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Stop fidgeting. Start doodling
On how you can turn all those boring times at work in engaging and productive spaces.
The meeting has been going on for the past 45 minutes and you know that there will probably be at least another 30 minutes of utter boredom.
They invited you to the meeting, you gave your input, heard what you needed to hear. The meeting is now over for you. You cannot openly start working on other stuff — your colleagues might notice it, it would be rude.
So you instinctively fall back on the default time-filler: you unlock your smartphone and start scrolling right and left between the app pages, searching for something to do. You will probably open one of the social media app and start mindlessly scrolling down. You probably won’t even stop to give your attention to a post or to one of the pictures. You are fidgeting.
Not the right solution
You are searching a solution for your boredom, or for the frustration caused by being in a space where you don’t want to be, virtually or physically — that meeting.
Let me break down why fidgeting is not healthy and what you can do instead: it’s now common knowledge (and common experience) that we used to have much more patience. For anything: unnecessarily long meetings, unproductive conversations, slow TV shows, etc. But then: the internet, knowledge is available everywhere easily, communication went from letters to tweets, 3G, 4G, 5G. I assume that most of this is not new to you.
The result is: our life pace is faster, our tolerance for unwanted situations is way lower. Instead of snapping at the people around us or leaving the meeting and slamming the door, we choose the socially accepted solution: unlock your smartphone and randomly move your fingers. Fidgeting.
Good for stress, bad for boredom
Fidgeting is not unhealthy behavior by nature. It actually is a very efficient stress-reliever. A few years ago they released a wonderful toy, the fidget cube: a cube with different features on each side (a clicker, a button, a switch, etc), to play with during stressful moments. It is not really an activity per se. You won’t stop and play with the fidget cube, as you would sit on a couch and start watching TV, or read a book. Yet, it’s a good way to release the energies in surplus while working on a tough task, in a complex conversation, or waiting anxiously for something to happen.
So it’s ok to fidget when stressed. It’s not a solution, but is a fine palliative. It is less ok to fidget when bored. We should be able to invest our time and energies in a healthier way.
There is an internal hierarchy among the fidgeting activities as well: fidgeting with a fidget cube, with a pen or with any object is almost always better than playing with your phone with no apparent purpose. Your phone will drain your attention with the myriads of content it offers, switching from topic to topic after milliseconds, much faster than what your mind can efficiently manage. It literally makes you dumber.
Three healthy alternatives to fidgeting
I’ll suggest here three alternative ways to cope with the challenge of being in a non-productive space.
My favourite one is Doodling. Maybe you have negative memories from school, when your teacher told you off because you dared drawing a flower or some abstract shape on your notebook. Your teacher was wrong. As Sunni Brown explained in her clever TED Talk, doodling can be a great way to facilitate processing and memorization. There is research on the effectiveness of looking back at doodles from previous meetings to help recall what the meeting was about.
The spontaneous nature of doodling can also spark creativity or even have meditative effects. The goal is not to draw a masterpiece: it’s following the hand and whatever feels like a pleasant way to proceed from shape to shape.
Another good alternative is Daydreaming. Smartphones hurt also this practice, which was once the default alternative for anyone who tried to escape the present moment. Letting the train of thought run and see to which insights, fantasies or memories it goes.
Daydreaming is a muscle that is worth strengthening. Allowing our mind to roam free is a great way to train our neurons into exploring new connections between apparently unrelated ideas. Instead of thinking rigidly and linearly about problem solving, our brain will start toying with creative ways to use the information and resources at hand — and provide us with more out-of-the-box solutions.
The third alternative is Reflection. Compared to the previous two, this one doesn’t capitalize on our creative abilities. Quite the opposite, a proper reflection requires us to find a question or an issue we care about and to rationally articulate our thoughts, feelings and insights on the matter. It can be searching for insights on questions like “Why am I nervous/ angry/ uninspired right now?” or “What did I learn in the past week?”, it could be about collecting thoughts on a given topic (“List: skills that I would like to learn in the next year” or “Observing how people react to conflict in the workplace”). Some people prefer writing down those thoughts, others are satisfied with having a monologue in their head.
While daydreaming is inherently associative, reflecting needs to be more structured. It’s a beautiful way to zoom out and gain powerful insights on our behaviour and our surroundings.
Modern working norms made it acceptable to invest significant amounts of time in unproductive spaces: long meetings, commutes, zoom calls, and more. These times can be wasted by surrendering to the offical productivity surrogate: fidgeting with our smartphone.
We don’t want that. There are better alternatives, and besides being healthier, they are much more liberating and enriching than giving useless attention to our favourite screen.
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