lot of pain and discomfort to get to the good part of your brain. And I think we've lost the patience to make it through that, to get to the part where we start to make new ideas, ways to solve problems for ourselves, our families, maybe even society at large.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All that said, the science of daydreaming, as you note in the book --
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- is incredibly new.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Very. I mean, we are at an amazing point in neuroscience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do we know?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So what happens when you're bored or when you're doing something like folding the laundry, a repetitive action, is your brain ignites a network called the default mode. Scientists call it the imagination network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, and you said in your book that the default mode, or daydreaming, occupies 50 percent of our waking hours. So then why aren't we all brilliant?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: My hypothesis is that, for most of us, actually, that 50 percent number has declined precipitously. I mean, I’ve had my smartphone now for, I think, seven years. I don’t think I'm spending 50 percent in the default mode because what I'm doing is filling every single crack in my days, waiting for the coffee, waiting for the subway, I mean, the bathroom, Brooke. Like, you know, every single crack in our day is now filled with something we are specifically paying attention to, whether it's refreshing the headlines or answering email or playing my damn game, Two Dots. It’s that spacing-out time that we have now sort of gotten rid of. And I think that that's a dangerous thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: This sense of always having something to do, defining productivity as being a responsive, accessible person in the world, has eaten into our ability to think in the longer term, to make meaning of all the things that we read all day long, that we listen to all day long, that we respond reflexively all day long, and also something called autobiographical planning, which happens, again, back in that default mode of your brain, which is looking back at your life, taking note of the highs and the lows, building a personal narrative -- what is the story of my life and where do I want it to go -- looking into the future, setting goals and then figuring out the steps you need to take to get to those goals, to really think longer term. I mean, it makes complete sense that if you're on a screen all the time [LAUGHS], you're not doing that autobiographical planning.
And what I found most exciting about the project that we did, it was the classrooms, kids who were saying to me, oh god, I’ve never felt this before. I was, like, never felt what, like bore-dom?
That’s kind of amazing, like, that you’ve never had to, ‘cause if you’re 17 years old, you've always had a smart phone since you've been sort of a autonomous being. You know, after we did this week of challenges, what the teacher said he saw at the end of the week, which sounds so simple, is more eye contact and a realization among his students about how much of their lives are mediated by screens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, now let's talk about the phone.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's an analogy used a lot in the book -- it's like a baby.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Mm, yes, they’re sweet. They’re also incredibly time consuming and want your attention all the time, and the minute you leave them alone, they squawk and yell and drive you absolutely bananas. And that is the metaphor that my listeners kept coming back to me over and over again.
But the other metaphor that they gave was that their phone was acting as a pacifier for them, that whenever they were like, waah, I’m lonely, it was like, I'm here for you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Or, ah, I don’t know what this means, I'm here for you, that it was this way of sort of soothing that. And the phone knows you kind of like your mom knows you, all your likes and dislikes and where you're about to go and where you've been and who your friends are, and it knows. And I think some people are, like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hang on a second, that means that I'm dependent on this thing. Can we turn it back into the tool that I paid for, cool hardware that it was meant to be, as opposed to this sort of living object that is constantly nudging me and needs me?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about the challenges that are at the heart of this book.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: [LAUGHS] So challenge number 1 sounds very simple. Observe Your Own Behavior. What we found is that if asked to estimate how many times a day we pick up our phone just for a quick check, people are like, I don’t know, like 5, 10 times a day. But we proved, by partnering with apps that actually measured this, that people were checking their phones between 60 and 100 times a day. So Day 1 is establishing your own baseline. You can either do it manually, if you that's the way you decide to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there is an app that can measure it.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: There are apps. Actually, we have an app that we’ve partnered with that has a Boredom and Brilliant program within the app. So if you really want somebody to hold your hand, they’re going to do it. It’s called Moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you discover from Day 1?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: The original group of 20,0000 people, they were spending two to three hours a day on their phones, between 60 to 90 pickups per day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Day 2.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So Day 2 is Out of Reach, the idea being that put your phone somewhere, whether it's your pocket or your bag while you are in transit. While you're moving through the world, actually be aware to what is around you, or don't be aware and let your brain go where it wants to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Day 3.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Day 3 is called a Photo-Free Day. For a lot of younger people who are primarily communicating through photos, whether that’s Instagram or Snapchat, this is a big deal that completely changes the way not only that they use their phone that day but the way that they interact with their friends and the way that they are a person in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. This is something I got an inkling of from your book.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pictures can take the place of words in social media. Tech writer Om Malik wrote, “Going forward, the real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric. It is a visual, rather than a verbal representation of the world. It’s not just, here’s my breakfast.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s sort of, here’s my life. Obviously, something that I do see a lot, from the fact that I go to museums a lot -- it drives my husband crazy -- is that people do not see the art that they’re standing in front of --
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- for more than three seconds before they’re shooting it, or sometimes they’re actually seeing it through their screens. Here they are, marking the moment without experiencing it.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So what you’ve been sensing has actually been studied. There's a professor who calls it the photo-taking impairment effect, the idea being that when you are using your phone to “mark the moment,” as you say, you actually outsourcing your memory to your phone. Now, this can be great if you’re like, wait, what parking lot are -- do you know the number? Oh, we’re in D-13. Let’s take a picture of it so we don’t have to remember that. But it's not so great where the whole point is to have an experience seep into your mind.
But there is a great way to enhance your memory by using your phone. Like, zoom in on a detail. Really think about what is worthy of zooming into, and that actually helps you remember it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s so interesting.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I know. But it’s these little tweaks that you can do that, you know, your phone takes great pictures and I'm so happy about that, but if you can just do these tiny little tweaks to your life that makes things just a little better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Day 4.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Day 4. A listener said that that was the hardest day. Delete That App. Take the app that is driving you bonkers-bananas off your phone. So I want to tell you the story of Liam who, two years ago he decided not only was he taking one app off his phone, he went crazy and took half a dozen apps off his phone. And we just heard from Liam last week, who told us that he’s kept them off his phone for the last 2-1/2 years because he decided that the change it made -- it was mostly social media he took off his phone -- the change that he felt in his life was so profound that he couldn't imagine going back. And he said, you know, I realized, like, nine times out of ten when I went on Facebook I started to feel bad about my own life, and I didn't feel that way when I wasn’t on it, so why do I need this in my life? But it's interesting. What he's decided to do is he still is on Facebook but he does it on his home computer and he knows he'll only sit down and do it for like 20 to 30 minutes and he moves on with his day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s something funny.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I hardly ever go on Facebook. For me, Facebook is like going into a crowded room. I get so anxious. And yet, I never comment, I never look at stuff, and I realized I just can't negotiate the space. And after finishing your book yesterday, I deactivated.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Ah! You did?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Your account?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: The whole account?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The whole account.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Ah, oh my God, Brooke!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anyway, moving on.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Wow!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Day 5.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Day 5: Take a Fauxcation. This speaks to that American way of working, which is that we’re always available, we’re always accessible. Ping me anytime, I'll get right back to you, when, actually, if you have a report to write or you are tasked with finding a solution to a problem at work, that is not the way to do it. The average worker switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day. How do you get the deep work done, if you’re doing that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, that was something I wanted to ask you.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that people's attentions are shifted every 45 seconds.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when they aren’t being interrupted at that rate, they interrupt themselves.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: [LAUGHS] That's my favorite. Okay, this is great. So if you have an hour of being consistently interrupted, whether it's pings or people stopping by your desk, or whatever it might be, the next hour, even if nothing externally interrupts you, you will begin to interrupt your own work, which just goes to show once you get into the cycle, it becomes vicious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So fauxcations.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Fauxcations, set an out-of-office response. Set the expectations of the people on the other side that you are not available, whether it's an hour, a day, a week, whatever it needs to be. And I had a lot of people say, actually, I work in social media, what am I supposed to do now, to which I'm saying, outsource it to another colleague just for an hour or -- you have a stomach virus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] That’s a big lesson from the book. Nobody, ultimately, decides your time but you. Day 6.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Day 6: Observe Something Else. Look for the uninvincible details. Rita King is someone I interviewed. She's a futurist who works with movie companies to figure out, you know, 100 years from now what will society look at? And she's always saying that it's the little details. You know, what does the, the sleeve of a sweater look like 100 years from now? That's how you spark your imagination.
In the default mode, one of the other things we do is we look at someone and we imagine what they might be thinking. And that's how we understand our fellow human beings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, empathy, imagination, autobiography construction, future projection, of yourself, of the cuff of a sweater, of the world, all of those things nudge out that deeply disgusting feeling of boredom.
And if you make it too easy, you won't go there. That's the ultimate lesson, right?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Day 7.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Day 7 sounds ridiculous on paper but we have proof that it works. We ask you to take something that's been bugging you, like, whether it's a relationship or a feeling about yourself, something that you don't share it with anyone, just you know it. Put it aside and then watch [LAUGHS] a pot of water come to boil water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Watch water boil?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, yes, watch water boil. [LAUGHS] Do something that just takes patience and time. You're definitely going to space out when this happens, guaranteed. And then sit down and write all the ideas that come to mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What if they don’t come?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I, I feel pretty confident. I have 20,000 people who’ve tested a lot of things with me. And if they don't come, that’s okay. Good ideas take time. They require patience. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you talk about how you live your life or how you create a state in which you can be creative, ultimately, you’re going to talk about things that have a spiritual dimension. You talk about the value of clearing your head, like transcendental meditation, as opposed to the value of directed meditation. You talk about some of the observations of Buddhists, that as far as many of them are concerned, there’s no difference between the digital world and the real world. If there's a problem, it's with you, right?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I want to decide how my life is lived, to turn my phone from being a taskmaster back into a tool that helps me live the life that I want to live. The one place where we are now alone or have privacy or can think a thought that maybe we should keep to ourselves and work a little harder on is our brains. I think of this exercise that I did with some college students where at the end I asked them to write themselves a note, just tell themselves something. And they wrote it down on the paper. And I was, like, now destroy it and never tell anyone what you wrote! And they looked horrified, like, what, I can’t tell anyone? And I was, like, no, only you know.
This idea that if you make something or you think something that's good, that you absolutely have to share it, that your opinion must be disseminated has become endemic, and I think we need to go back to a place where we’re okay with letting ourselves know and then saying, actually, not good enough, let's work harder on it. It’s not ready for the world, yet.
[CRINKLING SOUND] What do you have in there?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here, have a fig.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: A fig!
Oh, these are beautiful, they’re plump, mm. This would look good on Instagram. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Manoush, thank you so much.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Brooke Gladstone, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Her book is called, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.
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That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan and Monique Laborde. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
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