Re-learning how to be bored

I’m sure I’m not alone in my memories of endless car journeys as a child. Just old enough to peep over and look out the window at the countryside sliding past. For me it was every summer as my parents, brother and I whizzed towards our tiny wood shack holiday home up an alarmingly steep mountain road in southern France. We had the story tapes, the colouring books, the number plate games, but there’s no denying it was boring. Really boring.

I realised recently that nowadays, I don’t really get bored that often. When I do, it’s not that empty, thoughtful space that it used to be – the gentle observation tower that boredom presented as a child. It’s frustration. I’m standing in a queue at the post office thinking ‘hmph, there’s no 3G service here’ or, my latest un-put-down-able fad, ‘why didn’t I bring my crochet’! We huff at people fumbling with their purses at checkouts and counter assistants that make us wait. We check the news in the traffic jam, send emails at lunch. So… when do we gaze out the window and watch the world go by? We have, in a way, forgotten the fine art of being bored.

I’m going to put it out there. Boredom is important. Just like it’s important to focus mindfully on a task – it’s important to our complex and busy brains to take guilt-free nothingness moments.

The problem is our formidable focus on productivity. There are hundreds of productivity apps that you can download, subscribe to, learn all about. There’s methods of sticky-noting, notebook-ing, inbox- and outbox-ing. It’s aspirational. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to manage your time economically and get as much out as you can each day? Or would it? We have our incredible tiny computer-phones, our lightweight portable laptops, our tablets. And on them, a world of possibility and inspiration. If only you could squeeze an extra hour out of the day.

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But what about boredom? In a world where you can be ‘always on’, there’s always a job you can be doing or a distraction to be had. There is no space for guilt-free boredom. But here it is: I’m putting forward the case that you should absolutely, positively make time to be bored – build pockets of stillness, if you will. It’s all in the balance.

Paradoxically, boredom only has a useful role in a healthily productive lifestyle. Boredom upon boredom helps no-one, and can be seriously dangerous for your mental health. However, pockets of boredom (isn’t that a lovely expression?) have been proven to help focus the mind and improve creativity.

The wonderfully named Dr Sandi Mann recently published a study on the effects of boredom undertaken at University of Central Lancashire. She found that after giving students repetitive, dull tasks including copying out numbers from a phone book, their ability to do something ‘creative’ with two polystyrene cups outdid those of a control group who didn’t do a boring task before. She notes:

“I am […] acutely aware that being bored is not the bad thing everyone makes it out to be. It is good to be bored sometimes! I think up so many ideas when I am commuting to and from work – this would be dead time, but thanks to the boredom it induces, come up with all sorts of projects.”

A psychologist from University of Southampton, Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, agrees:

“In our research we have found that boredom fulfils an important function: boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand. Essentially, the unpleasant sensation of boredom “reminds” people that there are more important matters attend to than those at hand.’”

Source: The Psychologist, the magazine of the British Psychological Society.

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But how do you know if it’s important or not? It’s being able to recognise the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ types of boredom. In a way, we have to re-learn how to be bored.

Simply put:-

Good: Standing in an unusually long queue, there’s a yawning nothingness, just standing. You’ll be looking at your phone’s email app, wondering if there’s something you should be doing, fidgety. This is the perfect time to be mindfully bored. It’s more of an emptying of the mind than the sighing and are-we-nearly-there-yet-ing of your childhood days. It’ll take practice, don’t be mad at your mind if it’s hard.

Bad: Sitting at your desk and working on your novel, for example, you may feel that pang of boredom: it’s not really boredom, it’s what Steven Pressfield would describe as resistance – a task-related reluctance. That’s that guilty feeling – you’re not really bored, but you do think you just need a quick cup of coffee or to tidy your desk. At these times, you’ll need to greet your resistance warmly and invite it along for your work. I find setting a timer, Pomodoro Technique style, can really help you convince yourself you can carry on. But more on that another day.

For now, you have official dispensation: enjoy your boredom.

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