In Praise of Boredom
Photo courtesy of Kurt Thomas Hunt.

In Praise of Boredom

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Fear

I’ve wondered before about multipotentialites’ greatest fear. Last time I suggested it might be that each choice we make excludes all the other options we could have taken. Every time we do anything, we mourn an infinite number of lost futures.

There’s another common dread that I hear over and over when talking to fellow multipods: boredom.

Boredom has a reputation for… well, being boring. But not for being scary. Right?

Unless you talk to multipods, for whom boredom is a lurking terror direct from our nightmares. It’s an alarm signal in our minds, a siren that screams YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE – IN THIS MINUTE YOU ARE BORED – DO YOU NOT REALIZE HOW SHORT LIFE IS? – YOU WILL REGRET THIS ON YOUR DEATHBED – PANIC IMMEDIATELY – ABANDON EVERYTHING.

Some of us put up with it. Some of us quit our jobs at the first sign of it. Some of us turn down opportunities out of fear that we might feel it in the future.

And some of us, presumably, make measured, sensible changes to re-engage our passions whenever it shows up. (I don’t actually know anyone who does this, but I assume such people must exist.)

With rare exceptions, multipotentialites hate being bored.

However, today I want to change our perceptions and celebrate boredom. But before I do that, let’s look at one exception.

Imaginary Boredom Sucks

Boredom comes in many different flavors. The most useless is what I think of as “Imaginary Boredom.”

Imaginary Boredom is boredom we’re not even experiencing yet. We feel this when we worry that we might get bored someday: “I could start this new job/course/project/whatever… but what if I get bored?”

Imagine you were starting a new academic program that was going to span several years. I’m sure you’d partly be excited at all the cool new stuff you were going to learn. But there might be a lurking fear: what if I’m going too deeply into just one subject? Will it become boring?

We don’t need to fear depth. Depth doesn’t erode our breadth; it just adds to it. None of our other passions will disappear just because we focus for a bit on one in particular.

Deeper knowledge is still new. There’s no reason that those novelty cravings can’t be just as satisfied by Super Hard Quantum Mechanics for Experts as they were by Introduction to Physics.

In fact, deeper knowledge in one area creates more possibilities for interesting intersections with other areas. Maybe something we learn in Super Hard Quantum sparks an idea we can bring into one of our other passions.

I’m digressing here, but the point is that Imaginary Boredom doesn’t serve us at all; especially because it often shows up before we are even bored. It simply paralyses us.

Real Boredom is Great

Okay, so Imaginary Boredom isn’t worth fearing. But what about real, genuine, soul-crushing tedium? Surely that’s not a good thing?

As with every other question in the universe, the correct answer is “it depends on how you look at it.”

The obvious disadvantage of true boredom is that it’s unpleasant. It can trigger existential angst as we worry that we’re wasting our limited time. It can make minutes stretch out like hours, crush our creativity, and make us feel depressed and purposeless.

But a life without boredom can be just as bad.

A life of relentless stimulation is exhausting. Constant activity drains our energy and fills our mental space. Without moments of quiet we become stressed and anxious.

If neither extreme is healthy, we have to find a balance, and that means creating space in which to be bored.

Boredom as a Positive Signal

It’s common knowledge that without giving our brains downtime to rest and process, we can become over-stressed and anxious. So perhaps we take a vacation. But how much downtime is enough?

I see boredom as like a battery indicator flicking from “orange” to “green.” While I’m still recharging, I’m not yet bored. I’m happily taking time out and allowing my brain to rest. But once I start feeling bored, I know my mental energy has been replenished.

Boredom as Creative Fuel

We can go further. Not only is boredom a useful “readiness” signal; it can also be helpful in its own right.

A well-rested mind is creative. Our brains can’t help but chatter away. While we’re distracted by the minutiae and stresses of daily life, our inner monologue is uncreative: I’m going to be late, I hate traffic, I need to pick up something for dinner

But when we’re bored, our minds start to rove, searching for something interesting to alight upon. Our thoughts become more novel, and novelty is necessary for creation.

Bill Gates reportedly takes a “Think Week” every year, during which he just sits and thinks for an entire week. He claims that the lack of stimulation helps him to come up with new ideas.

Naturally, a week like this is a luxury we can’t all afford, but the idea itself is transferable; a little boredom can provide creative inspiration. If you’re struggling and feeling uninspired, perhaps strive to bore yourself senseless and see if your brain gets unstuck.

(I love counter-intuitive paradoxes like this! Just as welcoming the feeling of anxiety can reduce a panic attack, embracing boredom can aid creativity. Being human is weird.)

Boredom as a Signal for Change

I suspect that this particular positive doesn’t need mentioning to an audience of multipotentialites, but I’d be remiss not to mention it.

Chronic boredom can be a signal that we need to make changes in our lives.

That may sound like a statement of the obvious. Multipotentialites are so boredom-averse that it might be surprising to realize that not everybody thinks this way.

We humans are wired to be illogical. Ever heard of the Sunken Costs Fallacy? Or the old proverb “throwing good money after bad?” This is one reason we stay in jobs, relationships, and situations that have long since ceased to be positive. We’ve invested so much time that we feel it’d be a waste if we didn’t stick with it.

But this is illogical; we’ve already spent that time. The time we have coming up is the only time we have left to spend. And there’s no point spending a whole life in a situation that makes us unhappy.

Now, in this area of boredom it seems likely to me that multipotentialites probably need to rein themselves in, while non-multipods need to step up a bit.

A tiny bit of boredom isn’t a reason to immediately quit whatever we’re doing. Learning to tolerate some boredom is an important part of becoming well-rounded. But a long-term lack of challenge and growth might be a reason to move on. Judge for yourself, and ask your friends, peers, and fellow multipods for advice.

To Summarize…

In short, depending on your unique circumstances:

  • Learn to tolerate (some) boredom OR make life changes in response to it.
  • Check you’re getting enough mental space; if you’re never, ever bored, are you recharging enough?
  • If you’re creatively stuck, lean into being bored.
  • Don’t fear imaginary boredom as much as real boredom.

Your Turn

Has boredom ever been positive for you? Share your story in the comments!

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

21 Comments

  1. Know Crow says:

    Borrowing from Louis C.K. talking to his daughter.
    “I’m bored is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that your alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say “I’m bored.”

    So my conclusion? Your not bored, your lazy. Only you recognize the patterns long enough, you recognize they fight to stay the same, and say “bored out of there mind” which is literal. Always following the script given to them rather than writing there own. Fearful of anything that may disrupt that self-image they’ve spent a lifetime crafting. Loss of what you are till nothing remains, hallow, a zombie, a robot, following a script given to you. How far does another being or society have to be far does the arm up your backside have to be before you realize all that anger you have is at that itch at back of your mind manipulating you rather than taking the wheel yourself for yourself.

    • Gustavo says:

      I shall agree. Most times when I get bored, I recognize the urge to change something but my laziness makes me look for something else closer. Then boredom disappears for a while – but comes back later, again and again.

      I even think laziness is a important trait for many multipods simply because it counterbalances the frenetic activity when we are engaged on many simultaneous tasks; it’s a way our brain have to say “slow down dude, otherwise I will fry”.

      However, when coupled to the anticipated (imaginary) boredom, laziness can cause us to stuck in place as a tree. A balance must be found, but as everything in the life, the mean term is the hardest to achieve.

      • Know Crow says:

        We are never given anything that we are not equipped to handle. Then burn, your meant to, rise like the phoenix and meet the challenge head on. Balance is meaningless if your willing to sacrifice who you are, what you do FOR HUMANITY, for some other force other then yourself. Whether it be societies script or anyone else.

        How often do we forget that fear is the mind killer, face your fear, let it pass over you and through you, and where there fear is gone turn the inner eye and only you will remain.

        Yes, paraphrasing DUNE, but life is nothing without the spice in it.

      • Laura says:

        Oh yes! That is exactly me, too : I can be so creative, producive, driven with tons of ideas, but in my everyday life, I’m also terribly lazy. I like to spend long hours in my bed on the computer. My room is messy. I hate cooking. It’s quite a paradox, these two extreme behaviors – either total inactivity (which sometimes becomes a curse) or the frantic buzzing of ideas and projects. That’s probably why it’s so important to have a healthy routine (something I haven’t done yet…)

  2. Catherine Chisnall says:

    This is where multipods struggle with parenthood, it can’t be just me. Bringing up small children means boredom (yet constant busy-ness) with no escape. Tiny babies need nappy/ bottle/ nappy/ bottle/ nappy/ bottle endlessly and often you can’t take small children on exciting adventures, especially in bad weather. Yes, multipods have endless ideas but even we get worn out due to sleepless nights and the sheer ‘on and on-ness of parenting’ (to quote the Dowager Countess of Grantham), the 24/7 parenting, especially if you are a stay at home parent with no job outside the home and/or health issues.

    However, its been proved that ‘being bored’ is good for the human brain as it can’t deal with constant stimulation as in the modern world with 24 hours information available. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get through boredom, there is no way to get away from it.

    • Amanda says:

      No, it’s not just you! Those years when they’re so little are HARD. What I did to survive: I escaped, and I tried to do it once a week or so. For a day or an afternoon or an evening or whatever I could get. I did something that I liked, I met a friend for coffee, or whatever. I did something that reminded me I was a person with interests. :) Or I “escaped” into a book periodically, while of course making sure that everyone was safe and fed. And I picked up a new hobby that I could pick up and put down when I had to get snacks: knitting. Knitting increasingly complex and interesting things saved my sanity. Also blogging, writing, sketching — anything I could squeeze in from home in the tiny in-between times.

      Today, I dropped my kids off at school for the first time ever, and I’m at home, alone, and I get to do what I like now. It’s amazing and incredible and I thought it would never happen, and yet here I am. You’ll get through it. It’s possible. But yes, it’s boring.

      • Catherine Chisnall says:

        Thank you for your understanding Amanda- so many people online are just looking for an excuse to berate mothers.

        I am looking back in retrospect as my daughter is now 10 and far more independent.

        I remember the first day I dropped her off at nursery and cried, then came home to an empty, silent house and cried again.

        But that didn’t last long. Its a treat after so many years of nannying/ nursing/ never having a moment to even think your own thoughts let alone do anything with them. I still remember the very first day I took my daughter to nursery and I had horrendous flu, but this time she was at nursery ALL DAY! And I could retire to bed to sleep without having to be energetic mummy with flu.

        The primary school years are so brilliant Amanda. The children are still little enough to want mummy but you get a good stretch of time to yourself to relax each day. I’m actually dreading my daughter going to secondary school and not wanting me to go to her school activities anymore… Parenthood is a double edged sword…

  3. Fred says:

    I’ll paraphrase Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher. Waiting is a skill, like anything else.

    Sometimes I believe I’m bored out of my gourd. So, I get frantic, panicked and yes, even suicidal, but if I can relax into boredom and roll with it, take the mental break, what I’m actually doing is waiting.
    Sometimes this waiting will take a very long time for something to appear that will be worth busying myself with, but something ALWAYS appears. Then the trick is to not grasp what appears too quickly because it might be ‘the wrong something.’ I hate when that happens!!

  4. Anne says:

    “If you’re struggling and feeling uninspired, perhaps strive to bore yourself senseless and see if your brain gets unstuck.”

    Yes. AI’ve spent most of my life questioning every feeling, and choice, as compared to some obvious way of doing things and being. I feel best when I stop resisting what is. That feeling of not being satisfied, which comes as boredom, for example, is best met with just accepting it, knowing that at some point it will change.

    I think that one sentence sums up a very practical way to deal with this.

    Great point.

  5. Gabriela says:

    Hmmm. Don’t remember the last time I was bored, always things to do. I’m a juggler. Have to agree with one poster that childcare can sometimes get tedious, but those years go by so fast and then they are off and living their own multipod lives. I also have lots of experience in letting my kids be “bored” so they can figure out how to entertain themselves without my intervention. Lots of things within reach for small brains to access, just think of it as growing the next gen of multipods.

    I’m usually having a harder time stopping or making sure I get enough rest. Boredom seems like a fairytale. I regularly tell my kids “There is not such thing as boredom”

    Just my own small view of course.

  6. Fred says:

    Hmm…I’ll try commenting again. I didn’t make the cut the first time.

    To quote Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher, “Waiting is a skill like anything else.”

    A lot of times I believe I’m bored, but I’m waiting. It helps if I can just take a step back and get some distance on the situation, relax into the boredom and practice waiting something will arise. The trick is to not grasp at the first thing that arises. Be like a frog.

  7. Kathleen Wilde says:

    Hello. My mother would say, “Anyone with a semblance of intelligence does not get bored” if I complained of boredom as child.

    I think she is correct about that, but I also think boredom is also an excellent way to become a more mindful person. I have spent the last two years simply gardening and watching nature…very busy place with a lot to learn from bumble bees, flowers, and quite time without devices…

    For instance…did you know that bumble bees tuck in the snap dragon after they sup on the nectar..

    Nature is so healing and it never second quesses itself.

  8. Aram Boyd says:

    Think Week! Love it! I find whenever I get out of my usual routine (and I’m not very routine) my mind naturally churns new, stimulating ideas. This is my best antidote to boredom. When the ideas come I get charged up, momentum builds, and I move into action more easily.

    Hard to be bored when you’re busy doing…

  9. Sami says:

    I love the idea of Think Week! I used to do a weekly fifteen or twenty-minute idea-sprint, just writing down literally every idea I could scrape out of my head before the timer went off, just to see what was there and what could be used in the week ahead (or months, or years; can’t rush an idea turning into a thing). I feel like the luxury of having all that time to just muse on new ideas would be so decadent, but could also be life-changing.

    When I was a kid, I was bored a lot, but I don’t remember pitching fits about it; I read books. School was dull, so I’d do my work and read a book. We didn’t have a tv until I was seven, and then we only had four channels, so I’d read a book. We lived in places with bad weather, so when it rained or hailed or whatever, I’d read. By sixth grade I was reading 85 books a year and I think it did wonders for cramming my head full of information. I wish I had time to read that many books now! Being an adult is dull and I’d love to go back to that much alternate experience.

    ~:)

  10. JJBiener says:

    Boredom is an inescapable aspect of my life. I have had a variety of chronic illnesses since I was 19. This has led to countless surgeries and procedures followed seemingly endless time stuck in a hospital bed. Even when I am not in a hospital bed, I am bed bound much of the time.

    These days I have a laptop to keep me plugged into the world, and 200 channels of crap on the TV I can watch when ever I want. When I first became ill in the 80’s, this stuff wasn’t available. Then as now, I spend time just thinking.

    Like other multipods, I am interested in everything. On my dresser is a stack of books about how the brain works, cooking, the process of writing, language, Buddhism, mathematics and a couple other topics. A glance through my Kindle library would show my interest in countless other subjects.

    Being still and letting my mind wander has led to some interesting conclusions. Being still lets my mind process all the different subjects I’ve studied and find ways of cross-pollinating ideas. There are several conclusions I’ve come to that I hope to share once I can figure out how to write about what only exists in my head.

    As multipods and just by living in this decade, we are accustomed to constant mental stimulation. If you let go and relax, you will be surprised how far your mind will go.

  11. nicole loli says:

    I love this article! You write it out so nicely and I couldn’t agree more. I absolutely hated being bored and as a kid I wondered if people could DIE from boredom lol. I like how spun it on its head and saw it as an indicator

  12. Anna W says:

    My favorite line in this piece is “Being human is weird”…how delightfully true!

    I think how you deal with boredom also comes a little bit with age. You get to that point where you realize it is restorative in regular doses. It is exactly like a battery! When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s I ran from boredom. Now I spend time analyzing my boredom to see if my brain is just resting or if I need to make some adjustments.

  13. Ken says:

    I am new to Puttylike and I think I’m gonna be spending some of my free time reading articles here. It’s so nice and comforting that I found out I am not alone. :) Thank you for sharing and inspiring!

  14. Jonas says:

    Hi there. Thanks Emilie for another great post. Boredom. I have had my turn with it. It wasn’t always positive. But then a close familymember told me to welcome it… Like it was some previlege. I did’nt understand i back then but now, with this post of yours, it begins to sink in. I think i have unconsiously and to some extend by consious effort welcomed it. Now i can’t live without it. it’s in those days where I have nothing in my calender and absolutely no plans scheduled that I enjoy me myself and I the most. The best thing is that I get a lot done because my mind is spinning with great new ideas. It really sounds to good to be true, especially when sitting here and writing about my experience. Nevertheless it’s true. I will make room for days of boredom in my life to come for sure;) Welcome boredom

  15. Angela says:

    This is the biggest fear in my life!!
    Though it’s odd that I didn’t realize that until I read this post??? I have quit my job, stopped following creative pursuits and experienced bone crushing depression all because of boredom with out realizing that was the reason. (it was mostly imaginary boredom too)
    I’ve always though there was something fundamentally missing from my life because of this.
    Thank you for giving me this new look on life <3<3<3

  16. I was always scared of boredom too. Then one day I realised that it’s actually GOOD to be bored! I even blogged about it here: http://www.middleagedmama.com.au/when-its-good-to-be-bored/. By the way Emilie, I loved your closing presentation at Problogger 2016 – thank you.