Finding the beauty in boredom

Isolation as an opportunity to embrace idleness.

This (gesturing vaguely around my living room, which has become the new epicentre of my Universe). This is a lot.

In what feels like a matter of minutes, our worlds have been turned upside down, any semblance of normality has been obliterated and whilst we’ve all lost our social lives, many of us have also lost our work ones too; with jobs, contracts and incomes suddenly wiped away, leaving us with very little foundation to stand upon. At the same time, we’re battling an invisible enemy that feels both very real and very abstract; a virus which may or may not cause us a great deal of harm, which as a daily thought, even for a nano-second, is terrifying. 

And the multiplier effect is that it’s all come at us with such speed that it feels like whiplash; it’s surreal and scary and I don’t know about you, but I’m still struggling to process it all. The gravity of this situation is enormous; it’s a global heavy-duty emotional trauma that we’re all feeling on an individual basis to varying degrees. 

As I said, this is a lot.

And yet there are floods of articles and ‘think pieces’ being spun out and thrown in our faces, telling us that isolation is the perfect opportunity to enhance our productivity, to reassess our personal brand, to reevaluate our business plan, to ‘Marie Kondo’ our closets, to learn a new skill, to up-skill with a quick online MBA, to get that Summer body ready, to do the press-up challenge, to read 500 books, hell, why not write a book? The underlying message is clear - whatever you do, don’t drop the ball just because you’re in your pyjamas…

This too is a lot - a lot of grade A bullshit.

In the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, it’s disturbing to see that our obsession with productivity and hustle culture is so deeply embedded that we’re unable to allow ourselves the time and space to just digest, to take a moment, to grieve (because This. Is. Loss) all the things we’ve had to let go of and to fully register the parameters of these new lives we now need to embrace.

As creatives, we’re supposed to be natural empaths, whether we like it or not. We absorb, we feel, we intuit, we create. But right now, we’re not giving ourselves that opportunity, because we’re trying to control the uncontrollable; to translate our isolation time into measurable, tangible increments and outputs. To produce, accomplish and achieve. We’re telling ourselves that we’ll come out of this smarter, fitter, better versions of ourselves, having completed our life’s work or gotten a few qualifications under our belts, whilst confined within these four walls.

Jesus. H. Christ. Make it stop.

Now is not the time to be encouraging optimisation.

Now is not the time to be furiously busy (unless you’re a key worker, of course).

And now is not the time to pen your magnum opus.

Rather, now is the time we get to step off of the treadmill.

Now is the time to embrace being bored.

Through the narratives of ‘girl boss’, ‘hustle harder, ‘rise and grind’ and ‘wake up, kick ass, repeat’, we’ve taught ourselves that the opposite of productivity is laziness. But that’s not strictly true; you see there’s a big (and entirely misunderstood) difference between laziness and idleness, one that right now we’d do well to understand, because it could help us to become better stewards of our time over the next few months.

Laziness as it is widely known, is the state of being unwilling to make an effort of any kind. It’s about avoidance and universally seen as bad behaviour. No one wants to be described as such.

But idleness is a distinct demeanour, it simply means doing nothing; to be bored and to allow it, rather than trying to fill your time to escape it. And it doesn’t come with an avoidant attitude, instead it’s about honing your ability to just be. 

This is important, because boredom and idleness are often the precursors to true creativity.

When you’re bored, your brain continues to be active, desperately seeking sensation of some kind to alleviate its current lack of focus. And when it does so, when it’s allowed to run free without distraction, that’s when new connections are made and where creativity can flourish.

And this flourishing is what we need. Psychologist Sue Varma recently stated that our ‘work warrior’ focus is promoting productivity at the expense of creativity - "We're finding as IQ's are increasing, creativity quotients are actually decreasing." 

That’s no small thing. But now we can do something about it. 

In a 2017 study, people were split into two groups, the first group were given a boredom-inducing task — methodically sorting a bowl of beans by colour, one by one — the second group were given an interesting craft activity. After a while, both groups were asked to generate ideas (to come up with excuses for being late that wouldn’t make someone look bad.) The people who were ‘bored’ outperformed those who were engaged with their task, both in terms of idea quantity and quality (i.e. they were more creative).

In 2014, a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking”—that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centres. These people are more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas.

This isn’t new news. It’s something we’ve understood for a long time but in recent years, we’ve chosen to ignore it and to make it socially unacceptable. 

We’ve framed busyness as a status symbol;  it means you’re successful, ambitious, in-demand and flourishing.

And we’ve framed boredom as a social stigma; it holds all the opposite connotations. 

Yet back in 300-something BC, Aristotle was celebrating the value of leisure as a cornerstone of intellectual enlightenment.

In the 1800’s, the philosopher Kierkegaard described boredom as a prequel to creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”

And in 2011,  Steve Jobs said “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.”

So whilst we’re recalibrating our understanding of working from home, being social whilst being physically distant, homeschooling our kids and learning to cook mung beans; could we also take this opportunity to recalibrate our societal framing of boredom - to shift it from something we’re ashamed to admit, to something we’re proud to claim?

Could now be the time to shun the scheduled life and get rid of the productivity guilt?

To slow it all down and to see the beauty in idle time.

To allow our minds to wander away from our screens and into new places.

To delve into downtime and away from this need for constant fulfilment.

Last week, in his wonderful newsletter ‘Only Dead Fish’, Neil Perkins shared a quote from musician and writer, Henry Rollins, in which he talked about ‘Exhale Years’ and ‘Inhale Years’.

In it, he said (and I’m paraphrasing):

“In an inhale year, I will travel and get information so I can have something to say on stage while I spend a whole year exhaling. And an exhale year, I’m on the road touring and the material is derived from all the stuff from the previous year. You have to choreograph everything and all of this is designed”

This is an inhale year.

A time for us to embrace a gentler pace, a calmer mind and to get really busy being really bored. 

So take a deep breath.