Then there are the more systemic weapons—for example, change the furniture. “Ambient movement is a known way to help people stay attentionally engaged,” Eastwood said. “Just sitting at a desk is a terrible idea.” Wilson agreed, adding that even small environmental changes can make a big difference. When airports moved baggage claims further from arrival gates, Wilson observed, flyers’ satisfaction increased. “They didn’t mind walking so much as they minded waiting.”
Still, even these safeguards may not be enough to stave off the boredom of the multitasking, technologically connected modern mind. The greater the possible distractions, Eastwood suggested, the less we’re able to deal with boredom. “It’s like quicksand,” he said. “If we thrash around, we end up making it much, much worse.”
And we also end up not knowing what to do with ourselves when those distractions are suddenly removed. In an ongoing study, Wilson observes college students who are left alone in a room, with no phone or other distractions, for 15 minutes. “They hate it,” he said. “One would think we could spend that time mentally entertaining ourselves. But we can’t. We’ve forgotten how.”
Maria Konnikova is the author of the upcoming “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” (Viking, January 2013), and writes the Literally Psyched blog for Scientific American.