I have always felt that boredom is a privilege of youth, but my kids rarely get an opportunity to be bored these days. In fact, I worry that almost everyone I know is just so busy, all of the time. So unbelievably busy. Surely then, we must be really productive? But I don’t sense a lot more is being achieved.
So what is keeping us so busy then?
More than ever, I believe that the primary reason is to be found on-line. For a start, we seem to have to do all the work when banking, travelling… well just about anything. It saves companies employing anyone but we have to do all the work. It’s not choice, it’s delegation. And isn’t actually employing people a desirable outcome anyway?
I personally cannot stand having to commit more and more of my time to simple operations that used to be a single phone call or button, but now requires a degree in the subject and the expert use of computers. Things like booking a journey. Where and when do you want to travel? Directly or not? Which class of journey? What time of night is it when you’re booking it? Do you want a seat? Some of the questions and variables seem ridiculous, and I just don’t feel I have enough hours in the day for all this nonsense just because some people like the illusion of nailing down a bargain, or companies want to differentially price a service.
Choice is a modern curse. It promotes individuality, but too much of it can be stultifying. No two people seem to even drink something as simple as coffee the same way. I have a friend who became so bewildered by this plethora of choice that she became vegetarian in order to narrow down her options when eating out. Is it real choice? Some of it is, but some of it is contemptible: is having a seat or carrying a bag or having a glass of water a real option on long journeys? I for one do not feel invigorated by the range of possibilities – I feel frustrated at the complexity, the lack of advice and waste of time it entails.
What is also keeping me busy is the constant prompting of various social and electronic media. My text, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn is always twinkling, nudging to tell me that someone has said something. I am besieged by a daily tsunami of e-mails too. I am fairly ruthless with them, but they still take time and never allow for a free moment because the internet always provides something to look at, even if it is just another video of a cat, and I’ve already seen it six times. What’s more, this echo chamber effect has the added problem of narrowing our world view by purposefully surrounding us with adverts and people it thinks we will agree with, which I genuinely believe has been a factor in recent political decision-making. Brexit and Trump to name two. But this constant barrage of tantalising tit bits is also doing something else – it is making us almost entirely reactive. We are becoming slaves to the technology, not masters of it, and it is encouraging us to be absent from the moment.
If I only ever react at work, I’m not doing my job properly. I’m busy, but not very productive. And I’m definitely not strategic, as it prevents me having the time for any head space. Socially it is far from ideal too. When I moan at someone for checking social media or texts whilst we are talking to each other, they insist they are listening and simply multi-tasking. This might make them feel smug and self-important, but it makes me feel like I’m boring them and wasting their time, as they’d clearly rather be somewhere else. And multi-tasking is to a large degree a vanity. As I like to joke, why do one thing well when you can do three things badly?
Back to my kids. When they are finally not looking at their phones, not tweeting, texting or snapchatting, then their next default is the Xbox. Then the TV. Then a box set. And then the homework, music, art, exercise and house chores I insist they do. There is no time to get bored. We have a daily argument about the time spent on the Xbox. Clearly, it’s lots of fun for them. But it doesn’t feel like it is preparing them for life in any way. Childhood is normally a practice, a chance to learn the skills you’ll need as a grown up. So what skills does an Xbox teach you?
My son insists he has sharper reactions as a result of the Xbox. I have joked with him that his reactions, however, only extend to his thumb. So say if someone jumped out of a bush at him his thumb would spring into action, twitching as if controlling an on-screen character. A twitching thumb, I point out, feels like an inadequate response to a physical attack, so turn the bloody thing off and, yes, you are going to judo this evening. I view games consoles as a useless way to fill time.
This constant temptation and distraction, combined with the tantalising illusion of choice, makes us all busy with little time to be truly bored. As a result, my kids’ tolerance for boredom is not high. Yet creativity often stems from boredom. I don’t just worry about how productive my kids are, but how resilient they are as a result. I have considered that, as a responsible parent, I should actually find time to engineer more boredom into their lives.
Trouble is, I’m just far too busy.
Written by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the RSGS.