I spoke this week with the brilliant and bestselling author Cal Newport, whose recent book “Deep Work” makes the case that the capacity to concentrate for long periods on meaningful work is the most important skill in today's “knowledge economy.” I agree with him. Cal's book brilliantly explains why “deep work” is so important and how to practice it (i.e., shut off your smartphone).
We live in a world of digital distraction. As so many neuroscientists have shown in so many studies over the last few years, our brains have increasingly become addicted to the stimuli that our digital devices provide us, from “celebrity gossip” to viral cat videos (alas, a personal favorite genre of mine). Whenever we feel bored, which happens if we're away from digital stimulation for more than 10 seconds (5 seconds for teenagers), we seek the stimulant of “new” digital content. This is popularly called FOMO — fear of missing out — and it's a part of the very fabric of life for so many people. God forbid that my friend Janet should post something on Facebook about her trip to the supermarket (corn is on sale today!) and I should miss it or fail to hit the “like” button and make a comment (“wow, I love sales on corn!!!”).
This FOMO and need for digital stimuli may sound harmless, like being addicted to air, but it's not. We are losing our ability to focus, to cogitate, to think deeply, to make good choices, and to remain calm in the face of boredom. All of this is bad for us. My wife and I, like everyone else, have anxiety on occasion — especially when we watch the news from the White House. And we both meditate. She does hers using a phone app, which works well for her by providing guided meditation and visualization. I do my meditation by sitting on the porch outside and looking at the trees, the flowers, listening to the birds, watching squirrels scampering by. We all need to slow down, and slowing our brains down is hugely important for our ability to focus on what matters most in life.
We need to be okay with boredom, to sit with it. We aren't able to sit with anything these days. Sit with your joy, your pain, your fear, your anxiety, your dreams, and yourself. Sit with your family and friend when they need you. I love what Woody Allen once said, and I apply it to helping others too: “99% of life is just showing up.” Be fully present. Be here now. Stop reaching for your smartphone to find stimulation — you don't need it, and it's hurting your ability to think, to listen to yourself and others, to focus on what's important (your own life and the lives of those around you).
For example, I can't watch the news for more than ten minutes because I know what's happening, in a big picture way. How many ways can you say “the President said or did something outrageous today.” You could write that headline every day for the next 3 years, and it would be accurate. So we need to get on with our lives, no matter what is happening outside. No matter what Trump or Justin Bieber or Elon Musk do next or tweet next, we can all choose to model good behavior in our own lives and our own communities. Rather than listening to people chatter on about the downfall of our culture, try to focus on expressing (through words) and embodying (through actions) values of community, respect, belief in facts, and the golden rule (treat others as you'd like to be treated).
We need to be bored from time to time, because only then can we learn to slow down and inhabit the present moment. If you or someone around you needs a job, needs a hand, needs a shoulder to cry on, needs a friend, no viral cat video in the world can provide what YOU can provide. Sit still, slow down, and let the boredom in. Your brain will thank you.