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7 Reasons Why Boredom Is Good For You

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To rework an old Jean-Paul Sartre line: If you're bored when you're alone, you're in bad company. Boredom itself isn't a sign that you need some distraction; it's a sign that you've grown addicted to distractions and you need to develop a rich interior life. Below, the seven reasons you'll want to take a few moments this August to cast your gaze away from the digital maelstrom and confront your "boring" (and amazing) analog life.

1. Because Pride and Prejudice is not a Tumblr feed
We've managed to turn the solitary and quiet act of reading into something social and hyper-stimulating: We rate books and review them on GoodReads, we flip back-and-forth between a digital text and its hyper-linked content, we share favorite stories on Facebook. But, 20 years ago, there was nothing lonelier than reading a book. We'd retreat from the world into a solitary and impregnable narrative. And in that solitude we learned how to be better versions of ourselves. Albert Camus wrote: "in order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion." He was bang on. Pulling away form the stimulating flow of social media -- risking a few minutes of boredom -- gives us the mental space we need to delve deeply into new ideas, then come back and socialize with added grace and integrity.

2. Because there are other tweets to be heard
There are about 6,000 tweets sent every second, but none of that caffeinated swirl can compare to standing alone in a park and listening to the calls of real birds. We know that brains grow sharper and happier in quiet, rural settings; and we know that overdoses of screen time can produce attention deficit disorder. Your choice.

3. Because you can't workshop a breakthrough
Try as we might, we just don't shift paradigms through conference calls and board meetings. Collaboration has its place but the real game-changing ideas inevitably require a stretch of real solitude. It can be crazy-making and deeply boring to shut yourself away from the crowd, but try to think of boredom as the gateway toward inspiration. You may need to be bored a little before your brain discovers it can crank the gears in a new direction.

4. Because Netflix doesn't aways know best
Algorithms have got awfully good at suggesting movies and books and songs that we'll be happy with. This is because click-oriented services devote all their engineering toward getting you to consume more of what you already know you enjoy. (You like sexy vampires? We've got sexy vampires for you.) But revelatory experiences can only come when we're pushed outside our comfort zone. When we pull War and Peace down off the shelf or decide to finally watch Matthew Barney's five-film epic, The Cremaster Cycle. This kind of exploration (which the algorithms in our life abhor) usually begins with a barrier of real boredom. The brain reacts with numb refusal when it doesn't recognize new concepts, new modes of expression. Push through it.

5. Because daydreaming minds aren't blank
Once we follow Neil Postman's charge to "take arms against a sea of amusements," we can find ourselves in a scary blank space. That crushing boredom you'll feel if you shove the phone and laptop in a drawer gives way (after the sweaty withdrawal symptoms) to a spree of new ideas you never knew you weren't having. The great English psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote that "by far the greater number of new ideas occur during a state of reverie, intermediate between waking and sleeping." But you don't get those daydreaming bonuses if your first thought on waking up, is "what did I miss on Twitter?"

6. Because distraction is a feedback loop
When one person refuses to be "bored" for even a few seconds -- looks at his phone while his buddy pays a cashier at the supermarket, say -- they create compound distraction. When the guy buying groceries looks up and sees his friend isn't paying attention, he'll dive into his own phone, too. And the pair can continue betting against 10 seconds of boredom like this forever if they like. (This is how we end up with couples at restaurants enjoying their email by candlelight.)

7. Because digital distractions should always be a choice
We're at a point where we passively fill every moment of absence with a glance at the glittering inbox. Take a weeklong Internet sabbatical and you'll discover how irrevocably, damnably, and utterly wired to the promise of connections you've become. A bunch of us are taking part in Analog August this year to do just that. If we're ever going to live intelligently in the world, we need to be awake to the choices we're making. That means the occasional email cleanse; it means we need to be as smart about our media diets as we are about our food diets.

Michael Harris's new book is The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Current, $26.95).

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