Boredom Strengthens Your Mental Muscle

Last week, I was designing silhouettes and prints/patterns for a fabric repeat for pet beds. I found myself very much enjoying the creative process – identifying the target market and researching past common trends, understanding my direction, and diving in from there. While in the midst of creating pattern repeats with their correct pantones, I found myself – out of what I thought was nowhere – on my phone scrolling through who knows what app for whatever content I somehow felt was missing from my life until then. I thought this was unnecessary, and it didn’t register why I found myself there subconsciously. 

Thinking on this subject, when I’m working on a project, I have discovered two things: that I don’t like taking breaks (except to eat and spend some time with my dog,) and I don’t like to be bored. It wasn’t until this circumstance happened – or my realization of it – that I knew these two things go hand in hand. 

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, discusses his second rule for achieving deep work: embrace boredom. Immediately, my mind went haywire, wondering what he could refer to for this subject when deep work requires so much focus, and boredom promotes distractedness. Well that’s just it – boredom with smart devices do promote distractedness; however, we need to embrace it in order to separate it from our deep work practice. 

By doing this, there are two goals:

  1. Improve your ability to concentrate intensely.
  2. Overcome your desire for distraction.

“A culture that is stuck in the moment is one that can’t solve big problems”

Clive Thompson

There’s no doubt that we, in the digital age, are increasingly distracted by the temptations of our smartphones and what they hold within them. We become stuck in the moment – like Clive Thompson talks about in his article “Social Media is Keeping Us Stuck In the Moment” – and the present of what’s happening in the world, that we’re forgetting how to work effectively. 

Newport, in Deep Work, mentions that instead of partaking in an “internet sabbath,” or a “digital detox,” we should take a scheduled break from focus to give into distraction. In this case, we are setting ourselves up for success when we work because we won’t find ourselves subconsciously in a loop of social media when we’re not supposed to be, and instead, have given our mind ease since there will be a time, possibly soon, to gratify those desirable distractions. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post:My Facebook Detox“. This was an attempt to begin putting an end to the addiction of going on social media when not needed. During the five day period without Facebook, I realized more-so the change in push notifications than feeling the need to go on the app. Which, due to the increased push notifications, I started to think about different reasons not to go on the network site – like the addictive systems that are engineered into it, and realizing my sociometer gets put onto this public platform, which could be used against me in ways to return to the site.

Sociometer – A mental measure that notifies us how we do in the observations of others.

Source: “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks”

After my detox, however, nothing really changed. I still go on Facebook almost whenever I feel like it – and haven’t felt the need to avoid it further, despite the negative effects both the network and users can have. The feeling of wanting to go onto the app comes naturally to me.

Instead, after learning about Newport’s theory of scheduling distraction time, I thought it was remarkable. I could see already, without ever having attempted it, that it would promote better and undistracted work, while still appeasing that distraction at some point. 

I’m so thrilled by this step in the process of deep work that I decided to implement it as soon as possible. As I’m writing this section of this blog, I’m not allowing myself to go on my phone until 8:30 PM. It’s now 6:50 PM. I have an hour and 40 minutes until I get the distraction that I crave, and I’m fully invested. 

While removing yourself from the internet may be difficult on aspects besides that they’re just distractions, there are points to consider to help to structure this rule:

  • Using internet for your job? This still works. If your job highly relies on internet use for whatever it may be – email, searching the web, building websites, etc. A way to schedule your time using the internet can be done in narrower steps, say every 15 minutes. It’s important to pursue advancing your ability without the internet so that you don’t find yourself continuing to ignore the significance of this rule.
  • Scheduled time from internet use MUST be followed. Again, even if you find yourself in a predicament, not sure if you can finish a particular task without accessing the internet, you still must resist. If you give in, even if just to look at an email, you’ll likely find yourself having a hard time not glancing at another tempting distraction, such as another email that may appear urgent, though it’s not. Don’t let yourself treat the barrier between internet and no internet as permeable. 
  • Organizing time without the internet is beneficial at home, too. This will just help to really engrain the process. Of course, there are exceptions such as texting someone back who you’re meeting that same evening, or to look on your GPS for a meeting location. 

Additional helpful tools to consider adding into your day to embrace boredom and continue building your mental muscle for deep work:

  • Commit working on tasks in a certain amount of time. Challenge yourself to work on something, while using deep work, in a shorter amount of time than what you’d give yourself originally. Commit to it, too by telling others about it or setting a noticeable timer in front of your work station. This will help to push your cognitive abilities while working with intensity.
  • Productively meditate. Make sure you have time where you’re occupied physically, but not mentally, such as walking, biking, showering, etc. If going for a walk or a bike ride, try to make sure it’s in a less crowded area with some natural elements, as more productivity tends to happen when there’s less to think about outside of that realm – for example, while walking through a busy city, we tend to use more consciousness of what’s happening around us instead of thinking about what’s really important. This is a good opportunity to take a break from your work – you know, the kind that I don’t like to do because I think it’ll be too divert from the task at hand. Taking the time to do this will help you to return with a fresh mind and often times think differently than you would if you didn’t take that productive break. 
  • Frame your memory. This is a lesson for you to continue pushing your cognitive abilities, which will help when diving into deep work more often. Using attentional control – which measures your ability to maintain focus on essential information – will promote working intensely, like the first goal mentioned above. “Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.” 

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