Why Boredom Is the Key to a Creative Life

We didn’t know how much we need boredom.

Why are you reading this post? Are you just surfing the web aimlessly? Are you trying to escape boredom by trying to read about it? Okay, dear reader, I know those are strong assumptions I just made. But ask yourself this:

What are you supposed to be doing right now and why aren’t you doing it?

There’s probably something on your to-do list that you’ve planned. But right now, there are better things to do — like reading this article. (Thanks!)

Perhaps that’s because nothing on your to-do list seems compelling enough to work on. In other words, it’s boring.

Boredom is a funny, yet an insightful thing. Arthur Schopenhauer said,

“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.”

Yet, don’t worry, it gets the best of us.

The other day, I wasted all of my time in useless meetings and surfing the web. At the end of the day, when I introspected over why I didn’t get anything done, I thought, “Well, because there were a lot of meetings. Not my fault.”

But once I cut through the BS I was feeding myself, I realized that I had enough time between meetings to at least complete 80% of my planned tasks. Then why didn’t I do it? I couldn’t stand boredom.

You see after every meeting ended, I realized that I was wasting time. But just before that realization could take a hold of me, I switched on the TV or watched an episode of Friends.

What would have happened if I’d let the thought sink into the depths of my soul? I wouldn’t have attended any more meetings.

And that’s how the inability to withstand boredom can take our life away from us.

Boredom holds an important place in our lives — it gives us an opportunity to connect with ourselves in the hustle-bustle of the modern world. But as soon as the itchy, restless feeling arises, we switch to an escape.

But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s learn about boredom in detail, shall we?

Boredom Hasn’t Been Around for Long

We think boredom is the lack of stimulation in our lives — it’s when we don’t get the dopamine hit that we desire, or worse, need.

But even though we think we’re bored, we’re far from reality.

In fact, most of us are phone bored, not “bored bored”.

We define boredom as scrolling through Netflix but not finding anything interesting to watch. Or mindlessly clicking links and feeling “bored out of our minds.”

Distractions are pervasive and entrenched in our lives. They’ve killed all our opportunities for daydreaming and being with our thoughts.

If that wasn’t the case, then I wouldn’t be writing this post to convince you to make space for boredom in your life.

Added to distractions are the luxuries of modern lives and the attempt of companies like Amazon to deliver everything under the sun like Aladdin’s Genie.

Life has become way too easy and distracting. We listen to podcasts during our commute, order takeout, get our groceries delivered, and in general like to outsource as many mundane tasks as possible.

And while all this gives us an illusion of being productive, we’re losing something very valuable in the process.

The way we experience boredom has shifted drastically over the last few centuries.

Earlier in the 18th century, acedia was a concept remotely related to what we call boredom.

It was defined as “a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world.” Ancient Greeks literally defined it as a “state without pain or care.” Christianity saw acedia as a spiritual sin. In the medieval Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, acedia has generally been folded into the sin of sloth.

This concept of acedia has evolved to be linked to emotional states today like depression and boredom. But that’s a weak link.

Here’s why. The boredom we experience is not regarded as a spiritual sin. You hardly see people judging others for being bored. It’s an inconsequential, fleeting feeling that arises when your environment lacks stimulus.

Patricia Meyer Spacks says in *Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, *that boredom became much more evident with the advent of the Industrial Revolution when a clear line was drawn between “work” hours and “leisure” time.

Before this, leisure and work were more intertwined and therefore, “boredom” didn’t really exist.

Why Is It So Difficult to Embrace Boredom?

Well, as soon as boredom came into the picture with the rise of the Industrial revolution, there emerged a number of distractions. TV, Radio, movies, circuses, cigarettes, and now the Internet, smartphones, etc. The list goes on forever.

This is the biggest reason why boredom is becoming extinct from our daily lives.

As a result of living in a constant state of distraction and task-switching (a.k.a multitasking), our brains have developed a strong connection between boredom and distractions.

This connection is different for everybody and the more you feed it, the stronger it becomes.

Many of us can attest to the feeling of checking Instagram while standing in a queue without even knowing. The act of pulling out the phone from the pocket and opening the app is almost automatic — you don’t consciously choose it, yet it happens out of habit.

The only way to break this loop is to block these life-sucking apps and services out of your lives. Or at least keep them out of sight. The best way to do this is to recognize your impulsive behaviors and find ways to make it impossible for you to engage in it.

Another popular, yet equally dangerous reason for our inability to embrace boredom is the rise of the hustle culture, the roots of which can be vaguely traced back, you guessed it, to the Industrial revolution.

That was the first time when the concept of 9–5 was officially introduced and when people started equating their self-worth with the kind of job title they held.

That belief has percolated through posterity. Today, we derive our self-worth from how productive we are or how long we can work. Caffeine jitters, dark circles, and quotes like “Sleep is Defeat” or “Thank God It’s Monday”, rule the mind of a lot of millennials.

The staunch proponents of the hustle culture make us feel guilty of wasting even a second, not realizing that doing nothing can be much better than doing something of little value.

This obsession with one’s work often is counterintuitive since most millennials are searching for happy and fulfilling careers. And they’re not going to find it working all the time.

Last but not least, boredom is difficult! We all can get stuck in negative thoughts which leaves us no choice rather than giving in to the proximate distraction to take our mind off the subject.

But there’s good news. Boredom may be difficult to endure, but if you do, the rewards are immense.

Boredom Is Creative Fuel

By conducting experiments on creativity tasks, researchers clearly saw the positive effects of boredom.

When given a mundane task and then asked to be creative after, they found that people were stimulated to come up with creative ideas. Even more, in a second study, researchers found that people had reduced negative reactions like anger and frustration after performing a mundane task.

For instance, people who were told to sort beans were more creative when told to come up with excuses to justify being late at a meeting. (Perhaps it helps to keep a bag of beans to sort the next time you’re running late for a meeting)

Or those who read the phone book for thirty minutes were much better at coming up with new uses for plastic cups.

We all can verify this empirically. Think about when you had an amazing idea. What were you doing? Washing the dishes? In the shower? Walking the dog?

Boredom and Your Brain

The reason boredom works is it usually induces a state of mind-wandering. And mind-wandering, unlike boredom, is easier to study with brain-imaging technology.

According to a study, we have 2000 “task-unrelated” thoughts every day — that is what scientists measure to determine the level of mind-wandering in a person. The authors of the study rightly say,

“The sheer magnitude of this generative capacity [of the brain], and the parallels to creative thinking, remain largely unappreciated.”

One can argue that a lot of mind-wandering is useless daydreaming. Yet, what most people don’t know is that a lot of it is also related to problem-solving.

The same study also found that task-unrelated thoughts are usually related to the next 24-hour period. Ergo, the most important thing about mind-wandering is the sheer ability of the mind to solve problems at the back while you’re doing something boring — washing the dishes, standing in a queue, walking the dog, etc.

This kind of thinking is quite inexpensive for the brain (you’re not actively struggling through a problem, it happens without conscious effort) and highly beneficial to us.

Here’s what it means in real life. I could’ve thought of most of this post subconsciously while walking an hour ago or when I was doing my laundry.

Or I could’ve already formed arguments for a business meeting during the commute.

The power of boredom-induced mind-wandering becomes fascinating when you consider the ease of bringing it back into your life — only a few boring tasks and some more downtime. If you allow your mind to be still, it can do wonders for you.

On the flip side, if you distract yourself at the slightest hint of boredom, you’re depriving yourself of a low-cost, efficient problem-solving mechanism that has the ability to generate 2000 thoughts out of nowhere.

All this makes an urgent case for boredom to make a comeback in the 21st century. Not as a negative feeling that we try to escape as soon as it arises, but as a positive tool we all can use to increase creativity and master hard things.

Learning From the Masters

Joe Fassler spoke to more than 150 novelists and writers for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” column.

As it turns out, these creatives could not live without boredom. They actively made space for letting their minds wander every day, to do their work. The stillness that comes from doing nothing is where most of their ideas come from.

It’s helpful to then introspect what we do when faced with such moments of boredom, albeit accidentally.

Mohsin Hamid walks miles every day. When Fassler adopted Hamid’s routine, he found himself texting ideas, sentences, and eventually even whole paragraphs for his novel.

David Mitchell leaves his Apple homepage up when he opens his Browser — “Keep the Apple homepage because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.”

Perhaps the most intriguing one was Fassler’s interview with Jonathan Franzen who limits his Internet use every day. Here’s why:

“I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.”

These guys are endurance athletes when it comes to practicing boredom.

Perhaps you don’t need to take drastic measures like walking miles every day. But consider what a pinch of boredom can do in your life.

If it gives you better ideas, a private self, and unique insights, shouldn’t you give it a chance?

Practical Ways to Embrace Boredom

I’ve been talking about boredom for a long time. Yet, the more I read into it, the more I feel there’s to write.

The biggest challenge for me was to do an honest introspection of my life to identify things I can remove and create space for boredom.

Here’s what I did:

  • I deleted social media, disabled notifications, and blocked hundreds of websites. Basically, I did everything I wrote here.

  • I started performing mundane tasks and errands. It helps take the load off my mom and gives me another chance to bathe in boredom.

  • Started walking every evening for thirty minutes.

  • Found my most difficult distractions and got away from them

  • Took my earphones out when walking or commuting

  • Not listening to podcasts and audiobooks to fill every idle moment

  • Kept my phone in my bag when outside and keep it far from me before going to sleep

  • Started staring a lot: out of the window, at the roof, on the screensaver of my laptop, anywhere.

  • Shut down my laptop and iPad every night, and put it inside a high cupboard around 7 pm every day. This forces me to read or meditate before going to bed. It also prevents me from getting distracted before I’m done with my morning routine (meditation and exercise).

  • Quit listening to music altogether while doing something else — no matter how boring the task is

  • Use apps like Cold Turkey to avoid multi-tasking and block distracting websites and apps.

Final Thought

Without a thought, embracing boredom has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done.

Once you start seeing boredom as something to welcome than escape, you’ll find infinite opportunities throughout your day.

Trust me, the scarcity of boredom in our lives is an illusion. It’s time for boredom to make a comeback.

But it can’t do it without you. So are you onboard?

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Written on November 6, 2020