How Did We Fill Our In-Between Time Before Smartphones?

Originally published at: How Did We Fill Our In-Between Time Before Smartphones? - TidBITS

Many of us may while away in-between time looking at our smartphones, but that’s not to say we spent that time productively before smartphones existed.

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Before smartphones, people didn’t invest their in-between time into forging social bonds or doing self-improvement. They mostly suffered through constant, endless boredom.

I’d tell Ian speak for yourself. When I get a moment, I have plenty to think about. I’ve never been bored with just my thoughts. I’d hope that’s the case for many more people. It must be an awful world if being stuck with a moment to just ponder bores you, or if the only stuff you can think about in such a moment bores you. Being bored with oneself sounds like quite a plight.


I’m perfectly capable of thinking my own thoughts as well, but there’s a difference between being out on a long bike ride, say, and being stuck in a holding pattern at the dentist for what might be 30 seconds or 3 minutes or some unspecified amount of time where I can be interrupted at any moment. That’s what I see as the “in-between” times, and where I find doing something useful on my iPhone preferable to wandering around the waiting room looking at things.


Remember when just one smartphone was enough? (Taken on the train here in Tokyo on Saturday.)

I remember sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and just sitting and clearing my head. Humans seem to always be searching for something to do, but doing Nothing, and doing it consciously, can be beneficial. I have recommended to my anxious patients to just sit for 5 minutes a day, breathe, and try to think of nothing.

Probably the same as meditation or praying, so I didn’t invent it. But doing nothing can be good.

I just have to make time for it.


It’s not just about long thinking. 30 sec is perfectly adequate to sort your thoughts. There’s no need to be constantly bombarded by input - being at rest with just a few thoughts is perfectly fine. I think @raykloss got to exactly that above. This restlessness that so many people feel and this urge to constantly “check” their smartphone for some new input is perhaps merely a sign that folks have forgotten what it feels like to just be in the moment with your own thoughts. If that doesn’t come natural, it might be worth practicing.


I read a lot more. I’d always have an easy-to-carry paperback with me. I spent a month toting a huge networking protocols book around with me back in the late 90s (then returned it because it was so hard to get through I couldn’t imagine using it for reference)

I still read but not as much as I used to and I miss it. I try not to touch my computer on the weekends - at least not the email.

I’ve also removed most of my email accounts from my phone. Of course I can still surf the web in a waiting room but I honestly find doing that painful on the phone.



Depends how you define “productively,” I suppose.

In my case, I did my best to have a good book with me anytime I wasn’t with interesting people. Got a lot of reading done in those days during trips for work.


I read a lot. I always carried a rucksack with several books. It was very rare back in the day having a rucksack to work. People used briefcases. I remember people asking me if I was going hiking. But I did not care. I had to have the book I currently read and the next with me since I am a quick reader. “Reading” even more now, doing boring things as I listen to audiobooks.


I’m another reader. Before the mobile devices (and I’ll have to go back to my Palm Pilot here), I would always carry a book with me - usually a mass-market paperback, but sometimes bigger books. I’d read it during all my free time - while eating dinner, waiting in doctors’ offices, in the restroom, etc.

I think I’m reading just as much today, but it’s now mostly on-line blogs and news sites, whereas it used to be magazines, comic books and novels.

I don’t think that much has actually changed, just the media we use to do it.

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I think this is correct. I try not to use my phone at every spare moment - I did without one for 50 years so it’s not that foreign to me. When I do use it I tend to look at Apple News where I can catch up on news, sport and my preferred magazines (although I’m not a huge fan of the way Apple News presents magazines). Occasionally I’ll use it to Google something that pops into my mind when I’m pondering my fleeting existence.

I don’t play games, watch videos or mindlessly scroll on my phone.

For me it’s just reading without the book.


As an artist, I used to carry a sketchbook around with me along with some simple tools like a pencil, eraser, pen, and maybe a small watercolor set. Now my trusty iPad goes everywhere with me, and it gives me a nearly limitless selection of art tools using Procreate. So, not much has changed… it’s just gotten way better!


I have to say I disagree with Ian Bogost’s assertion that “how little there was to do before we all had smartphones”, “despair that accompanied this dead time”, and “before smartphones, people didn’t invest their in-between time into forging social bonds or doing self-improvement”. I may have felt that way because I was (and am) an introvert and lived a fair bit in my head :sweat_smile: Maybe he said all that to shock and elicit responses from us?

I was another reader - I used to carry books and even atlases (heavy!) and did a fair bit of armchair traveling. Sometimes the bus conductors - remember them? - had to chase me off the bus (with a smile) because I had to finish the chapter, and I was known as the boy who read. I struck up conversations with strangers - people who were a lot older than I was. Sometimes I relaxed, let my mind loose, or gathered my mind. In many ways those were better than staring at the phone. And in any case, I was never bored.

I think our attention is a valuable resource and we should have effective control over it. Boredom seems to be a symptom of lack of interest, and that could be a result of how we decided - or not decided - to live our lives. We can fill up our time and not be bored by looking at the phone - but that is just passively letting others control our attention. What happens when the phone is out of power, and what happens when we have to confront ourselves?

Since we mentioned reading so often in this thread, I could not help but recommend two books:

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (Overdrive link here):

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (Overdrive link here):


Decades ago, I’d carry a little booklet with me, one with no lines, and draw in it. Sometimes, I’d write a bit of poetry. Now I have an archive from when I was younger filled with impressions and abstract designs. That’s the sort of thing that filled some of my off-time before iPhones.


I think time certainly stretched out in front of us a good deal more.

That, I find, is a good thing. For creative purposes, as Judith and others note, or for stillness and meditative needs as yet others say.

The stimulation and constant input takes a toll. Time whizzes by for one. I’ve taken tech Shabats over Christmas and Summer breaks and I’ve noted how much longer these vacations have seemed. This have been key in my disengagement from social media, Facebook, Twitter have been cut and Instagram is down to about a once a week, posting about once a month.

I do use my iPhone as my main audio, especially spoken word, source. That I see as an extension of my first media love, world radio stations.


Out of curiosity I just checked the daily screen time history for my phone.

Drum roll please…

I average 7 minutes a day.

Most used items: Health (I track swimming and running), Stocks (I’m retired so my income relies on the share market), Weather (just because) and Messenger (I’m in a private group of friends).

My son (19) and daughter (25) would be over 10 hours I’d guess. Constantly on YouTube, TikTok and whatever else kids look at.


Adam wrote:

“And no, I didn’t generally strike up conversations with strangers, practice mindfulness, or draft articles in my head. How about you?”

I did and I still do all three: I talk to people next to me in a restaurant, I meditate while waiting, and I draft mails, letters, articles and programs in my head. This seems to be quite normal to me.


Impressive—sounds like this is a much more intentional group than the friends I’ve asked about this in person. Personally, much as I probably read about 100 books per year, I’ve never cared for reading on the go. I don’t like carrying things in my hands or in a bag, reading while standing up (as in a grocery store line), or dipping into a book for just a few minutes at a time.

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There’s also a question of safety. When your nose is buried in a screen, you likely have substantially reduced your situational awareness and increased your chances of an accident or being the victim of a crime. I like to think of myself as reasonably “street smart,” but the one time in recent memory I placed myself in a vulnerable situation, I was sitting in a park car, taking longer than I realized to look up some information on my iPhone, and I was completely unaware of a dangerous change in the situation immediately outside my vehicle until someone tried to open the vehicle door.


When I’m out and about, I read books; I chat with friends; I engage with the world.

I do all that with my smartphone, but I’m not sure why that’s a problem.