Idle moments without a smartphone?
November 28, 2019 2:32 PM   Subscribe

My 14 year old daughter wants to cut down the time she spends on her smartphone. What can she do in stead, while she's waiting for the bus, waiting for the teacher, sitting on a park bench while the dog does his business, taking a break from homeworks, etc... You know, all those moments when you just grab your phone and scroll through Instagram, go through your Snapchats or take a BuzzFeed quiz?

Her main motivation, in her own words, is just a sudden, overwhelming desire to not be so psychologically dependant on the damn thing as a source of mindless instant entertainment.

A friend of hers, whose phone broke down some weeks ago, has been carrying a yo-yo around and fiddles with that during idle moments. My kid thinks it's brilliant, but she'd like to find her own thing.

I suggested a Rubik's cube and she's excited to try it. Otherwise, I'm drawing a blank.

She reads, draws and doodles quite a lot but those are things she wants to concentrate on, not just do for a few minutes at a time. (Also, it's rainy, cold and/or windy on most days here now, so not practical for outdoors.)

Any ideas?

And yeah, I know it was different when we were all young and could entertain ourselves with a bit of tree bark and a piece of coal. But she's from a generation that"s grown up with these gadgets glued to their hands, so I think it's neat that she's thinking about this and I'd like to support that. A suggestion to just be bored for a minute isn't what she's looking for, but purely thought based activities are an option.
posted by sively to Grab Bag (47 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who recently ditched the smartphone, I really do think it's psychologically beneficial to just do nothing for a minute. But one suggestion is this "relaxation ring" which I use when I need a little break at work. The description implies some woo benefits but I just use it as a fidget thing.
posted by noxperpetua at 2:49 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Origami might be good -- there's a learning curve, but once she memorizes a few simple models, it's fun to just take a few minutes to fold a crane or a frog or whatever. It's easiest to start with bigger sheets of paper but those wouldn't take up much room in a backpack/purse/bag/whatever and after she's better at it, there are smaller sheets that are much more portable. As far as learning, there's a lot online so it's cheap, but there are also some good beginning books out there (I like John Montroll's easy/beginner stuff for that).

I also think it's fun to do because it's almost like a magic trick for people watching.
posted by darksong at 2:51 PM on November 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I memorize poetry. I mean, mostly I look at my phone like everyone else, but also I usually have a poetry memorization project going at the same time so some of the time I work on that. The thing I'm memorizing is on a tiny scrap of paper in my pocket. I can't recommend this hobby highly enough because eventually you end up with a collection of poetry that resides in your head and then you can pass the time reciting poems to yourself too. It's a very private hobby--nobody knows what your doing so they won't ask you questions about it. That's good or bad depending on your temperament, I guess. It would drive me crazy to have people commenting on my yo-yo or whatever.
posted by HotToddy at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2019 [35 favorites]

Reciting poetry or prose is entertaining in itself - pick stuff you like, try different performances - and cements it into the memory. Plus every so often one is asked to lorem-ipsum in real life and launching into verse surprises people.
posted by clew at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Wouldn't work for all the situations listed but if she likes crafty things (that doesn't make her obsessed and have to work for hours on end) maybe small projects like tying friendship bracelets might be nice. Could be good for the "taking break from homework" bit. If she's never made them before, it can take time to learn but there's so much repetition that it can become a little more of the mindless, hand fidgety activity that can let her zone out a bit.
posted by acidnova at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2019 [10 favorites]

posted by clew at 3:09 PM on November 28, 2019

source of mindless instant entertainment.

This could be a bit much for a 14 year old but she could try being mindful. Really look at the cement and the trees and the dog poop and think about how it all got to be the way it is. Be truly aware of her surroundings.

Really being present is a habit that we lose around age 5 and many people spend years later in life trying to regain it. Obviously it depends on her though.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:09 PM on November 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

How about doing some simple stretches? Like extend arms over head, a nice side to side stretch, rotate her feet and stretch her calves, some shoulder rolls, a few deep breaths. A little resetting routine in between homework would be good.

Before smartphones I was a big reader and always had a book on me but I think I just did nothing while walking my dog or waiting on a teacher iirc, then I think I got an mp3 player so would also listen to music and shuffle songs around while walking around.
posted by lafemma at 3:12 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming she doesn't know how to knit or crochet or she would already have thought of this: she could learn the basics of knitting or crochet and get in the habit of carrying a small project with her (thrift stores often have small zippered makeup bags that are perfect project bags).

Crochet is very portable--the hooks tend to be short and you only need one. However, if she learns to knit flat using circular needles, they can be curled up into a small circle not much longer than a crochet hook. Or, she can use short straight needles. If she's worried about the stitches falling off while in the bag, she can use point protectors.

Good small beginner projects: Once she gets more proficient:
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:15 PM on November 28, 2019 [16 favorites]

Would she be interested in knitting or crocheting? I carry a small project with me and pull it out when I have some waiting time. On preview, what hurdy gurdy girl said!
posted by wiskunde at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

I still like a paperback book for the bus, it's a very different focus for me than reading on my phone. But if she's looking for something yo-yo like to do with her hands in idle time and with limited space, maybe she would be interested in contact juggling.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:24 PM on November 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Irish crochet motifs are small and you can make a bunch of different ones if easily bored by repetition and then make a larger pattern of them.
posted by clew at 3:24 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If not books, magazines - Teen Vogue has been doing really excellent reporting lately!
posted by jrobin276 at 3:42 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Are you old enough to remember a zillion versions of cats-cradle? Even if not, it’s ripe for modern mining. Just takes a bit of string, also can work with a rubber and or hair elastic, etc. fun for one player or two or more!
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:43 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

This was about the age that I got into meditation. Get her a copy of 'Taking the Path of Zen' and see if she enjoys meditation practices while she waits.
posted by ananci at 3:48 PM on November 28, 2019

I realize this might be a "one screen for a another" but what about an e-reader?

I've ditched using my phone on my long commute for reading and its enhanced my life immensely. Perks of an e-reader being that its very portable, backlit for dark reading, waterproof, can hold lots of books, E-Ink screens are nothing like LCD and are very easy on the eyes and, most importantly, the e-reader has no internet access. I'm forced to focus on the book.

....or you know, a paper book. Maybe a collection of short-stories to keep it bite sized for those slow moments?
posted by Snuffman at 3:51 PM on November 28, 2019 [10 favorites]

Pushups? Squats? Deep knee bends? Yoga poses?

(I think this is a great project, btw)
posted by Slothrop at 4:19 PM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Juggling for the Complete Klutz has taught many people the basics of juggling. Hackysack is similarly physical. Knot-tying us quite useful and portable. Knitting is meditative but also requires complex thought.

I have books on my phone, it's still the phone, but a different mental exercise than Instagram, tiktok, YouTube, chat.
posted by theora55 at 4:29 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Be Here Now. Use your five senses and enjoy the birds in the trees, the wildflowers in the grass, the smell of a local diner, the sound of music in a passing vehicle, the feel of the wind in your hair.... Move a little to the left and check in again -- see the difference?
Sometimes you need a focusing agent for this. Use a camera, take a cell phone picture, bring binoculars or a magnifying glass. The photos are not important. The mental shift to observation is. Then... put the camera away.

Start a Conversation. Don't be rude, but this might be a moment for personal connections. Smile. You may change someone's attitude with gratitude.
Really, connecting with others via electronics is fine, but so is connecting with the people around you.

Get Physical. Mindful breathing exercises, tensing and relaxing muscles, and some gentle stretches can be done in place without bothering the person in the next bus seat. If you have the room, do a little jog, practice some yoga, really stretch out those muscles. More room? Pack a jump rope and get in a little cardio.
Got headphones? Do a little dance. Humming along might bother others, but if no one is around start belting out those show tunes... you might start a flash dance!

Step Within. It's okay to relax and zone out. Don't try to force it. Let your thoughts wander... and follow them. No worries, just chill out.
Ahem... don't fall asleep at the buss stop, 'kay?

And what to avoid -- this is not the time for self-abusive mind spirals, what-if-isms, recriminations and other mental blocks. Don't jump in the rabbit hole. This is a positive moment, like a mental warm bubble bath. Be good to yourself.
In a chaotic society, where many waking moments are locked into that artificial construct called "time," take time out for deliberate acts of quiet reflection. You are allowed to have some unlimited time. Stop trying to fill it. Just breathe it in.
Be here now.
posted by TrishaU at 4:55 PM on November 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

When I was a lad and myself mobile phones were unheard of, I did three things in my interminable waits.

1 - taught myself to walk coins across my knuckles
2 - I carried a mini quote dictionary grouped by subject, and would read and memorise quotes.
3 - I always had a book with me, and would just read and read and read.
posted by smoke at 5:15 PM on November 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

My 14 year old is learning butterfly knife tricks with a practice knife that doesn't have a real blade. Apparently this is a huge thing on YouTube and you can find a zillion knife trick videos.

I'm happy to have accumulated a stock of memorized poems myself, so I think that's a good suggestion. When I was that age I entertained myself by making up stories - well, more like scenes than stories. I had a few settings and sets of characters I returned to over and over, making up new things that could happen when I thought of them, but also returning to scenes I liked and maybe imagining new details or some backstory. Nowadays, kids who do that kind of thing might be more likely to do it in the context of fanfiction set in their favorite fictional universe.
posted by Redstart at 5:22 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

if she draws and doodles, she can do short sketches. Carry small drawing book and pen or mechanical pencil ready, and use 1-2 min., or more for a quick drawing of whatever is around.
posted by Oli D. at 5:37 PM on November 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

I also carry a little sketchbook and pencils. I am learning to draw birds.
posted by Gray Duck at 5:59 PM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was her age I waited around for a lot of rides. I taught myself to whistle. I got pretty good at it, I could whistle anything I could sing along to. It’s a useless skill but it still amuses me now and then.

Of course, this is a not a silent habit....
posted by cgg at 6:02 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I picked up a yo-yo myself but I saw that got nixed.

Coin tricks might be good; the material required is less ubiquitous than it once was but still pretty common. Once the basics are mastered, there are any number of magic tricks and sleights of hand to be done with coins.
posted by Scattercat at 6:16 PM on November 28, 2019

I've had the best luck with this by getting myself to switch to reading e-books on my phone. Which is still On My Phone physically. But making myself put away the physical device made less of a difference to me than making myself do something slower and calmer and less connected. Having it on the phone physically means I don't need to form new habits around carrying a book, an e-reader, a crossword, a pack of origami paper, or whatever. And it means that my instinctual bored-now-gonna-reach-for-my-phone reaction isn't a disaster — I pull out my phone and read.

I do miss the social aspect of the people I live with seeing the book I'm reading and asking me about it. But that's the only downside so far.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:32 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm another person who has found it easier to change my phone usage from time-wasters to useful things. I've gotten back into reading a novel every week or two since I started getting e-books from the library on my phone. DuoLingo is also a really nice app that helps you learn a new language in whatever short time span you happen to have available. It lets you choose whether you can do speaking and/or listening exercises each time, so you can just practice reading and writing if you're somewhere that requires quiet.
When I was that age and cell phones didn't exist, I carried a paperback book with me everywhere.
posted by vytae at 6:38 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

At about that age, I had a puzzle ring (interlocking rings form a braided design), and I got good enough that I could solve it one-handed. My friend also had one and we'd race to solve them.

I also messed around with dull butterfly knives (not at school) and a couple times played chess with a travel set on bus trips. And books, always.
posted by momus_window at 7:12 PM on November 28, 2019

Juggling is good
Crossword puzzles or sudoku books
Reading a dictionary
Flashcards for learning another language
One or two of these or similar puzzles
Nthing Cat’s cradle
Bullet journal
posted by rw at 7:20 PM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I did two things when killing time as a kid. One, I carried a deck of cards and taught myself to cut a deck with one hand, to do some card tricks and some other slight of hand. Two, I tried to figure out the perfect c4ime. Well, not a real crime, but like how to steal a pencil off the principal's desk without getting caught types of crimes. I tried to stretch my imagination, to use logic, and to think an issue all the way through. I loved Encyclopedia Brown as a kid.
posted by AugustWest at 7:23 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do kanji flashcards on my phone, so she could get actual flashcards for something she'd like to memorize. (Some are plastic-coated and ring-bound so they're easy to flip through and won't get taken by the wind.)
posted by xo at 7:30 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If she can't replace being bored with not having something to look at then she's not really breaking the dependence that she wants to break. Watch one of the new Sherlock Holmes movies with her and then subtly mention that the only way to observe stuff like that is to go out of your way to notice things.

You could make a game out of noticing things. Ask her to make a list of things she noticed every day and give her a dollar for each one.
posted by bleep at 7:35 PM on November 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Look out the window, watch other people. Think, reflect: people used to pass time in reveries but recommending Rousseau seems a bit much.

Or, carry books and magazines like we used to.

A reasonable compromise might be permitting use of the phone for anything that would have been carried around on paper, or as a sketch pad, or camera.

I’d say put it in airplane mode but for the fact that this is your kiddo and there are safety concerns.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:49 PM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

What about one of these loopy beady things: I saw someone happily fiddling with one about twenty years ago, promptly bought myself one, and now everyone likes goofing around with it.
posted by glitter at 8:01 PM on November 28, 2019

-Sketching/ drawing
-hand juggling
-cars based magic tricks
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 12:06 AM on November 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it’s awesome that your kid has come up with this idea herself and applaud your support. If you don’t have other things with you, as I never did, you can have fun with little mental games. Things I do even today include: imagining back stories or TV tropes for various people sharing public transit with me. Looking carefully to see how many different colors I can spot or how many different examples of a single color I can observe. Making up rhymes (as opposed to/in addition to memorizing them). Memorizing all the bus/subway stops on a given line.

One of my favorite activities as a teen was designing my ideal room: pondering the perfect shade of paint, puzzling over its secret entrance (how could the bookshelves open silently?), choosing the type of bed, etc., all in my brain. With a pen and notebook, I also liked to practice simple alphabet-substitution codes for secret messaging purposes. Sometimes I would just rank things: foods, music, whatever (top 10, bottom 10).

Mentally creating something (whether a room, a building, a fantasy vacation, a story, a map, a game, a piece of clothing, a simple list, or how to spend a million dollars) can be an enjoyable, thought-based activity that is easy to do in little snippets of time.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:26 AM on November 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I am trying to get better at noticing things, myself as my phone activity replacement - right now, I am trying to look for specific things (spot 10 people wearing a blue hat etc.) as well as more metaphysical things (enjoy sunlight through leaves) but if she would like a physical item, I always have a sock in my bag for knitting or a EPP kit. English Paper Piercing is something you can prep a bunch of and then have a few plus needle/thread/small scissors etc. in an Altoids or similar tin (stick a magnet on the inside of the lid and you always know where your needle is!) and it's amazing how many motifs you can end up creating in small pockets of time.
posted by halcyonday at 2:43 AM on November 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

A surprisingly engrossing mental game is to pick a work of fiction you've read recently, and decide who you would cast in each role, for your own screen adaptation. It helps if you already watch a lot of TV.
posted by Grunyon at 4:09 AM on November 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think one trick to share with her is that the phone does so many things, looking for a single replacement might not work.

I was a musical kid so I sang (not too loud) while walking the dog, played piano, even a few bars, at home (I had a keyboard in my room for homework breaks), or guitar. I also crafted and built models. My son draws. I love the kanji idea, I might steal that. And I always had at least one book. Our family had a basket in each room so crafts were at hand, and my family now has the equivalent in Expedit/Kallax bins. So maybe start with her interests and see what adapts? Proximity is key.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:18 AM on November 29, 2019

She needs to have a book to read at all times.

I mean, books are the perfect thing for picking up, getting engrossed in, putting down and then picking up and being just as engrossed. She can have one that she wants to really concentrate on and another for just a light, easy read but I find once a book hooks me, that's the one I want with me. A book can take you anywhere.
posted by h00py at 7:22 AM on November 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wodehouse, the little penguin paperbacks. Completely different from reading mindfully and will actually improve her ability to sustain concentration on "serious reading." Highly portable. Absorbing yet easy to put down. Best of all, reading Wodehouse while waiting for the bus consistently delivers the peaceful, relaxing feeling that one is doing the exact right thing at the exact right time. This is what Wodehouse is for.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:33 AM on November 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

I try to really tune into nature (lots of science that this has emotional and psychological benefits!). Notice all the plants and trees around me, and the details of their life cycle - where they are in blooming/growing/seeds/season, identify them if I can. Notice birds and birdsong. Try to find bugs. Notice the wind. Look at the type of clouds. Notice where the sun is this time of day/year. Look for cool rocks or sticks.

I practice whistling.

I choose to call people in these empty moments instead of texting. This is probably taboo for teens.
posted by amaire at 10:57 AM on November 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Around that age, I remember making lots of friendship bracelets. Super portable - you just use a safety pin to clip it to your pants leg and get to work as you're sitting around.
posted by hydra77 at 12:13 PM on November 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

She could learn how to tie knots, either for macrame or just because knots are very cool and useful.
posted by thebots at 12:55 PM on November 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

hacky sack all the way!
posted by speakeasy at 1:03 PM on November 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

..oh! and coin manipulation is a pretty cool craft to master.
posted by speakeasy at 1:07 PM on November 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used to carry around a tiny little moleskin sketch book and a fineliner pen and draw zentangles, using the patterns I saw all around me - in nature, in architecture, on signage, etc etc. After a while you start seeing repeating visual patterns in practically everything, and it’s fun incorporating them into a free flowing zentangle drawing
posted by Zaire at 5:29 AM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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