Unplugged: Embracing Boredom

I’m bored. And yet, I’m also filled with inspiration.

It’s the fifth morning of my 10-day unplugged journey. I’m sitting outside, resting in the cool breeze of spring.

It’s in the low eighties, comfortable for where I lay in one of my favorite places in the world. The birds are chirping loudly and I’ve already downed two cups of coffee. I started my morning reading my third book of this #Unplugged trip. My second book lays discarded, for now, to my side nearby, resting on top of the first novel which I had already devoured, reading it all in one sitting. I had exchanged the second for something fictional, a different kind of distraction.

As I sit reading, my mind wanders as it often does when I’m unplugged. Random memories of my childhood and other nostalgic thoughts come to me when I allow them to. Other times I’m distracted, thinking about the work I have temporarily set aside, vying for my attention (even when it’s supposed to be left alone).

It’s hard not to think about one of my biggest projects of 2021 — a 12 week series of virtual events tailored for the pet health community — or the over 4,000 participants that have already registered. This event targets veterinary professionals from all across the globe, from South America to Ukraine, South East Asia, and everywhere in between, and our message, focusing on demonstrating how to build a digital footprint that engages pet owners in lifelong care, and all of its supplemental materials will be translated into 5 different languages. There is a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure this project is extremely successful and to deliver for our industry partner. Only a few short hours after I plug back in, I’ll be back to focusing my attention on this by kicking off our first event, other projects, and resuming that life after this brief intermission.

This maybe isn’t the best time to have chosen to unplug, but there really is never a good time.

My next read is interesting. The characters are a bit odd, but I’m engaged. Naturally, as my mind drifts off, I can’t help but think about the whole process of being unplugged, and my passion to advocate for such practices. Every year I write an article or blog post, trying to convince skeptics to try it and remind converts why it is so important. This year, I thought, why not write about being unplugged while I’m unplugged? Why not share the perspective while it’s fresh on my mind?

I take out my journal, and start to write.

So here they are, my #Unplugged thoughts, compiled in a day, halfway through my 2021 Unplugged journey. As I look back on 2020, I know I almost lost sight of why I do this in the first place, unplugging about ¼ of the time I normally do. As 2020 came to an end, I told myself I would return to regularly unplugging, and started the new year off right, allowing myself to live in the moment. Then, in February, I unplugged again for 4 days. As I wrote this journal entry, back in March of 2021, it was during another series of 10 phoneless, digitally unplugged days. After the spring, I will unplug again in the summer as well, as I often do.

But even then, as I wrote, considering my time away from my phone, the usual fears came slinking back: “Is it too much? Will people be annoyed? Will clients be angry? Will people roll their eyes?”

These are questions I’ve heard other #Unplugged hopefuls ask before, and normally I’ve been able to reassure them (and myself) that they aren’t practical, though at the time, they feel like rational concerns. The more you create a habit, and the more you follow through, you’ll hear the whispers of these concerns less and less as you realize that clients and work partners are generally accommodating to your needs. But since I lost my routine last year, resuming it has helped these fears come creeping back.

I had already set the safeguards up, the practical tasks that should have been reassuring enough: I had already let everyone I was in correspondence with for work know, weeks in advance when I would be unplugging. I set my email signature to demonstrate this as I have before, letting them know what was coming, but even still, I worried.

I was afraid of opening the emails of certain important contacts, half expecting a “What!? You’re going to unplug in the middle of our project?!” Or even a, “Again!? Really?”

Of course, the response was the exact opposite.

There was the regular, “I know you’re going to be unplugged so can we touch base before you go?” Of course, I always expect this and set up my calendar to accommodate these welcomed requests. I always like reading, “Enjoy your time unplugged!” But admittedly, my favorite response is, “I can’t wait to try this!”

With those responses helping to assuage my fears yet again, the work days flew by, and before I knew it, it was time.

The first day of being unplugged is always a little strange for me. Only hours before I was going from checking multiple social media accounts, messaging on platforms like Whatsapp, and toggling between my phone and desktop to check my email, task management software like Asana, Salesforce, Slack, and all of the other apps that run my life (and keep it from getting any more chaotic). Going from this, to totally removing myself from my phone aside from the occasional glance to make sure no family or work emergencies need my attention is always going to give you a little bit of whiplash or withdrawal.

Even without the added stress of a work or family emergency, the process of starting to unplug always feels odd. My home screen is left bare after I intentionally delete all of the apps my thumbs instinctively go to open, keeping myself in check before I can look at “one more thing.” It’s crazy how easily we train our brains to follow certain behaviors… but luckily, after so many years of unplugging, this phase of “untraining” isn’t quite as hard. It’s a relief to have set aside the constant noise and notifications of the digital space in exchange for this more quiet and frankly boring world.

In fact, the more I’ve unplugged, the more I’ve come to appreciate boredom.

In my experience, boredom is a pretty natural state after the hyper-entertaining, constantly stimulated world most of us live in from the day-to-day.

By day two or three, I’m pretty bored. It’s not uncommon to find me staring off at nature, or else smiling, lost in thought, now that my mind is no longer suppressed by the distraction that technology brings. Through boredom, I’m brought back to the awkward years of self-discovery in high school, and the projects and ideas I left behind, unintentionally abandoning them in place of newer and shinier tech solutions.

It’s tempting to distract ourselves instead of allowing our minds, for even a second, to become bored. Let’s face it. Scrolling through social media and email is sometimes our go-to to avoid boredom. But in the end, how many times have we seen something online that leaves us feeling drained instead of inspired? A Time Magazine article discusses this phenomenon, explaining that oftentimes, when we reach for our phones we are cheating ourselves out of the benefits of boredom, leading to less productive and ultimately less satisfying distractions that put a strain on our mental health.

Plenty of research has been done about the addictive quality of social media, but another study suggests that it can keep us from better, more creative ideas. In fact, it is only when we are bored that our minds try and find really “novel” solutions, avoiding predictable or typical responses, leading us to inspiration and ingenuity.

This is usually the point of my unplugged journey where I’m left feeling inspired about life in general, but especially about my work. And this isn’t so surprising: studies show that boredom can help you focus on the future, and help you become inspired to set goals. When my mind is allowed to wander some of my best ideas begin to materialize. Whether it’s how to take my business to the next level or the discovery of a new approach I want to try out with clients and incorporate in my teachings, this is when I’m able to look at my work with fresh eyes.

But boredom also leaves me hungry.

At this point in the morning, I’m dreaming of breakfast. It’s later than I’d usually eat after waking up, and right now I’m dreaming of eggs, toast with guava jelly, and a glass of mango guava juice.

But my appetite isn’t just for food: it’s for integrating the newfound ideas that have inspired me during my time unplugged so far.

This is what I love about unplugging.

After I eat, I begin to write down some of the ideas that have come to mind.

Maybe I’m just dreaming, but great solutions have come from dreams.

Some of these ideas are certainly not very realistic. And it doesn’t help that, almost always, a familiar series of concerns come to mind: “What happens to these ideas when you plug back in?” they ask. “Do they get added to the pile, or left forgotten under all the other work you have to do?”

They’re not unreasonable questions, especially given the amount of work and all of the other projects I have in the pipeline, already queued and awaiting my attention.

I can’t always answer these questions, at least not right away. I try to take advantage of my inspiration, for now, writing an unfiltered list of goals and ideas that may or may not come to fruition (a guy can dream). A more organized person would tell you to try and arrange your list, maybe by what needs doing first, or levels of feasibility, but that’s just not how my mind works when I’m unplugged.

Eventually, I’ll type these ideas out and email them to myself upon plugging in. It almost always becomes a task list. I keep the list to the front of my mind using the Boomerang app for Gmail. It is an app that will on a set schedule return messages to my inbox. In this case, I’ll send myself the email, and schedule it to send back out every 2-3 weeks. If I’m overwhelmed with work, I won’t come back to it for a month. The intent is just to keep me coming back to my inbox, to remind me. I never put a set deadline as I do with my current key projects. Instead, I’ll try and tackle a task and integrate an idea and eventually cross it off my list.

By not setting a deadline, I avoid setting myself up for failure or the disappointment that comes with deadlines coming and going. For me, it works. Everyone needs to find out what method works best for them.

I abandoned this blog for a bit after getting halfway through to finish reading. Admittingly, I had to take some time to recover. It was a tearjerker! Finding the time to read and get emotionally invested in a story is another benefit to embracing the boredom of unplugging. It gives you time to reflect on what you took away from the story and allows something someone crafted to affect you.

Reflection is all part of the unplugged process. Now, as I finish this, I’m just 24 hours away before I have to plug back in… it’s time to wrap up my thoughts.

Unplugging this spring has reminded me to:

  • Embrace boredom and the creativity that comes with it.
  • Write down my thoughts, no matter how wild they may seem.
  • Take the time to integrate them into my schedule.
  • Continue to unplug.

And it might seem crazy, but I think applying these simple tips can help you make the most out of your unplugging journey, too. Of course, not every fleeting idea will make a good fit for your work or your lifestyle, but by allowing your mind to rest and giving it time away from the constant attention life requires, you’re opening yourself up for new chapters and volumes in your life’s story.

Speaking of stories, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back to the book I’ve previously abandoned and try to wrap it up. If you’re curious, it’s called “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention”. And if it doesn’t capture my attention, I’ll embrace the boredom that comes with it.

– Eric