Why Boredom is Good For You
Fab Giovanetti, author of Reclaim Your Time Off, explores the value of boredom for boosting creativity and productivity
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I hope you don’t mind if I ask: how old are you? I'm asking because I'm part of a generation that got very comfortable with the idea of being bored – we kind of had it forced on us. I find not everyone has truly experienced real boredom – away from screens, with no distractions readily available at their fingertips.
When we were all confined to our homes during the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people met the feeling of being bored for the first time, and it only highlighted how scared we are of the idea of boredom. Boredom is bad. We must avoid it at all costs. We are uncomfortable with being bored.
There was a time before we came to fear boredom in our children, before we offered permanent stimulation and entertainment, surveillance and never-ending activities. Before the instant gratification of the scroll or the YouTube “next up”. As a child, we used to have to wait for things. Something being delivered by post (there was no Amazon Prime) may have taken six–eight weeks in the 1980s. That would simply be inconceivable to a child now, when six–eight hours (more like minutes!) might be pushing their patience.
But – here’s a new way of seeing boredom.
I personally do not associate it with anything negative. I can remember hundreds of times I felt bored as a young adult and even as a child. The hours spent in Russian class, doodling away, or the times I would steal my mum’s camera to shoot short movies with my stuffed toys. Boredom allowed me to get creative. Being bored – if you allow it to
– lifts the lid on what your body might be trying to tell you. Your inner child. Your deepest desires.
Let me use a practical example here, if I may. Often, as I am writing or walking, I dance in the middle of the room or the park, listening to a song. Why? Most times it’s because I just feel like it. I do it because I feel happy; it’s a feeling that comes over me without conscious thought. I do it for no reason. Boredom can be a turnstile to great things. To huge epiphanies, to joy, to freedom. To fun. These are the things that “top up” our brain power and invite greater productivity.
I am here to make sure boredom’s bad rep is dismantled once and for all. Over the past 100 years, the way we consume content has drastically changed (think Netflix, for example). As John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, puts it: “We are very used to being passively entertained ... We have changed our understanding of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled.”
Take out your journal and write down the answer to these questions:
1. What are you truly afraid of about “down time”?
2. What will happen if you are not “busy”?
Make sure you write down a list of all the things that will happen if you are not “busy”, or, for example, not spending your down time on social media but actually being with yourself, truly with yourself, listening to what you really feel.
Which thoughts, beliefs or fears come up when your mind and body are quiet? How can you learn to sit with the uncomfortable feelings and embrace them? Essentially, we don’t know how to do “nothing” as we haven’t had the practice. Nevertheless, reconnecting with boredom can be incredibly beneficial, not just for our mental
health – for switching our brains out of “doing” and into “being” and for soothing our nervous systems – but also for our creativity. Studies clearly back this up, suggesting that activities like walking can improve both productivity and creativity.17 They showed that boredom helped boost individual productivity on an idea-generation task for participants, which means it allows their thoughts to roam freely during activities such as walks, encouraging people to focus on what truly matters without any form of distractions.
Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant has inspired “Bored and Brilliant Challenges”, where participants are encouraged to watch but not photograph their world, to write down small observations about their environment, and to block out time when they won’t be available online – all with the aim of boosting their individual creative process.
I say, embrace the boredom, let it be your friend. Do not shy away from it.
Practise being bored. What does “being bored” look like to you? What does it feel like? Do you have a creeping sensation to check your phone within seconds? Could you go without electronics for 24 hours? Can you even walk down the street without having your phone in your hand? Why not try?
It all starts with your mindset. Yes, dear reader, I’m afraid no three-step blueprint, productivity hack or fancy tool can help you with finding work-life balance until you do the inner work to understand how you arrived at the working patterns you find yourself in. Mindset is where everything starts. And, in order to change our beliefs, we need to start asking ourselves questions.
I once posed a very simple question to an audience of freelancers and entrepreneurs. I asked our community, peers and founders how they track and acknowledge success in work. It turns out, most of them were blindsided: they had simply never been asked this question before. Most people are either too busy working to find new work, or too busy finding new work to do what’s already on their plates, and a primary career goal was being able to balance the two. A lot of them also agreed that “having more time to enjoy life” was the reason they followed this solo career path. Given that you may have picked up this book because you find yourself grappling with the pressures of an employed job, which may now involve working solo and remotely since the pandemic, this applies to you as well. How do we unlock that time, rather than be swallowed whole by remote working?
When the same question was put to various employees in a LinkedIn poll, most of them said they were “told” what success looks like by their bosses or organisations. They followed metrics and targets set by their companies, because they lacked the guidance to set effective metrics for themselves. Yet, they also argued that they would feel more inspired if allowed to define what success would mean to them and have an active saying in the decision- making process.
Let me share with you two questions that can help you reframe work-life balance and what success means to you, whether you are a self-employed business owner or an employed worker in a large organisation – and everything in between.
Question 1: What did I learn today?
Continual learning, and a curiosity about what life teaches you (both through “success” and “failure”) is one of the key traits that makes successful people successful. Every day is a school day. An openness to learning pushes you to acquire a skill or piece of knowledge that you didn’t have before, and it requires focus (more about focus, and flow, later). Curiosity is the hallmark of a growth mindset – which means you believe that there are infinite possibilities, that you can grow, develop, get better.
Learning is about developing skills that help you uncover opportunities that you would never have seen otherwise: it can happen in the form of life lessons, a new skill or a new technique you are looking to implement. So, ask yourself regularly “What did I learn today?” as a way of not only noticing and acknowledging what you have done, but also of opening up your possibilities.
Question 2: Who did I help/inspire today?
This is one of my favourite questions because, well, I am all about making an impact. Making an impact means measuring your day and how successful it was through impact rather than how many items you ticked off your to-do list. Taking the time to realise how you have added value to other people’s lives is an incredible tool, and one to cherish fondly. I can tell you that most times the simplest questions are the most powerful.
Fab Giovanetti is an entrepreneur, writer and marketing consultant. She is the author of Reclaim Your Time Off. A discount is available to welldoing.org readers using the code Welldoing20 from https://www.watkinspublishing.com