Dave woke up to his alarm and hit snooze. After repeating this three times, he finally grabbed his phone and sat up to greet the day. He looked at the latest weather and headlines, exchanged texts with his girlfriend, played a few rounds of his favorite game and then rolled out of bed to get ready for work. The subway was busier than usual so he tucked into a corner and caught up on his social media feeds. When he arrived, he scanned the large open office, filled with rows and rows of desks. Most people were already fixated on their computer screens, many wearing headphones to combat the constant din in the room. He settled into his workstation, opened his laptop and went online. He noticed with a sense of dread that he already had twenty new emails, five marked urgent, and a bunch of questions on the team messenger app. Everyone was asking about his progress on the latest project he’d been assigned. But he was having a tough time with this one. He just couldn’t seem to generate any new ideas. It wasn’t just writer’s block – he knew what that felt like and always knew it would pass. But this felt different and it didn’t seem to be passing. It had been going on for days, maybe for weeks. In fact, for so long that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an original idea. He didn’t know why this was happening but he had to figure it out and fix it – fast. His success depended on creativity and without it, he knew his job and future would suffer.
Dave isn’t alone in his struggle with creativity. And I’m sure the number of people who can relate to Dave’s situation is growing, every day. If you search Google using the term “how to improve creativity,” you will see 162 million results. It’s a popular topic. “How to develop creativity and innovation” yields 98 million results and “techniques to enhance creativity” has over 80 million results. It’s clear that there are many people seeking answers to this problem. And, though there are many good solutions, there is one that stands out and is, I think, more important than all the rest. Boredom.
Boredom sounds boring and it is boring. Which is why we usually try to avoid it. But boredom is a crucial ingredient for creativity. Science has shown that allowing our minds to wander leads to better creative problem solving. When we daydream, our mind starts accessing memories, emotions and random information, allowing us to see things with a new perspective. Often, this is when we figure out a solution to a problem or come up with a new thought. These eureka moments happen when we access an internal attention system in our brain called the default state network. This particular state of mind is only engaged when we are not involved in a task that requires focused attention. But these days, we are spending more and more time on those tasks requiring our attention as we spend more time on our devices.
A Nielsen study in early 2017 found that the average time American adults spend consuming media (in all forms) totaled 11 hours and 36 minutes per day. In other words, time spent on all devices combined has ballooned to almost half of the 24 hours we have for sleeping, working and doing all the things we need to get by, such as eating. How has it come to this? Well, the days when we would listen to the radio on our commute and watch an hour or two of TV after dinner are gone. Now we fill all the little empty bits of our day with content of one type or another. The ability of technology to catch our attention and keep us engaged has created a desire for distraction that few can ignore. It’s so strong that some people would rather be mildly electrocuted than be left alone with nothing to do, as a study in 2014 proved. But this distraction is costing us more than just time. It’s also costing us our creativity. And, if we don’t do something about it, we’ll end up like Dave.
So if you want to improve your creativity, allow yourself to be bored. Encourage your brain to kick into the default state by spending time doing simple external tasks that don’t require focused attention. Fold the laundry, walk your dog or go sit in a park. Make sure you don't succumb to the lure of your devices at the first sign of boredom. They are great for feeding our distraction but not for feeding our creativity.
Vacations are a wonderful way to take a break from our everyday lives and experience something new and different. And, with the help of technology, we can now easily share our adventures with others from almost anywhere in the world. But at what point does our sharing detract from the richness of the experience we are seeking? Over the last few years, I think I finally reached that point.
I always take my camera with me when I go away so I was shocked to realize I’d forgotten to pack it when we went to Japan a couple of years ago. It turned out alright though, as I had my iPhone and the camera app did a fine job of capturing everything I wanted. Having all my photos on my smartphone made it so easy to share what we saw and did on social media throughout the day. It was great for keeping everyone up to date and I loved reading people’s reactions. Forgetting my camera turned out to be a blessing, I thought.
So when we went to China last year, I purposely left my camera behind. I like to travel light and it was one more thing I didn’t have to carry or worry about. But when I got home and looked back on those two trips, I noticed something had changed. I spent more time online, sharing in the moment, than on prior trips. As a result, my days of exploring were frequently interrupted when I was selecting photos, editing, writing and looking for wifi. Plus, once I was online, I would often find myself being sucked into my social media feed and losing track of time.
When I considered the time and attention all this was taking, and the frequency with which I was doing it, it was clear that sharing was impacting the quality of my vacation. I wanted to spend more time being present so I could immerse myself more and soak up every detail of my time away. Something needed to change. I wanted to share my adventures but not at this price.
So when we went to Spain and Portugal recently, I came up with a plan. Once again, I took my iPhone and left my camera at home. The problem wasn’t the tools I was using - it was my behavior that needed to change. I took lots of photos when we ventured out each day but I stayed off social media. Then, every night or two, I would write an update and post it to Facebook, with a few of my favourite photos. I chose Facebook versus other social channels I use because it‘s so quick and easy to post text and photos. At the same time, I would check comments from my last post and see what others were up to. A key point to note is that I kept my time online to an hour max. each evening. All this allowed me to share and stay connected, without taking away from what we were experiencing on our travels.
This approach provided additional benefits I hadn’t anticipated. My husband helped me write the re-cap, which gave us the opportunity to reflect on the day we’d had and what we took away from it - something we hadn’t done on past trips. And because I waited until we were back in our accommodations, I could take advantage of the free wifi. Also, since I have family or friends who aren’t on social media (shocking, I know, but it’s true), it was quick and easy to copy my updates from Facebook into an email to send them.
Part of me would just love to leave my iPhone at home when I travel so I could completely disconnect from the online world. But that’s getting harder and harder to do as everything migrates online. Not only that, everything is better and more convenient in its online form - maps, guidebooks, etc. However, having access to all that information in the palm of our hand can also be too convenient. It’s important that we remember why we take vacations in the first place – whether it’s for a change, for a break or for adventure. Smartphones are great tools but we can easily become absorbed by them if we don’t use them consciously. Remember that on your next vacation and make sure you use your phone mindfully. It should help you with your travels, not diminish them.
There is no denying that our digital world is impacting our children. What is up for debate is whether the consequences are good or bad. Opinions differ widely among researchers, educators, parents and other caregivers. Two articles recently published offer interesting yet different points-of-view on the subject of technology and how it affects kids. This is a healthy debate and one I hope grows in audience and scope. However, I think it is also important to talk about how to effectively manage technology across generations, as it becomes more pervasive in our every day.
The first article, published in The Atlantic, set off alarm bells for many readers. The author, Jean M. Twenge, identified a group she called iGen which includes those born between 1995 and 2012. She states that this group is “…on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades” and that “much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” Her analysis of the teenage generation concluded that loneliness and depression are more common than in the past, due to the increased time they spend on smartphones and decreased time they spend socializing in-person. Needless to say, her statements caused a lot of concern and deliberation.
A short while later, the author of a second article offered another opinion. Alexandra Samuel reviewed the same data as Twenge, along with some other studies, and came to a different conclusion. She deduced that the issues the iGen are experiencing aren’t being caused by their interaction with technology. Instead, their issues are a byproduct of their parents’ interaction with technology. As a parent herself, Samuel admitted to “…a constant juggling act between the needs of my children and the distractions of social media.” I know many parents can relate to that honest and unsettling statement. The result of this form of parental distraction is something that another researcher termed “minimal parenting.” This level of parenting involves decreased interaction time with children which, in turn, results in less encouragement of children and more attempts to control them. According to Samuel, this is the real issue we need to address.
Samuel’s suggestion is that parents become “…digital mentors: actively encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe the best way to influence a child’s digital habits is by teaching them and showing them the way. For example, education and modeling positive behavior in nutrition and physical exercise have proven to be effective in helping children build healthy, life-long habits. However, I don’t think that alone is enough to address this growing challenge. Government, industry and health groups have important roles to play as well.
As with nutrition and exercise, it is crucial that government and other organizations provide guidelines to follow, based on research and best practices. This information can help parents and caregivers who otherwise might not know what is ideal for types of online activities and time spent (by age). An example would be the recommendations for children’s digital media use provided by the US and Canadian pediatric organizations (both of which were updated in the past 12 months). In addition to guidelines, it would also be prudent to have limits in place for the marketing of, and potentially the use of, digital services and products appealing to children. These could either be industry-generated or government-imposed. Though it may be hard to imagine a need for measures like this, the situation in China offers a telling story of how this could come to pass in North America.
It is estimated that there are 24 million young people addicted to the Internet in China. In 2008, China was the first country to declare internet addiction as a clinical disorder. They now have ‘rehabilitation centers’ where parents send children with intense addictions to be treated with military-like tactics. Earlier this year, the Chinese government stepped in and introduced draft legislation that would ban minors from playing online games from midnight to 8:00 am. And just two months ago, Tencent, the maker of the world’s top-grossing mobile game, announced it was implementing game play limits on “Honour of Kings” for players aged 18 and under. Tencent has over 200 million users and more than a quarter of those are under 19 years old. So, these restrictions will affect a significant segment of its business. Whether Tencent did it to try and preempt government-imposed regulations or just “for the good of the kids,” it is clear that even they realized something needed to be done.
Whether the digital age is good or bad for our children may never truly be determined. But I think we should be collectively doing all we can to provide them with a healthy start to the rest of their lives. And that includes how and when they use technology, with the hope that it will indeed better their future. Parents and caregivers cannot do this alone. Government, business, educators, health organizations and the like also need to play their part. As the African proverb goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” That is truer now than ever, given the pervasive, highly-connected world we have created.
I have a curious mind and many interests. I like to spend time musing about things marketing-related, as well as how technology impacts our world.