Are Smartphones Replacing the Daydream?

May 28, 2015

— Relearning how to pass the time when you disconnect —

In our culture of workaholics, daydreaming is viewed as unproductive — it’s wasted time which is the equivalent of throwing money out the window. Blasphemy! And yet we spend one third to one half of our waking hours in this altered state of consciousness.

Is the time we spend outside of reality really wasted, or is this natural tendency to imagine, the key to discovery and innovation?

We spend one third to one half of our waking hours daydreaming.

Chris Brogan, a content marketing guru, promotes a concept called “time quilting.” It’s the idea that you can get a lot more done in a day if you take advantage of your moments of downtime to post to twitter, respond to an email, research blog topics, etc.

You can practice time quilting when you’re standing in line at the bank, waiting for your cappuccino, or waiting for a friend who’s late to happy hour. All of this time has untapped potential for productivity and if you use these small moments, you can achieve more than you thought possible.

I’m not convinced.

Learning to Be Still in a Hyperactive World

As much as I admire Chris Brogan’s work, I am a strong believer in daydreaming. I believe in using those moments of waiting to think and take in the world around you. I try my hardest not to pull out my iPhone and check Facebook and Twitter. (I don’t always succeed.) I resist responding to a client email, and I don’t read the latest blog post on CopyBlogger. I try to be still and let my mind wander to the “what ifs” and the seemingly impossible.

Being still in our hyperactive world isn’t easy, especially if you own a smartphone. Once you have the ability to check your email, see what your friends are up to, and read the news wherever you are, it’s hard not to.

What We Give Up to Feed Our Smartphone Addictions

I delayed getting a smartphone for a long time because I hated the idea of becoming addicted to the technology. When I finally did cave and get an iPhone, I swore I would never be one of those people that pulled out my phone in every idle moment. That lasted about a month.

As soon as I downloaded a few apps and opened a Twitter and Instagram account, my willpower went out the window. I’m increasingly addicted to the constant access to updates and information. It was fun at first until I realized I had lost a part of myself. I no longer pull out my journal when sitting alone at a cafe, I no longer play piano when I need to unwind after a long day at work, I no longer keep a sketchbook, and I have yet to take up knitting (a great way to relax and let your mind wander, or so I hear).

Could constant stimulation be limiting our imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness?

All of these activities allow me to daydream, noticeably reduce my stress and anxiety, and perhaps make me think more creatively. An experiment led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara for a paper in Psychological Science showed that undergraduate students had more creative ideas when given a break that involved a task just boring enough to allow their minds to wander. Science doesn’t need to tell me that compulsively checking my Twitter and Facebook feed doesn’t produce the same results.

And yet, I have let myself slip into the ease of using my phone to fight boredom and pass the time. I can feel myself becoming a consumer instead of a creator. It’s time to disconnect.

With Constant Stimulation, Creativity Suffers

Soon after I started seriously thinking about my need to disconnect, I came across an article called The Lost Art of Doing Nothing. The author, Christian Williams, worries that we are losing our ability to let our minds wander in positive ways by constantly relying on smartphones to pass the time. Williams notes how common it’s become for parents to hand their children an iPad or iPhone when they become restless. This leads him to wonder if this “constant stimulation is taking away opportunities for [children] to expand their imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness.”

I did more research and found a study published in 2007 that concluded children who don’t get enough time to daydream are less creative and imaginative than those who have more downtime away from electronic devices. Other studies have shown that daydreaming helps us relax, better handle personal conflicts, boost productivity, and helps us determine our core beliefs and values.

Scientists still have much to learn about the act of daydreaming but I think all of us can feel deep down that we’re losing a part of ourselves as we become more and more addicted to technology.

The Risk of Relying on Technology

What do I mean, “we’re losing a part of ourselves?” I’m referring in part to those activities you sacrificed in exchange for spending more time with your iPhone but also to something deeper. According to an article on Academic Earth, the more we rely on the internet for answers, the less we use our long-term memory. (We don’t have to remember everything we learned in class because we can just Google it later, right?)

There’s a problem with always having the answer for everything a few clicks away. With constant access to information we only use our short term memory but we need the information stored in our long-term memory for critical thinking — the type of thinking needed to solve problems like world hunger and climate change. The article goes on to say that, “we need these unique memories to understand and interact with the world around us. If we rely on Google to store our knowledge, we may be losing an important part of our identity.”

I’m going to repeat that:

If we rely on Google to store our knowledge, we may be losing an important part of our identity. Academic Earth

That’s a bold statement but I think it’s true.

If we spend more and more of our time connected to smart devices then we are spending less time in thoughtful contemplation. In an OnBeing interview (that I highly recommend) Maria Popova from Brain Pickings beautifully describes the issue:

We've been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not to do the work of claiming it. The only way to glean knowledge is through contemplation and the road to that is time, there's nothing else, it's just time.”

The only way to glean knowledge is through contemplation. Maria Popova

We need to disconnect from our devices and truly ruminate on a problem or a thought-provoking article we just read. We need to give ourselves time to contemplate our lives. Are we pursuing the things that matter most to us? Are we doing work that we love and believe in? Have we given serious thought to what makes up a fulfilling life?

Give Your Imagination Room To Breathe

Letting your mind slip into this realm of fantasy is a healthy practice that we shouldn’t try and smother beneath endless media consumption. We need to go back to those activities we used to turn to when we didn’t have 24/7 access to the internet.

Join me in resisting the urge to immediately pull out your phone every time you feel the least bit bored. Let's think of ways to create and things to do (make a collage, take up knitting, try a new outdoor activity) that will also allow our minds to slip into a daydream.

You might stumble upon something revolutionary inside that melon of yours — it doesn’t have to change the world, but hopefully it will positively change your life and in turn, make the world around you a slightly better place.

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