Put Down Your Phone: 4 Brain-Building Activities You Can Do at the Bar

UPDATED: May 23, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 12, 2019

The bar is crowded, you’ve ordered your favorite drink, and your friends have not arrived yet, so you grab your phone and scroll mindlessly through Instagram or send a few work emails while you wait. This is far from a unique situation. In fact, Americans check their phones about 80 times a day. However, resorting to retweeting, liking and texting instead of looking up from the glow of the screen can keep you from potentially profound moments where you could grow personally and professionally.

While I’m not a millennial, I recently realized that my own time on my phone was not that different from the norm. Whenever I was early to a lunch or dinner meeting, rather than look idle, I often chose to check my phone. There was almost a relief in having to delete useless emails to pass the time.

Then, out of the blue, I became cognizant of how insane this was. Why did I need to prove that I had something to do while waiting? And why did I put myself through this addictive routine so I could monitor the random updates from people on social media, even people I hardly knew or cared about?

At a closer look, this behavioral tendency known as hypernatural monitoring is far from natural. It’s all about alleviating a slightly-too-angsty and anxiety-provoking anticipation of some kind with social reward, impulsivity or exaggerated loneliness while waiting for a friend. All of this intermittent relief gave my brain a dopamine surge, which is fine in general, but not if it starts to resemble an addiction.

The highs and lows of constant mobile use do not soothe the brain. They inflict torture and might even alter its white matter integrity, resulting in the feeling of being strapped to an emotional rollercoaster. Overall, it appears that excessive cellphone use is a key to brain jail, affecting productivity and altering motivations, and we’re well overdue to find ways to correct such self-sabotage.

Related: 12 Steps to Breaking Smartphone Addiction

4 Brain-Building Strategies to Pass Time at the Bar

So what might I do, I wondered, if I were not checking my phone at the bar? As a result, I tried the following four techniques. They were not always comfortable, but after a little enforced practice, they have improved my life considerably.

1. People-watch to build your brain’s social network.

Mobile device watching has replaced people-watching as an idle pastime. So why not bring people-watching back? Next time you’re waiting, simply put your phone down to dramatically change what your brain is doing. Consequently, you’ll switch from being a tech addict to a people person.

To understand people better, our brains use their own social networks. When we people-watch, we activate these networks and teach our brains how to understand what others feel, and we can see the world through their eyes as well. So put away your phone and take the time to train the internal social network in your brain. It’ll help you develop people skills that could improve how you communicate with family, friends and even co-workers.

2. Doodle on a napkin to strengthen problem-solving skills.

Ask the bartender for a pen and napkin and start doodling. Alternatively, you can use the draw function on your mobile device. Doodling can lead to a 29 percent improvement of memory. By unfocusing in this way, your brain becomes more absorbent, similar to a sponge. The act of doodling triggers the brain network that puts puzzle pieces together. In turn, your brain establishes better problem-solving skills instead of impulsively scrolling through your high school ex’s Facebook profile.

3. Play pretend to enhance empathy.

Try out psychological halloweenism while you are waiting. To do this, adopt the persona of someone you admire, and then behave in the image of that person. It’s better (and more fun) if the person you are pretending to be is a creative.

recent study found that when you behave like an eccentric poet, you will be far more creative than when you imitate and embody a rigid librarian. And because this involves mentally walking in someone else’s shoes, it’ll train the part of your brain that allows you to know what others are feeling, further strengthening your empathy skills. In the future, this exercise could eventually make you smarter at participating, leading and receiving feedback in work settings.

4. Focus on what makes you happy to encourage resilience.

If it’s a dopamine surge that you’re after, nostalgia will likely do the trick. Being sentimental plays a role in psychological resilience, and when you remember good things, your brain feels rewarded, too. As you look around or wistfully stare at the bar, take the rare opportunity to think about something (or someone) in the past that warmed your heart. It’ll be fuel for a stronger brain and increased positivity and motivation in personal and professional domains.

Be warned: Excessive cellphone use can turn you into an anxious addict. But if you try one of the four replacement techniques while waiting at the bar, the restaurant, the movie theater or wherever you find yourself, your social skills and creativity will likely rise. Additionally, you might even feel calmer and psychologically stronger, which will trickle down to positively influence other aspects of your daily life.

Related: 10 Ways Successful People Stay Calm

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, and Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He also serves as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School. Recently, Srini created a series of videos on “Managing Depression in the Workplace” for LinkedIn Learning.