Embrace the Gift of Boredom

This year’s resolution: do more by doing less.

By Shannon Rupp 2 Jan 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Right about now you’re being bombarded with articles pressuring you to improve yourself — lose weight, join a gym, organize those damn closets — but that is all unnecessary. Not just because you are fine as you are (despite what those puritanical sociopaths are telling you), but because doing a whole lot of nothing, and the boredom that comes-with, appears to be good for our productivity.

So make this the January in which your resolution is to do more by doing less.

That’s not just a fanciful argument for avoiding chores. In the last few years there has been a growing body of research that connects being bored with being creative.

Clean up your thinking

There’s a technical name for the part of the brain we’re using when it wanders — it’s called the default mode network — and when boredom triggers us to use the DMN region of the brain it creates the conditions for effective problem solving and other creative pursuits. That’s why so many of us get our best ideas in the shower.

Speaking of which, this has always infuriated me: why has no one invented a wet pen and paper for taking notes in the shower? It seems so obvious. Especially in light of this research. But I digress...

And I digress because the state in which writers write or painters paint or other creators create also begins with boredom and resistance which leads to those moments of serendipity in which surprising ideas pop up, unbidden. Like that one for shower notepads. That could be an Etsy shop.

I’ve interviewed a lot of artists in one discipline or another who have told me much of what the brain researchers are telling us now — that there is something about being bored that goes hand-in-hand with creativity.

Go ahead, just lie around

Science fiction author Spider Robinson once argued that artists have to marry other artists because “civilians,” (by which he meant people who do conventional nine-to-five jobs) would never quite understand the odd rhythms of creativity. He praised his late wife choreographer Jeanne Robinson for any number of things but this was the one that made me laugh: “Jeanne knows that when I’m lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling, I’m actually working and she doesn’t try to make me go do something,” he said.

I called that the Recipe for Marital Bliss. Meanwhile Jeanne, a dancer, opted for a sort of moving meditation: she loved to walk mazes, around and around, while she was sorting something out. Why not walk along the beautiful island coastline instead of in boring circles? “That much beauty is distracting,” she told me.

A lot of people in creative businesses have figured out there’s a connection between being bored and having a eureka moment shortly thereafter. In the 1930s, mystery writer Agatha Christie noted that she got her best ideas for plots while hand-washing dishes.

But it seems science is proving it just in time for us to feel its loss: today it is increasingly tough to suffer ennui when entertainment is just a selfie away.

Blame the smartphone

Spend 10 minutes on the website OpenCulture.com, which compiles all the free online entertainment, and you’ll wonder how anyone gets anything done anymore? You can skip from old TV shows, to online courses, to music videos, short stories, and novels. All free. And don’t get me started on the weird random things. Joni Mitchell’s first TV appearance? Ancient TV ads? I could lose a day there. And have.

It’s a dangerous rabbit hole, which was bad enough on a desktop. Now just consider that the rabbit hole is mobile, and buzzing in our pockets in the grocery line-up.

All that media consumption leads to a busy-ness that ultimately achieves nothing. Ever binge-watched anything? Did you notice it left you kind of queasy? Did you notice someone hanging over your shoulder?

Public binge-ing

A Netflix study on its users revealed that people are staving off boredom in public with binge-watching on their phones, which leads to some uncomfortable issues of etiquette with the more graphic shows.

And for the young, psychologists worry that all the screentime full of social media distractions in particular may have delayed emotional and social development in an entire generation and caused a spike in depression.

Is time spent on movies, TV, and novels a barrier to creativity? I’d debate that. But what goes without argument is that all the time devoted to social media, and the flashing, pinging alerts that interrupt real life and send you back to the digital world over and over again, interferes with concentration.

You think you’re multitasking? I’m sorry to say there’s no such thing as multitasking; there’s only doing a number of things badly, all at the same time.

Bored and brilliant

Manoush Zomorodi, who produces a show about technology’s impact on us, Note to Self, for American public radio station WNYC, suspected her phone was distracting her from better things a few years ago. So she conducted her own little experiment with the help of some listeners — more than 30,000 listeners! — who were tired of being slaves to their mobiles. They were hoping to reclaim some of that two hours the average person spends on a smartphone daily.

The project and the book that came later were called “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.” They proposed a six-step rehab process, over six days, beginning with relinquishing that phone from the death grip.

If you must have it in hand at all times, like a toddler with a binky, don’t use it to fill in every dull moment. Commuting. Grocery shopping. At the kiddies’ Christmas recital. (Oh. Wait. That might be how you resist the urge to flee after your child’s number is finished? Carry on!)

And don’t just assume that because you’re immune to the charms of social media, you’re not suffering from the tyranny of tiny tech.

Yeah, sure, it’s somebody else’s problem

Zomorodi’s weakness is a mobile game called Two Dots. As a tech reporter, she began playing it in order to understand why these games are notoriously addictive.

“That’s like a crime reporter trying heroin just so she can understand the crime beat,” she quips, on the podcast.

Her struggle to delete it is both comic and sad. And it was echoed by listeners who agonized over their self-imposed selfie bans and Twitter removals. In the end, her listeners shaved only a few minutes off their average phone-use time, but many reported that they felt better for making conscious choices about what to use, and when, rather than responding like Pavlov’s dogs to an alert.

New tech, old problem

Because I’m a fairly disciplined tech user who finds games and social media both a chore, I found her book interesting, but I assumed most of this did not apply to me. Right up until that day a few weeks ago, when I found myself trapped on a stalled bus with no phone and no iPod. There was no music, no book, no podcast, no radio, not even a round of Angry Birds to take me out of that tedious moment.

I was twitchy and miserable. It took me a while to recognize that feeling as boredom. And even longer to admit that the uncomfortable urge to scratch an unreachable itch in another context could have been described as jonesing.

I was an audio addict!

Soma. It’s all just soma.

While it’s true I’m not a screen checker, it’s also true that I’m distracted from annoying reality (and annoying people) a lot, courtesy of earbuds. Since the advent of online entertainment on demand, on mobile, more than a decade ago, I haven’t had to suffer an uninteresting moment. Not unless I’m forced into small talk or my battery dies. And that day both things happened simultaneously. (What are the odds?)

Which is when I flashed on Zomorodi’s book. I’d read it a few months ago and hadn’t planned to write about. I thought it applied only to screen-addicted twentysomethings.

Perhaps because I was so happily distracted, I got it wrong. I now suspect that most of us who have these tiny computers in hand are amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it in his great analysis of television in 1985. They’re the Soma of our era. That soothing drug in the novel Brave New World, to which Postman had compared television.

Only now, it’s everywhere, all the time.

So give yourself a break from the digital drug in January and cultivate a little boredom. Not just because it might help you solve some nagging problem spontaneously, but because it’s so much easier to combine this resolution with a New Year hangover.  [Tyee]

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