Health

Don’t Blame It on Boredom: You’re Spending Time on Things That Don’t Matter

Italian author Pietro Minto breaks down how technology has changed the way we spend our time – and how we can get some of it back.
Vincenzo Ligresti
Milan, IT
June 17, 2021, 8:15am
Illustration of people reading in different positions, seated, standing lying down on their belly, surrounded by books, plants, drinks and a cat.
Illustration Tartila/Adobe Stock.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Growing up, we’re told to make the most of every moment – and now that the internet has become an integral part of our lives, many of us tend to fill any idle moments with the first available distraction. But doomscrolling and watching hours of TikTok doesn’t satisfy. Actually, it stops us from engaging with those moments of emptiness and making the most of their hidden potential.

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At least, that’s what Italian author Pietro Minto believes. His new book, “How to Get Bored, Better” (only available in Italian), explores these ideas, guiding the reader toward regaining control of their free time, especially now that the pandemic has forced us to confront our warped notion of time and time management.

VICE: Ciao, Pietro. Where did you get the idea for the book?
Pietro Minto:
Ciao! Three years ago, I started thinking about writing a book on boredom, which I am a huge fan of. I began doing some research – there are already many books on the subject of boredom, but they’re often very boring. At the start of 2020, I had the idea of writing a book about making boredom fun. The pandemic became a catalyst, and here we are.

How has our idea of boredom changed over the years?
Boredom and mysticism have always been related – they are two separate worlds that like to stay in touch. With the growth of Christianity, people started thinking about boredom on a deeper level, but it also became – let’s say – a more oppressive concept. At one point, Christian ascetics came to consider boredom a demonic force.

In the East – but also in the West, excluding the Abrahamic religions – boredom has [traditionally] been treated more graciously, without having a sense of paranoia or guilt attached to it. Boredom is a human state of mind. You don’t have to fight against it, just acknowledge it and understand it without thinking of overcoming it.

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These days, if we say we’re bored, it always carries a negative connotation.
Free time is neither boring nor fun, it has simply been freed up from something else. It’s a plot of land nobody has built on yet. It’s how we make use of it that allows moments of boredom to pop up. 

I think of boredom as the central part of a more complex mechanism – our time management. Boredom usually occurs in moments where there are strong distractions, forces threatening to steal our time and fill it with things that don’t really interest us. 

We’re flooded with inputs from social media, YouTube and streaming services. In this context, you might think boredom doesn’t exist anymore, when in fact it still does, although maybe in less evident ways. It’s irrelevant how many stimuli we have – the core of the issue is about how little we are conscious of how we use our time, be it free time or otherwise.

Can you give me an example?
Doomscrolling. You scroll through your phone as if a magnet was slowly dragging you into a black hole. It’s one of those things where you later ask yourself, “Wait, what am I doing? Why am I here? How did I get there?” 

So the problem is not boredom itself, which often has positive implications, but the time we waste without realising it, in order to avoid being bored. You have to realise that an hour spent doomscrolling is an hour you’ve used for something. That’s one way to understand you can take ten minutes out of your day to do nothing. For example, even staring at the wall without doing anything can have its unexpected twists.

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What are these positive implications you mentioned?
Several studies have shown how boredom – understood as a feeling of emptiness at a time when not much is happening – can stimulate creativity. I was in a similar situation when I came up with the idea of writing a book.

Boredom is also linked to mental health, it’s an island, a moment of introspection that allows you to make sense of things. Doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing is happening – it forces you to reflect and to make free associations, which can prove to be useful.

The most important thing is to regain control of your time, or rather to regain awareness of how you manage it. Positive boredom is an excellent antidote to the dullness of a life filled with impulses and notifications. You might feel less angry, sad or frustrated because you’re letting time slip away from you a bit less.

How is our inability to relax during idle moments linked to our fear of missing out on important things?
Many of us are affected by FOMO on different levels. We constantly want to know what other people are doing. But then, during the first major lockdown, many people felt a sense of relief – all those pressures disappeared and we had time to ask ourselves how many events we forced ourselves to go to when we weren’t actually interested, events we didn’t enjoy or don’t remember much about. 

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FOMO Is Making a Comeback

A well-known blogger, Anil Dash, coined the acronym JOMO [joy of missing out] as a reaction to FOMO. When you’re about 30 to 35 years old and up, there comes a point when you think, ‘You know what, I'm happy to stay home.’ To close this circle, I propose the acronym NOMO – noncuranza of missing out [“Noncuranza” means “not caring”]. In other words, not giving a damn whether or not you might be missing out.

During the pandemic, we’ve also all had time to think about our productivity. I know you’re not a fan of multitasking, can you tell me why?
In recent years, the ability to multitask has come to be valued as an essential skill. The truth is that, as shown by various studies I mention in the book, human beings aren’t innately capable of constantly switching activity – each of our tasks requires varying degrees of attention and training. They affect different areas of the brain, so while switching every five seconds is not impossible, in the long run it is a source of stress that can exhaust you. 

On social media, we also see examples of people who seem to be able to monetise their life, including their free time. Do you think that’s possible?
The very high level of burnout cases among YouTubers and influencers shows how risky it can be to transform your life into a constant cycle of creating content. Of course, it varies from case to case, but you do need boundaries between public and private life. Influencers and content creators are desired and envied – they are the new football players. People think they are rich and famous and that they do nothing all day. The reality is quite different and, in my opinion, potentially destructive.

In your book, you say we’ve broken time. What do you mean by that?
Time is doing just fine, of course, but our perception of it has been turned upside-down. We are experiencing a sort of trauma, because our perception of time is no longer linear, it is twisted. Technology has changed our notions of speed, simultaneity and proximity.

We are in an intermediate phase. Maybe in a few years we will have found a new approach to time management, which at the moment is increasingly confusing. My book talks about this phase, especially to those who might only have faint memories of our previous attempts at managing time.