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We Need More Time Alone With Our Thoughts

It started with something small – I found myself playing music off of my phone whenever I was bored. I realized I was using music as a way to fill the silence...

Joseph Quan     |     Dec 6, 2015

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We need more time alone with our thoughts.

This one’s been on my mind for a while.

It started with something small – I found myself playing music off of my phone whenever I was bored. I realized I was using music as a way to fill the silence, to dull the restlessness I experienced when I was left alone with my own mind. This isn’t particularly surprising in light of recent research – a study at the University of Virginia showed that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.

Intrigued by this realization, I started to list out other things I did to stave off boredom:

  • Listening to music while running errands (washing the dishes, doing laundry, cleaning my apartment)
  • Reading/watching videos while eating
  • Reading emails or checking Facebook while waiting in line
Any of this look familiar? This inability to focus on singular tasks and occasionally be alone with our thoughts seems to stem from several intertwined causes: So to recap: we have lower attention spans, higher thresholds for what qualifies as entertaining, and a fascination with multithreading activities when we’d actually be better off focusing on one thing at a time.
Unfortunately, when we engage with these aforementioned impulses, we are only hurting ourselves.

It turns out that the boredom we are desperately fighting off can actually drive creativity (the benefits of boredom are covered anecdotally here and scientifically here).

Whether we are carving out dedicated periods to reflect or simply refraining from filling every moment of our lives with distractions, it’s critical to free ourselves from a constant cycle of external stimulation. We need to learn to be alone with our minds again. By doing so, we tap fully into our creative capacity and reestablish our ability to think deeply. 

See the 5-Minute Action Plan

Joseph writes for AYA, a weekly newsletter that curates the best professional development advice for 20somethings and makes it actionable. Every week AYA summarizes a book or piece of research and sends you an accompanying action plan to act on what you just learned.


Further reading:
If you’ve gone through all the links above and are still craving more, I highly recommend these two pieces. The first is a broad overview of scientific research on boredom. The second, only tangentially related to my essay here, details the writing process of Jonathan Franzen (one of my favorite authors) and his complete dedication to cutting out external distraction.

The Telegraph – Is boredom good for you?
The New York Times – Jonathan Franzen’s Big Book

Written by Joseph Quan - Please submit all responses to jackmara@10Thoughts.com

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