Bored by default

Bored by default

We think a lot about defaults. What should they be? How do they elicit particular responses? What form should they take (pull-downs, checkboxes, opt-ins and outs)? But taken away from screens, what do we assume about defaults? And more, how might we be more mindful of our own default behavior?

I thought of this recently while in a traffic jam: the sort where a two-hour drive took more than six hours. These unavoidable moments are a complete standstill of hope and forward emotion. And for those who choose not to ride the shoulder, wander the median, make friends with fellow maroonees, we are bored. We daydream. By default, our minds wander.

If these moments are unavoidable, then how can we use them? How can we turn what by default is a wandering daydream into productivity?

Jonah Lehrer quotes poet Joseph Brodsky:

[B]oredom and its synonyms can also become a crucial tool of creativity. “Boredom is your window,” the poet declared. “Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”


When people are immersed in monotony, they automatically lapse into a very special form of brain activity: mind-wandering. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as a lazy habit, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think.

And since:

[M]ind wandering is ubiquitous — we spend nearly half our waking life in a daydream — but it’s also a talent we need to develop. …. Instead of completely zoning out, we should work on staying a little more self-aware, ensuring there’s still some activity in the executive areas of the brain. Ennui is a cognitive gift, but it must be properly unlocked. We can get better at being bored.

Next traffic jam, I’ll know better.