Imagine sitting alone in a restaurant waiting for a friend. How do you pass the time? Do you look around? Do you savor the time alone to reflect or think about something that’s bothering you? Do you allow yourself to daydream? Odds are you do none of the above. You reach for your phone and don’t look up until your friend arrives.
You are not alone. Using your phone as a time-filler whenever there is a free moment has become the norm. Waiting on line at the office cafeteria, in between conversations at a cocktail party, before a meeting begins, sitting in a taxi on the way to the airport, along with every other “in between” moment, are now occasions to connect with our device not the world around us. They are triggers to look down.
I do my best to resist turning to a screen to fill time. I don’t want it becoming a habit and I certainly don’t want to model it for my children. My hope is that they learn how to manage boredom and unstructured time and that they use it to their advantage. In a recent article, journalist Naomi Shaefer Riley captures the downside of always turning to a screen to avoid boredom. If every unfilled moment is filled by a video game, a text, or Snapchat, she argues, then there is no time to daydream.
So, I have a confession to make: The TV in the car works. Ages ago I told my kids that the screen was defective because I didn’t want them to tune out every time we got in the car. This white lie will probably backfire one day but right now I have no regrets. First of all, I like the company. If I am stuck in traffic I would rather talk to them than see them through my rear view mirror with earmuff-like head phones on and their mouths hanging open mindlessly watching a movie. It’s an opportunity to connect with each other, to read a book, to take a nap, to belt out Taylor Swift, or to look out the window and let the mind wander.
Boredom isn’t such a bad thing, especially when you reframe it as an opportunity to be creative. In an article in GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind the hit show “Hamilton,” talks about a childhood friend who once spent a three-hour car ride playing with a stick he found in the back yard.
Sometimes the stick was a man, sometimes a piece in a larger game, or he’d give it voices, pretend the stick was a telephone. I remember sitting there next to him with my ‘Donkey Kong’ thinking, ‘Dude, you just entertained yourself for three hours . . . with a f- -king twig!’ And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I have to raise my imagination game.’
Miranda says “time alone is the gift of self-entertainment—and that is the font of creativity. Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.” Or, (sorry kids) a long car ride.
Instead of staring at a screen, channel a famous refrain from one of the songs in Hamilton:
Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.