Step into the void
Here’s a crazy story: I spent four and a half hours outdoors alone the other day and didn’t listen to music or a podcast, or look at my phone—which was in my pocket—the entire time. I was able to withstand urges to check Instagram, Twitter, my text messages, my email, and the news, for four and a half hours.
I am not a superhero with a freakishly long attention span, nor do I have an inexplicable-by-science ability to never get bored. I just decided a couple years ago that I was tired of being half- or fully-distracted every hour of my life. So I decided I would have at least one space in my life that was free from technological bullshit: When I’m outside, running, hiking, climbing, biking, or skiing. Whether I’m up high in the mountains or just jogging laps around the municipal park near my house, I simply don’t use my phone. Sometimes I don’t carry it, sometimes I carry it in case of an emergency, but I don’t look at it.
The rest of my life is constantly infiltrated by noise. It’s audible (phone ringing), visual (email and other notifications), and psychological (including the distraction that occurs just by having a phone sitting next to me). As I write this, I have 14 browser tabs open, my phone sitting next to my laptop, and by my count, people can contact me by 17 different methods (not including ringing my doorbell or writing me a letter). I am not proud of this, or happy about it.
Do you ever check the Screen Time app on your phone to see how much time you spend looking at its small, come-hither screen? Or how many times you pick up your phone and unlock it every day? Doing so is either depressing as hell or a reality of our age (or both). I rationalize the appalling amount of screen time and number of “phone pickups” by saying, “I need to do this to run my business.” But if I was harder on myself, I’d admit I could probably cut screen time and phone pickups to one-fourth of my current total and my business would be just fine. And I’d probably be healthier, mentally.
About ten years ago, at a dead-quiet bed and breakfast in Ouray, Colorado, I noticed a low-grade ringing in my ears. I was a little shocked at the fact that I probably had mild tinnitus, but really shocked that I’d only been in a place quiet enough to actually notice it once in my life. Since then, it’s only reappeared maybe a dozen times—always in rural, indoor environments, the kind of quiet places that are as close to silent as we can find anymore. I live in a city of four million people, sleep with a white noise app running to block city noises, and listen to music all day while I work. Even when I get outdoors, there’s still an ambient noise most of the time: wind blowing past my ears, a breeze pushing through pine trees, a creek running nearby.
Moments of actual auditory silence are rare in contemporary life, and with the ever-present possibility of notifications (important or not) and distraction in our pocket at all times, I find psychological quiet to be a rare commodity as well. So I put my phone on Do Not Disturb when I’m out running, hiking, skiing, and riding my bike, as a way of saying, “Fuck off, noise.” It’s not really “being present” or “being in the moment” as much as it is just avoiding being a creature who has to be constantly stimulated 100 percent of my life. Like most people, I love technology: it allows me to do my job from anywhere I can get Internet access, check the weather forecast in seconds, and call a cab without actually calling anyone or having cash in my pocket. But I hate the image of myself being constantly hunched over a little screen every waking moment because I can’t think of anything better to do. You’ll find no shortage of studies proving that smartphones interrupt our focus, but what I want is for my lack of focus to be uninterrupted—to be able to look at nothing, listen to nothing, and get “bored.”
A friend who was a CFO for a big real estate operation once said to me while we were hiking, “No one ever had a good idea sitting in front of a computer.” I’ve tested that statement over and over while trying to write at an Internet-connected laptop for the past eight years, and found that he was right. And now the tiny computer I carry in my pocket also functions as a high-powered vacuum for any time I might otherwise spend sitting around letting my mind wander. Poke around the Internet a bit and you’ll find that it’s true that we have our best ideas in the shower, while driving, and other times when we’re not quite engaged—when we’re sort of bored.
Studies have shown that letting your mind wander actually activates more of your brain than when you’re focused on a task, and it’s good for creativity. Letting your mind wander can make you more future- and goal-focused, as well as more productive. Like everyone, I have a hard time just sitting within a few feet of a computer, iPhone, or iPad without picking it up—so I run, or walk, with my phone turned off.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes:
“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? ... Really, as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”
In contrast to everyday life, acquiring a void is good. I recommend pursuing it, just like Murakami. If you’re running, walking, hiking, biking, whatever. Shut off everything, get bored, and see what happens. You will miss a few news updates, a thousand hot takes, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash. You will not be privy to the newest, freshest way the sky is falling as of 30 minutes ago, and none of that shit will matter. Just move, glance around at trees and/or traffic, and don’t think about anything. Because you will think about things: You will plan vacations you might never take and projects you’ll never start. You will remember people you haven’t thought of in years. You will repeat the same two lines of a song from a decade or two ago for five minutes straight, and you will prove to yourself you are not—as much evidence as there may usually be otherwise—hopelessly addicted to noise. You will daydream, and that’s something we can probably all use more of.