Canadians’ bathroom habits are the death of inspiration (or how mobile is killing boredom)
Inspiration’s a funny thing. That moment of magic, when something dawns on you unexpectedly. Your brain’s been noodling on an idea without you noticing and, tada! has found an answer. Maybe it’s a work problem you’d been struggling with; a different way of thinking about a concept; or a genuinely new idea out of the blue. It’s amazing, makes you feel like some kind of genius when it strikes.
As a researcher, what’s more intriguing is when inspiration like that occurs. Archimedes famously had a moment of inspiration in the bath, realising that if he jumped in, all the water jumped out (something like that, I wasn’t paying attention in that particular class). For me, inspiration comes most consistently when I’m driving (obviously that brings its own problems, including not being able to write down any genius ideas). And a few years ago I had a colleague, let’s call him Shane, who, on a fairly regular basis, emerged from the bathroom claiming some new insight had dawned on him while in there. Possibly the less said about that the better.
The common theme is the idea of “empty time”. Those minutes where you’re not really concentrating on anything, and your mind wanders. Your brain goes to turning over old ideas and problems, producing new answers and solutions. Whether it’s waiting in line for a coffee, watching the printer slowly churn out your 40 page document, standing on the bus, perhaps even in the bathroom – anywhere and anything that gives you a few moments of empty time can be when inspiration strikes. And indeed, the link between boredom and creativity is well-established. The research is clear: being bored leads to creative sparks, and letting yourself be bored is a catalyst for inspiration (https://www.wired.com/2017/01/clive-thompson-7/).
But these days, who has time to be bored?! If you have a spare moment, you need to be checking Twitter to see what’s happening in the world; if you’re in line at Starbucks you’re seeing who’s posted on Instagram. And the bus journey is precious minutes to unwind with Candy Crush. It’s the beauty of mobile – it’s always there, and you need never be bored again!
On average, we look at our phones 150 times every single day. Think about that: the number of moments in the day that you reach for your phone; and what you might do otherwise, if you didn’t look at your phone. And research suggests that on average, nearly half of those interactions start with no real intent: just reaching for your phone to see what’s interesting, and to kill time. Even my former colleague Shane’s last bastion of inspiration isn’t safe – fully 46% of Canadians say they use their smartphone in the bathroom.
So if mobile means we’re never bored, where will inspiration hit us in the future? And as technology becomes more ubiquitous, from the screens hotels install in their bathrooms to the internet connectivity of the average new car, are we destined to never again have that magical “aha” moment that leads to a genius invention or business decision? It’s an intriguing, and worrying, thought. Where will the inspirational inventions of the future come from, if we never have those moments of boredom to allow our minds to wander?
I don’t know the answer, but one thing’s for sure – no mobile phone in the bathroom for me. Because boredom’s great but also, ewwwww!