There are a great many books, web sites, and training courses today more or less dedicated to the idea that being bored is a major sin, for which the only cure is to find ways to be busy and productive every waking moment. People who follow this idea are constantly on-the-go — any feelings of boredom quickly smothered with yet more activity.
At work, at home, at play, each moment must be filled with things to ward off the slighest possibility of being bored. As a society, we’re over-stimulated to the point of mania, like hyper-excited children in those few moments at a party before it all goes wrong and everyone starts crying. I suspect the rise in ADHD isn’t only due to eating strange chemicals in the diet; we’re training ourselves to require continual distraction, reducing our attention-span to less than a few seconds before we’re bored again.
It used to be only teenagers who sighed, “I’m so bored!” Now almost everyone acts as if not having something truly exciting to do every moment is either the first sign of senility or — much worse — positive proof that they, and their careers, are gone, past it, over the hill, on the way towards oblivion.
Yet boredom is, in reality, crucial to any ability to be truly productive, let alone effective. If you’re flat-out busy and engaged all the time, you may feel important, but the reality is different. It’s those who are constantly distracted with activities who are most likely to be headed towards a nasty let-down.
The trouble is that people who are afraid of being bored soon become too busy to stay effective. In all their rush and haste to stay active, they have no time left to think about what they are doing, let alone add any new tricks to their repertoire. Besides, just sitting around in some classroom learning stuff is so . . . boring. I want to be out there, in the thick of the action, doing things.
Of course, being so active makes you tired, but resting is boring too. With the help of a lot of coffee, some superficial excitement, and a great deal of sheer determination (plus youth), you can get through on remarkably little sleep. And once you get into the habit of keeping your mind racing, ready to leap into the next crisis, you’ll find it hard to sleep anyway, until you are so exhausted your body rebels and knocks you out. Who cares what this is doing to you, physically and mentally? That’s years away, whatever it is. Plenty of time to worry about that when you’re old.
It’s not true, sadly. A large proportion of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived: a situation that is known to have serious present and long-term ill effects on both body and mind.
Being bored turns your mind inward and encourages reflection. When you’re rushing about, there’s no time to think. When you’re bored, there’s nothing else to do but think. The fashion today may be to admire action heroes and denigrate the power of the mind, but fashion never made anything right. With time to consider what you’re doing and why, you may just come up with some useful questions about the direction you’re headed in. We may be living in an age full of self-regard, but that doesn’t mean people spend much time in introspection. It’s more like they keep looking at themselves in a mental mirror, seeing how they look on the surface. They don’t go any deeper.
Boredom is nearly always essential to creativity. It isn’t true that creativity is mostly sparked by having a specific problem to be solved. It’s far more likely to arise because the person is bored with the way something has been done a thousand times before and wants to try something new. That’s why new movements in technology, the arts, and even public life usually start when there are still plenty of people polishing and refining the current approach. They don’t begin because what is being done now is totally played out; they begin because a few people decide that’s boring and start playing around with how to change it.
Boredom stimulates the search for better ways to things like nothing else does. How many improvements in processes and ways of producing things have come about because the people doing the job are so damn bored with going over same thing again and again? My guess is that it’s the single biggest spur to working smarter, far exceeding cost-cutting or abstract ideas of ‘constant improvement’. It’s become a truism that vast amounts of creativity and improvement are available from simply asking those who do some job how they might do it better. Those dull places where processes never change, and people spend their working days with minds numbed by boredom, relieved only by gossip, get that way because the people in charge are control freaks who can’t stand that anyone might have an independent idea.
Boredom is an essential step in falling asleep and getting enough rest. Watch almost any animal. If they’re stuck somewhere with nothing to do, they go to sleep. It’s the natural thing to do. We do it too. People usually can’t sleep because their minds are too active. They’re thinking about what they will do tomorrow, worrying about what they did today, or mad because they ought to be asleep and aren’t, and lying here wide awake is so boring. If they would only give in to being bored — relish how dull everything was and how there was nothing to do or think about — they’d be asleep in a matter of moments. But their minds are trained to seek constant stimulation. Even when they fall asleep, those minds fill the night with dreams of frantic activity. No wonder they wake up feeling tired.
The next time you find yourself saying, or thinking, that you’re bored, be happy. You’ve just been handed a gift you can use in any of these ways. If you do, you’ll find that being bored is sometimes the very best state to be in.
Photo credit: Jessica Lim
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