Could “smart boredom” be your biggest opportunity?

When I was in Italy in 1999 for my honeymoon, I bumped into my first mobile distracted user. Their head was down, their eyes fixated on the small screen in front of them, frantically tapping keys and absolutely not paying attention to what was in front of them. Why didn’t I see them coming my way? Well, I was enjoying the Rome experience as many tourists do, through the viewfinder of my camera.

From that point on I started to notice the number of people who’s faces were buried in their phones. I had one back home but was afraid to use it for fear of having to sell my home to pay my carrier – it was just too expensive at the time. People were using it while walking, standing on the corners, in line, in café’s, on the train, in buses – everywhere. I was intrigued by it as much as I was distracted by it.

Flash forward to today where this focus on the small screen has crossed every ocean and spread throughout the planet – regardless of socio-economic status. It is no longer a unique scenario to see a room full of people with their eyes crossed, tapping on a small screen but not talking to each other. We see it now in the streets, on the buses, in lines, at restaurants, in the gym and in living rooms.

Do you remember the time when you were forced to feign interest in your surroundings? There weren’t any distractions. Waiting for movies meant reading the one magazine available at the movie theatre for free. Standing in line at the bank meant being susceptible to being bombarded with the ads on the wall. Waiting in a doctors office exposed you to instruction on how to wash your hands correctly. It meant you were captive to the messages that were contextual to your location. If you weren’t interested or had read everything, boredom set it.

Boredom’s cure is distraction and the mobile device we carry in our pocket today has the lure of constant engagement.

When the BlackBerry really hit in the early 2000’s people’s comfort level in lines or waiting increased. It didn’t matter so much that there was a line at the bank or your doctor was late or your lunch date hadn’t shown up, you had your BlackBerry. The concept that you could wait and be productive took off. This was really the beginning of era of smart boredom. Instead of simply accepting the default distraction, these devices offered up a choice and all of us tended to do what we wanted instead of the default.

In the very short time since that first instance of smart boredom, smart devices have proliferated and boredom for many of us has become extinct. In fact, smart boredom has begun to infiltrate our conversations, our movies, our television shows, our marriages, our parenting, our driving, our schooling, our work – everything. The funny thing is that we are encouraged to engage all the time – it is the power of the medium. Networks are pushing the “second screen” as a way to keep people “engaged” (read: not bored) watching their television shows making us even more distracted and less engaged. There is a fine line between smart boredom and complete distraction – one that we are constantly testing and one that may actually change habits for generations to come.

There have been productivity gains in the smartphone era thanks to smart boredom. We no longer get piled on with email and messages when we walk into the office on a Monday morning as before. There is a constant hum throughout the day and night and weekends and we have the power to respond or ignore – that is in our control. Office work is an easy example – everyone has an email waiting that is work related – the fun part for your business is to look for ways to become the smart boredom alternative for your customers.

In the case of the television broadcasters that feel they need to compete on two screens at the same time, perhaps they could simply allow us to use our mobile devices to bookmark specific scenes or be notified of cut scenes or alternate endings or additional footage not available for broadcast during the timeslot. The outcome should be to create an experience that doesn’t only last during the broadcast time of the show. Using mobile should not emulate the broadcast schedule. Enhance, do not distract. Extend, do not limit.

If you think of mobile as a nuanced interruption that happens many times throughout a day you gain perspective on how to approach your smart boredom thinking. Smart boredom is NOT about alerts or notifications. Those interrupt at the convenience of the company, not the consumer. Bringing people into your experience should be natural and fit seamlessly into their schedule to eventually become a habit.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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