The benefits of boredom…

Reading time: Less than 4 minutes

I know this may sound crazy, but, for writers, the benefits of boredom outweigh its downsides….

I’m going to ask you to do something difficult.

I’d like you to stop seeing boredom as automatically undesirable, bad or negative. Instead, I ask you to see it as neutral — and then observe yourself to see if this adjustment improves your creativity. (Spoiler: experts tell us it should!)

Did you know that the word ‘boredom’ didn’t even enter the English language until the mid-1800s? Some etymologists attribute it Charles Dickens’ 1852 novel Bleak House in which he described Lady Deadlock as being “bored to death” by her marriage.

But just because you’re bored, don’t assume you are unlucky! Instead, recognize that boredom also gives you opportunities. But to find these opportunities you need to take on another difficult task.

You need to put down your smartphone! Swiping and scrolling (whether on the internet, or through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) may seem to amuse you. You’re led to believe this fallacy because every time you stumble across a piece of interesting content you get a little hit of dopamine that addicts you to the process. 

According to leading boredom researcher Sandi Mann — author of The Science of Boredom —  smartphones and the Internet are like junk food. “The more entertained we are, the more entertainment we need to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.”

When I read conclusions like that from Mann, I know I am guilty. I’ve had a low tolerance for boredom for most of my life, and I’m the type of person who always has a Kindle in my purse and a cellphone in my pocket. If I’m stuck in a lineup somewhere, I’ll pull out the book or my phone (there, the New York Times is my poison of choice) and amuse/entertain/inform myself by reading. This habit started when I was six years old, by the way. At the breakfast table, I’d read the back of the cereal box, if necessary in French — a language I could barely understand, although my country is bilingual. 

Did you know that the average American spends about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day consuming media? That’s roughly 65% of waking hours, according to a 2016 Nielson report.

I value being really well informed, but I also value having interesting thoughts wandering through my brain. That’s why I’ve been working to steel myself to modest amounts of boredom. When I feel a lack of energy and want to do nothing, I try to go outside for a walk, instead. And when I walk, I try not to always have headphones jammed into my ears so I can catch up with my favourite podcast. And when I’m lounging on my living-room couch after dinner, I try to put my phone down and read a good book, instead. 

But mostly when I feel a little bit bored, I try not to panic. Because, often, boredom is helpful. This is because our brains have a resting state that scientists call “default mode.” And the default mode expands during bouts of boredom, helping us to create, develop, imagine, design and invent. 

If you are wrestling with too many “slow moments” in your life, take the time to embrace them. Keep your phone in your pocket (or better yet, in another room entirely) and allow your mind to wander.

Some people are more easily bored than others, thanks to genetics. If you think that might apply to you, take the Boredom Proneness Scale to find out. (When I took the test the scale rated me relatively low, despite my self-perception of being easily bored.)

And be aware that smart people may have a particularly difficult time embracing boredom but if that conundrum faces you, consider some excellent advice from Cambridge University grad and Monty Python actor John Cleese: “Creative ability is almost completely unrelated to IQ; if you don’t know how to play you will not be creative.”

Also, remember the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon: Whenever you try especially hard to recall a forgotten name or think of a specific word, your brain is especially unlikely to cooperate. Instead, the name/word will spring to your mind unbidden, several hours later, when you’re not thinking about it (and, ironically, when it is almost useless to you.) 

This is simply the way our brains operate. When we daydream, when we doodle while a lecture is going on, when we sit on a park bench and notice the kids playing and the birds singing, our minds start solving problems and making unexpected connections. 

This is the default network doing its job. This is creativity. Our minds do their best work in the un-stimulated, un-entertained state we often call boredom.

This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on Oct. 14/14.

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If you want some help boosting your creativity and developing a writing routine, consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’ll be holding a no-charge intro webinar about it on March 20/20 and all you need to do is email me to hold a spot. If you already know you want to apply, go here, scroll to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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What’s your feeling about boredom? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Andy Baldwin, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Feb. 25/20 comment on my blog. (Please email me with your mailing address, Andy!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please scroll down to the section directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!