Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

“We shouldn’t run from boredom as if it is a tedious friend but sit down and listen to it”

Two recent articles talk about the complexity of boredom. In The Telegraph (as well as the New Zealand Herald), Kate Bussman notes the relationship between boredom and creativity.

Boredom is something we avoid and even fear. We associate it with idleness, so, as we consider idleness a vice, it gets imbued with the same negative associations…. “Being over-scheduled and overworked is the new status symbol: it shows we’re in demand, that we’ve earned our good fortune,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of the recent book The Distraction Addiction. “We’re like landed gentry in reverse: we can’t be seen to be at leisure.”

Today we rarely even realise we are experiencing boredom, so quickly do we move to mediate it. We fill a spare moment with distractions as soon as it materialises – and some believe that, as a result, we’re missing out on something important: creatively, psychologically and even biologically.

Boredom, say many creative thinkers, from Grayson Perry to Michael Chabon, is the very thing that made them into creative thinkers in the first place. If we don’t allow ourselves to be bored, some experts worry that our imaginations suffer or never develop at all…. There is evidence to suggest that simple activities can foster more creativity than letting your mind drift totally or even concentrating hard.

Wait, what? Where did I say that? Oh right, Bussman interviewed me by email a few weeks ago. I had forgotten. I’m glad I sounded articulate.

A few days later, in The Scotsman, Lori Anderson notes that while “we will do anything to avoid being bored:”

The second we board a train we whip out our iPads and phones, at home the TV accompanies many a families’ meal, while drama box sets kill those languid hours before bed. For the more cultured, they find their panacea in books and classical music.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, said recently: “being over-scheduled and over worked is the new status symbol”. I couldn’t agree more. Yet there is a growing belief that, by filling our lives with constant distractions, we are missing out on a range of creative and psychological benefits that come with boredom.

Artists and novelists have long believed that their best ideas or works can spring from boredom’s still, static pond. Brain scans again reveal that, even “at rest”, the brain remains incredibly active and that people will frequently unknot problems, either consciously or unconsciously, when given a period of unoccupied free time.

This idea that boredom is important for creativity is one that’s both obviously true, and yet incomplete. Some kinds of boredom can ultimately motivate you to make your own fun (if you’re a kid), while walks can give your mind a chance to free associate or ruminate on problems without your conscious involvement; but there are also forms of boredom that are a pose, an expression of anomie or hostility. Still, I think there’s more to be gained from facing and using boredom than we often realize: the reflex to remain engaged all too often springs from a desire to stay mindless.

1 Comment

  1. Reminded me of this quote from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:
    “When people say they are bored, often they mean that they don’t want to experience the sense of emptiness, which is also an expression of openness and vulnerability. So they pick up the newspaper or read anything else that’s lying around the room—even reading what it says on a cereal box to keep themselves entertained. The search for entertainment to babysit your boredom soon becomes legitimized as laziness. Such laziness actually involves a lot of exertion. You have to constantly crank things up to occupy yourself with, overcoming your boredom by indulging in laziness.”
    (Really enjoyed the book, btw!)

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