Embrace a life of focus and meaning

Boredom leads to brilliance, says Manoush Zomorodi in her book, Bored and Brilliant.

To soothe her colicky baby, Zomorodi would push the baby stroller for miles around the neighbourhood. Those long aimless technology-free walks were boring, but sparked her brain with weird and wonderful ideas.

When she got back to work, Zomorodi soon fell into a routine of scrolling through Twitter and playing a mobile game called Two Dots, to escape from her tiring day. With her brain constantly occupied, her creativity seemed to have dried up. She drew a blank coming up with ideas for her new talk show.

Creativity needs boredom

At least some of us have fond memories of long lazy weekends where we did nothing, and how we emerged from them with our brains refreshed and bursting with creative ideas.

But as life ramps up, so does our pace of technology consumption. Our brains are always occupied by a steady stream of trivial information that has no bearing on our lives. We do not allow ourselves to be bored.

But creativity needs breathing space and boredom, which allows new and different connections to form in the brain.

When we do nothing, our mind wanders and we engage in what is known as autobiographical planning. During this time, we identify and organize steps that are needed to arrive at a specific future event or outcome in our life [1].

Autobiographical planning combines memories and thoughts about our life, with goal-directed planning. 

But isn’t mind wandering bad, you ask.

No, it isn’t.

To understand why, let’s dive deeper into two specific modes of thinking that humans have the capacity for.

Focused and Diffuse thinking

To tackle any problem, our brain employs two modes of thinking – focused and diffuse. Both are equally important and valuable, but serve completely different purposes. 

Prof. Barbara Oakley explains in her bestselling book, A Mind for Numbers, how we keep switching between focused and diffuse modes of thinking throughout the day.

During focused mode, we absorb information easily, we are productive, and we get into deep flow states

Diffuse mode is when we switch to daydreaming (or mind wandering), where we subconsciously process our problems and come up with startling insights or solutions that may have eluded us so far.

Focused thinking is like a precise beam of light illuminating a small spot. With diffuse thinking, the beam is spread out wider. While not as sharp as the focused mode, diffuse mode shows the larger context and reveals valuable information that allows you to think from a completely different perspective. This is often called insight.

Examples of focused mode:

  • Solving a math problem
  • Working on a project
  • Practising a guitar riff

Examples of diffuse mode:

  • Thinking about the math problem while enjoying tea in your balcony
  • Mulling over the project while taking a stroll
  • Playing the whole song for enjoyment, instead of practising just one riff

If you have ever struggled with a math problem or a particularly obstinate bug, you may have had the experience of the solution almost miraculously appearing in your mind when you’re not even thinking about it. That was diffuse thinking coming to your rescue.

Evolutionarily, we needed both modes to survive in the wild. When gathering food, we needed to activate our focus mode. But we had to also watch for predators, be aware of what’s happening in the background.

To perform at our best, we need to master both modes of thinking. 

More importantly, we need to allow the space for diffuse thinking rather than perpetually keep our brains busy with meaningless junk from digital devices.

At the end of boredom, is joy and brilliance

In 1665, when the Great Plague hit London, the Cambridge Trinity College sent their students home in an attempt to control the spread of the disease. Among them was a young student who went back to his family estate with its lush green rolling hills and apple orchards.

Isaac Newton would later call this year that he spent away from college his annus mirabilis, or the “year of wonders.”

Though the story of an apple falling on Newton’s head is apocryphal, it was when resting in the orchard that the idea of Universal Gravitation came to his mind.

Imagine a young Newton busy scrolling and posting pictures of his orchard on Instagram, instead of lazing around and spending his time in deep, contemplative thinking.

What an irredeemable loss it would have been for humanity. 

Boredom is not a pointless negative emotion

Every emotion that we feel has an evolutionary benefit, else we wouldn’t be feeling them. It’s hard to wrap our head around this, especially when it comes to anger, anxiety, boredom etc. — what we typically perceive as negative emotions.

Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, studies boredom. She says boredom can make us more creative [2].

In an experiment where participants were given boring assignments and later asked to complete a creative activity, Dr. Mann found that those who did the boring task were more creative than a control group.

It seemed like people who were bored thought more creatively than those who weren’t. Dr. Mann explains that when we’re bored, we search for something that is more stimulating, but which isn’t available in our immediate environment. We try to find that stimulation by letting our minds wander and daydream. When the mind goes beyond the immediate conscious level, we start forming unusual and different connections, sparking creativity.

Boredom itself is not bad, the problem lies in what we do in response to the boredom. 

Mindfulness in daily life

As with everything, we need a balance between these two opposing mental energies:

  • Mindfulness and focus
  • Boredom and mind wandering

In a journal article called The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering, the authors endorse a “middle way” approach [3]. 

Uncontrolled mind wandering may have disruptive consequences, so we must cultivate practices to overcome that. At the same time, we must acknowledge some of its unique benefits which cannot be obtained from anywhere else.

The switching between a focused mindful mode and a relaxed daydreaming mode is important. If we stay in focused mode too long, then we stop getting new ideas and stagnate in our thinking. 

When the diminishing returns set in after a long period of focus, switch to something that is conducive to mind wandering, like listening to music, exercising, or walking. 

Some of the best thinkers got their most creative ideas during long walks. Charles Darwin obsessively walked on the Sandwalk, a path around the edge of his property, as he pondered his theory of evolution.

The danger with our modern life is that the moment we start feeling listless, we pick up our smartphone. The behavioural training that we need is to channel that energy into something that enriches our lives.

The next time you feel bored, don’t pick up the phone. Instead, go for a walk.

Quit the comparison game

As we build the ability to resist the lure of the smartphone, we will start noticing how we stop worrying about how other people are living their lives.

We’re a competitive people – forever hungering for more money, more power, more status, more comfort.

With the internet, we now have unprecedented access to the lives of other people around us. We start comparing ourselves to them. Who has it better? Who has more?

This comparison poisons our mind and kills our happiness.

We show each other carefully curated glimpses of our life. Our fabulous vacations, our amazing social life, our happy relationships, our wit, our dietary preferences, our accomplishments are all artfully distorted and presented on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

A woman named Sara Puhto posts Instagram vs Reality photos, where she reveals how posing a certain way or good lighting or photoshopping can create perfect looking pictures that are far from what reality is.

The next time you feel a pang when you see your friend chilling on a vacation, remember that it is just a carefully selected moment of their life, definitely posed and possibly even photoshopped.

Put the smartphone away and live your own life with authenticity.

Photo-Taking Impairment Effect

We’re always snapping pictures or recording videos. 

Many people take pictures to remember and capture the moment, not just to post on social media.

But did you know that taking photographs actually impair your memory of the event and the object photographed? 

Linda Henkel found that people remembered fewer of the objects they had photographed and couldn’t recall visual details, as compared to what they had merely observed [4].

When you take a picture, you expect the camera to remember for you. That’s the whole point of taking a picture, isn’t it?

But in this attempt to permanently capture and externally store everything, you miss out on creating memories and meaningful experiences.

If the camera captures the moment, your brain doesn’t. Henkel calls it the photo-taking impairment effect.


This is not to say that you should not take pictures. But be mindful. Are you engaged and present in the moment? Are you merely taking pictures of your experience or actually experiencing?


Zomorodi interviewed David Hohusen, the creator of the Two Dots game that she was addicted to.

He acknowledged that the games that the industry tries to make are the sort that will fit into all the little cracks in your life. 

When Zomorodi complained that she feels like she’s handing over all her creativity and daydreaming to Two Dots, he said, “It’s up to individuals to be smart enough about it. If you turn it into a reflex, you are stealing something pretty powerful from yourself.”

Hohusen himself is careful about balancing enjoyable experiences (like playing games) with boredom so he can think about the next game to create.

Yes, it is up to each of us to be smart about where we place our time and attention.

The attention merchants want all our time and attention, but we don’t have to give it to them.

The control switch is with us.

It is up to us to live our lives according to our own values, instead of helping social media or tech companies meet their internal metrics.

If you’re wasting your time, energy, and genius on your smartphone, and want to switch to a life of meaning and focus, join  Undistractable — Digital Detox bootcamp where we teach you just how to make the switch. Learn how to strike a balance in your smartphone usage, without having to give it up.

Undistractable — Digital Detox Bootcamp

Beat online distractions. Rebuild your focus.

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[1] Spreng RN, Gerlach KD, Turner GR, Schacter DL. Autobiographical Planning and the Brain: Activation and Its Modulation by Qualitative Features. J Cogn Neurosci. 2015 Nov;27(11):2147-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4711352

[2] Science News, Boredom can be good for you, scientists say

[3] The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering

[4] Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25(2), 396–402. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1177/0956797613504438


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