Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful 1
Photo by meredith hunter on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.

Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

G.K. Chesterton

I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.

For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:

“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”

Martin Heidegger

Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.

“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”

Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.

“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Wijnand van Tilburg

The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”

John Eastwood, boredom researcher

Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.

The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.

Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.

“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”

Sandi Mann

On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”

 Joseph Brodsky

References

  1. Peter Enticott, ‘What does boredom to do your brain‘, Deakin University

The demon of task-switching

sydney-sims-519706-unsplashPhoto by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Ask someone how their work day is going, and they’ll probably tell you that they’re busy. It’s the default small-talk answer; a less boastful way of saying that they’re a productive, valuable employee, despite the fact that they constantly have Messenger discreetly open on their screen. The busyness claim isn’t necessarily a lie, many of us genuinely feel this frantic sense of rushing throughout the day, as though there aren’t enough hours to accomplish what’s important. We often leave the office with a frazzled brain, with Netflix and the warmth of our partner as the only remedies that can haul us from the brink, until morning rolls around and we have to go through the same stressful process again. If Sisyphus happens to be a colleague of yours, he’ll be watching on with mournful, comprehending eyes.

Busyness does not equate to productivity, not by a long shot. We’ve all had unquestionably busy days, and felt like we’ve achieved nothing. Productivity is burdened by a nefarious snake lurking in the shadows, which strikes regularly and with great force – distraction. It’s a defining 21st century problem, with entire industries dedicated to seizing your attention and holding onto it for as long as possible. We have smart phones; smart TVs, smart watches; flashing and buzzing with alluring notifications that are almost impossible to ignore. How can you be expected to maintain your focus on what’s important when your wrist is constantly purring at you? Forget about holding an engaging, valuable conservation with another human if you both have your phones on the table – you’re communicating that the most important thing in your bubble is the sinful black device that you’re secretly praying will light up, to distract you from the uncomfortableness of human interaction. Reading a message on your phone is less awkward than trying to adequately communicate with the person sitting opposite you, but the latter is a profoundly more effective way to interact, because it includes vocal tone, and body language. Not only are the technological distractions of our era making us less productive, they’re fucking with our ability to communicate as well.

Being distracted/busy is easier than being productive, because often, the important work that we need to get done is challenging. The gentle rumble of our phones, the emails, or the Slack notifications are greatly anticipated, as it means we don’t have to feel dumb anymore, even for the briefest moment. Those few seconds of distraction add up to hours over the course of the day, and according to experts, the incessant context-switching might be stealing away almost half of your work day. Another study returned less drastic results – up to a quarter of your productive time. Each content-switch squanders a measurable amount of energy reserves, and damages your competency for the next task, especially if it’s a complex one. One experiment found that constant online distractions can be as damaging to your intelligence as missing an entire night’s sleep, or being a regular marijuana smoker, a staggering find. There’s also the flow state to consider – that elusive condition of getting into the zone, where your productivity reaches terrific peaks. You’ll never attain this state of mind without extended focus – it’ll take you 12 minutes to re-enter it, after every distraction. You’re depriving yourself of a bucketload of fulfilment if you continue to live a life of interminable task-switching. Science clearly tells us that we cannot physically multi-task – all we’re doing is quickly switching between work, and the moments that it takes our brains to re-align add up to precious hours. Personally, on days when I’ve been particularly distracted, I find that I’m more tired and infinity more irritable in the evening, to the chagrin of my suffering girlfriend.

If you’re exhausted from having your attention constantly and selfishly yanked away from you, try some of the following tips.

Do just one thing at a time. The more you task-switch, the more tired and stressed you’ll feel, in addition to being a great-deal less effective throughout the course of the day. Do whatever it takes to maintain your focus on a single thing, then move onto the next once done.

Turn off your notifications. This isn’t as traumatising as you might expect – whatever your colleagues are messaging you about can probably wait for a few hours, and your Facebook notifications can wait for a fucking eternity if you know what’s good for you.

Be proactive, not reactive. You don’t have to read every notification or respond to every message instantly. Your colleagues and friends aren’t going to cast you out like the heinous village rapist. Be proactive by taking some time at the start of each day to write up a list of what’s important to you, and set allocated periods for stuff like emails/messages. If you’re brave enough to resist the dopamine-fuelled buzz of distraction, you’ll likely achieve many great things.

Take the occasional 15-minute break. Studies have found that people who do this are more productive. You might consider adopting the Pomodoro technique, a productivity and time-management tool that can yield fantastic results. There’s free apps out there specifically for this method of working.

Invest in some good quality, noise-cancelling headphones. People are fucking distracting, and we’re just as blameworthy because we often want to be distracted. Drown out your pesky colleagues with some beautifully ambient sounds. Personally, my favourite is Rain on a Tent, it’s like camping and working at the same time. While you have your headphones on, politely ask your colleagues not to distract you.

Practice mindfulness. This may as well be a technique from the gods, it’s espoused by medical professionals, productivity gurus, health coaches, and every other well-being related profession the world over. All you really need to do is sit still every day for 15 minutes, and try to retain your focus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognise when your brain has wandered off, and to bring your focus back to what’s important. Meditation isn’t some mystical practice performed by orange-clad ninja monks, it’s a fantastically useful tool for everybody to use. There’s a solid reason for its popularity of late.

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You can reclaim a good chunk of time that has been stolen by distractive task-switching, and become a much more efficient and fulfilled chimp. Hold a steady hand up to all those who would distract you, and take your happiness to new heights.

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