Chances are you’re reading this on a cellphone or while otherwise multitasking. According to CNN, Americans spend a staggering 10 hours a day and 39 minutes staring at a screen, and that doesn’t include taking pictures or texting. To put that in perspective, 48% of women with children get less than seven hours of sleep a night and report being tired 14 days out of the month. Adults over 15 still spend an average of 2.73 hours watching TV, spend only .29 hours reading for “personal interest” and about an equivalent amount “relaxing and thinking.” That’s less than 36 minutes — in the face of 10 hours and 39 minutes.
We’re so busy, busy, busy on our devices: We spend a staggering 5 hours worth of busy on our devices. A whopping 46% of us check our smartphones before we even get out of bed. That percentage rises to 66% if we’re looking at just millennials — 30% check their mail; 30% check their social media accounts. And 60% of millennials check their phones at work. Another 83% of millennials never switch their phones off during the day. We use them to take pictures, watch movies, and connect with each other.
Just reading these numbers makes my head spin.
Research shows that creativity gets hurt when we’re constantly busy. And the more time we spend plugged into our devices — at red lights, while our kids play, while we wait for the doc to call our name — the more we sap our ability to be creative.
Engaging in creativity, according to The Big Think, “requires hitting the reset button, which means carving space in your day for lying around, meditating, or staring off into nothing.” That means not staring at your phone in the grocery line, while you’re driving, or on a family vacation at the beach. It also means having time to lie around, meditate, or stare into nothing. In other words, we need time to do nothing and be bored.
Sometimes I stare into nothing while I load the dishwasher, but I don’t think that’s what they mean because I’m running through the mental to-do list of other tasks I have to do after the dishes are loaded. I do not have time to lie around because there’s laundry to be done. I do not have time to meditate unless I do it while I exercise, and I’m too busy grunting while my kid rides me like a pony. And as for staring into nothingness? If I take my eyes off three kids for a minute to stare into the ether, they’ll start beating each other with sticks.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned creativity theorist, claims that “creative people take their intuition seriously, looking for patterns where others see confusion, and are able to make connections between discrete areas of knowledge.” We moms barely have time for intuition as it is, what with the runny noses to wipe and the alphabets to teach and the fights to break up. Then we’re so burnt-out, we reach for something to turn our brains off, not on: our smartphones. We’re lonely, so we click on Facebook to feel less lonely. And at the end of the day, when we haven’t finished everything, but decided that the rest of the work can wait for tomorrow, we don’t have the mental energy to “do nothing.” Instead, we turn on something to watch. Because we need to turn our brains off.
Journalist Michael Harris says, “Perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume. Otherwise our lives become like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath.”
So maybe we need to, as Aaron Burr tells us in Hamilton, talk less — likely to our family and friends on Facebook. We need to buy less stuff and use less stuff. Otherwise, life is just noise. My life is pretty much noise anyway: screaming kids, endless chores, meals to prepare, and laundry to do. Yours probably is too. It’s a full life, a busy life, and I like it, but it’s a lot sometimes. Like me, you probably use screen time to relax, but perhaps we could use it less.
I don’t know what creative breakthrough it’s supposed to lead to, but maybe it’s not necessarily some big creative breakthrough like writing the next Great American Novel or becoming this century’s Picasso. Perhaps it’s a rumination, a revelation of self-knowledge. We could all stand to learn to better recognize what triggers our bad moods. We could find ways to stop the middle child from antagonizing their siblings. We could strategize parenting moves, ways to keep my cool, ways to keep them busy. We could come up with new crafts to do or ways to teach the alphabet.
Maybe if we put down our phones and let ourselves breathe freely, without distraction, we could be better parents. And I don’t mean shaming the mom on the playground with her phone because everyone knows we need it sometimes. But we don’t need it all the time — even if we think we do. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.