Skip Suva is a fidgeter. When he worked at paper-intensive administrative jobs, he’d doodle incessantly; when he started a coding career last year, he took up fiddling with an SD-card reader that made pleasant snick noises. “Popping the SD card out and clicking it back in,” he laughs.
His fidgeting can seem like a crazy tic, Suva admits. But it helps him focus. “When my brain is moving a lot faster than my fingers can,” he says, “it feels like I need something to ground myself.”
Recently, Suva bought a tool just for fidgeting: the Fidget Cube, by Antsy Labs. It has six twiddly mechanisms on its faces, and each moves in a fascinating way: a rocker switch, a dial, a set of buttons that go kerchunk. “I love it,” Suva says.
When the Fidget Cube’s creators Kickstarted their gewgaw last summer, they aimed for $15,000—but wound up with over $6.4 million in support and more than 154,000 backers. Now other gizmo makers are doing a brisk business in “fidget spinners,” ball-bearing-loaded devices that spin around satisfyingly when flicked. Teens love them, as do office drones.
Why is fidgeting so hot? Because it’s an adaptation to deskbound lifestyles. Society increasingly demands mental work while enforcing unhealthy, sedentary physical habits. Fidgeting is a way to cope.
It also has cognitive benefits. Julie Schweitzer, a scientist at UC Davis, studied kids with ADHD while they performed mental tests. The more intensely the kids fidgeted, the higher they scored. (The effect didn’t hold for kids without ADHD.) Schweitzer hypothesizes that physical movement arouses us, generating neurotransmitters that improve focus. “They look—their faces—like they’re working harder when they’re moving,” she says. This violates our stereotypes, of course; we assume that deep concentration ought to look like Rodin’s Thinker, a human body absolutely still. But sometimes thought requires motion.
Today’s students and cubicle-dwellers get very little motion in their daily workflow. We barely even need to get up to visit the printer anymore. Hell, modern digital interfaces don’t even have buttons—they’re just sheets of flat glass. The physical environment is losing its physicality.
In this context, maybe the boomlet in fidget items reveals a collective hunger for the pleasures of mechanical motion and tactility. Knitters and crocheters have always appreciated how their activity stills the mind; coders love clicky keyboards. Fidget Cube fans have discovered what these subcultures have always known.
Of course, not everyone fidgets the same way. Katherine Isbister, a gaming researcher, and Michael Karlesky, a product manager for a startup, recently presented a study that uncovered a wild array of strategies. “Repetitive twiddling of something smooth might be calming,” Isbister says, “whereas fiddling with something sharp and clicky might be a way to get your attention going.” Those are just hypothetical, of course. But if Isbister is right, they’re signs of an evolving culture. It feels like people are developing a language of fidgeting.
Now, obviously fidgeting isn’t always good. It can be antisocial: I twirl my hair maniacally when I’m trying to concentrate, which in libraries or offices can drive my deskmates insane. Everyone has had the experience of sitting at a table with someone bouncing a leg. Your own fidget is calming; everyone else’s is massively annoying.
But within reasonable limits, I’m in favor of all our jitters. Frankly, maybe we should start thinking of fidgeting as an untapped energy source. Are you the kind of person who incessantly futzes with your phone or twirls your pen around your fingers? Maybe that kind of motion should regeneratively charge a battery, like Prius brakes do. We could power the world around us—even as we still and sharpen our minds.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.