How-to Be Productive – Part 2 : Being Bored

I grew up going to church.

And if you ever want to be rhythmically bored as a nine year old, sit through 50 minute sermons.  Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, after singing some hymns, I would sit through the 50 minutes. I don’t really remember much of the subject matter from those hour long homilies, and I was mostly bored because I was only nine.

At that time there wasn’t dad’s iPad to play Angry Birds on.  Mom didn’t have a phone to look at pictures or read on.  Nothing.  I had one activity that I often used to alleviate my boredom : doodling.

I’d sit, feet dangling off the chairs, using a ripped open “Welcome and Tithing” envelope and start drawing anything that came to mind.  Sermons about Goliath led to armies of giants; ladies with permed hair and caked on make-up became caricatures; and funny situations of other congregants became immortalized in comics.

That tool, the pen in my hand with the paper on the back of an old hymnal, was fuelled by boredom.

I’ve done the same thing throughout my entire life.

I doodled through my undergrad while listening to a professor lecture about thermodynamics.

I doodled through my masters while listening to proper ways to conjugate present-perfect tense verbs.

I doodled through my job at the bank while listening to the status updates from my workmates, waiting my turn.

And I contend, that all that boredom was more that a tool of endurance – it made all of the above situations better.  Boredom, with all its sighs and head hangs, has made me a lot more than simply paying attention ever could.

Here’s the overall ideas for this post :

  1. What is boredom?
  2. Why do we get bored?
  3. How should we use boredom ?

Definitions ( This is the What )

One of the best definitions for boredom I’ve ever heard came from a conversation I had with my wife.  But before getting into that, I want to make a pretty clear distinction between laziness and boredom.

There are people who are chronically bored.  Always needing to be entertained. This, in my semi-humble opinion, mostly comes from laziness.  Laziness fuels boredom, and boredom fuels laziness.

I’ve had days, after long weeks, where all I want to do is “relax”.  Before I was married, I remember a time when my two housemates were off to visit their parents for the weekend.  That meant the apartment was mine.  And at about that time Skyrim came out.

When I got home from work on Friday night I ordered myself the Deuce and Dips – which was a deal from the local pizza joint – two large pizzas with three toppings each.  With that I also bought a two-litre of Citrus Fizz – a knock-off brand of Fresca.  All of this to say, I was set for food and drink for a little while.  Long enough to indulge in some good old-fashioned dragon slaying.

So Skyrim went in my xbox – and the first five or six hours ( the ones that brought me to just past midnight ) were as fun as could be.  The next three were still great, but I was starting to get tired.  When I woke up on Saturday morning, after having some cold pizza and flat pop, I began playing again.  Probably some total of eight hours that day.  Inspirational, I know.  A total of about sixteen hours of video games.  Mind-numbing hours.  Hours that I didn’t really enjoy – but I kept on playing.

I was that lazy / bored combo.  Too lazy to do anything else but play.  But I was bored of playing.  I’m not talking about this kind of boredom.  That kind of boredom is just lazy and should be avoided.  At almost all costs.


So.  Back to that definition.

While she and I talked, we came to this sort of explanation of boredom :

How you feel when there’s no distractions to entertain you.

And that’s pretty good if I do say so myself.  Boredom is that moment, or those many moments, that are obscenely dull and drab.  Like if the colour grey and exhaustion were personified in a feeling.  But, it’s not all bad.

Distractions and Delights ( This is the Why )

Back when I was nine ( like that story at church above ) I used to read the labels on shampoo bottles and hand soap dispensers.  I’d do this while sitting in the bathroom – taking a number two.  I remember reading the blue Finesse bottles and trying to sound out the chemical compositions listed on the back.

I needed the distraction – and so labels fit the bill.

And all of that need for distraction continues.  And that’s one of the reasons we get bored – life has become pretty distracting.  And, we’ve now done a lot of things – and we can keep ourselves pretty occupied.

But there are moments when we can’t – when the things we normally use to distract ourselves are not allowed.  So for me as a nine year old, I wasn’t able to play outside during church and I couldn’t watch Batman cartoons while taking a number two.  So, to pre-occupy myself I doodled and read labels.

The why of boredom is maybe then less about distractions and more about how we do things.  Because, eventually, reading those labels got boring.  So I’d count tiles.  And then the tiles got boring, so I’d try to multiply everything in the bathroom by itself. And so on and so forth.

We get bored because we need to keep learning – to have new challenges and experiences.

Louis CK says this :

“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 you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”

– Louis CK

And I almost agree with him.

Life is amazing – and there’s no real excuse to be bored.  Except for it is pretty impossible to have the constant thrill of every new and wonderful experience this life and world has to offer.  And even if you could somehow do them all, constantly, I think our minds would explode with the constant thrill of everything.

We get bored because we can’t always do new and engaging things.  That’s about all there is to it – but again, I maintain that’s a good thing.  Here’s why :

I Have the Power ! ( This is the How )

How should we use boredom ?

What are the benefits of being bored ?

I’ve got two main things here – and I think they’re very important.

  1. Being bored gives space for creativity
  2. Being bored helps us be ambitious

Boredom and Creativity

You want the perfect example of how boredom increases creativity ?

Nine year old Josh at church.

There’s this thing that happens when we get bored ( and remove a lot of distractions ) – our minds get to explore.  Our minds get to turn the sermon about David and Goliath into armies of Giants attacking.  I don’t need to prove all of this scientifically, even though I could – because it is so easy to prove it experientially.

There is a moment during boredom when your mind rolls from that mundane distraction into an unusual sort of excitement.

Essentially, I think inspiration strikes in the midst of boredom – and that it is easiest and most regularly found there.

Call it the wandering mind creating new connections, call it the mind resting and processing – it doesn’t matter.  It just seems that being bored regularly leads to moments of enthusiasm and genius.  That’s the only way I can explain my church doodles.

So how is boredom beneficial ? It leads to creativity.  Sure you’ve got to sift through some of the mind-numbing trivialities of life.  But, it seems to be worth it.

Boredom and Ambition

I wrote a big chunk about this here ( under part three ).

Essentially, life is about finding things you are ambitious about – and learning to pursue them.  That’s a big thing for finding your purpose.

And a huge thing for finding things that make you ambitious is boredom.  Not because you should simply avoid what makes you bored ( but in part you should ), but because in the midst of boredom, our minds move to those things that make us ambitious.

Boredom often leads us to meaningful things – purposeful and engaging things.

I’ve been in boring, long meetings before – and then I’ve come up with an idea for a story, and my mind churns and cranks out a million concepts, and before I know it, the meeting is over.  Time flies by.

The other way being bored helps us be ambitious is it relaxes us.  We only have so much energy – we’re not machines.  We need to rest. But I think there’s a myth or feeling out there that undermines being truly productive and ambitious :

The fear of SEEMING lazy

We toil and toil because we think we always need to be busy.

I feel this. Now more than ever.

I quit my job.  Now I get up and feel this insane need to prove that I’m not lazy by constantly working and doing things.  But a lot of times, it exhausts me and is a huge detriment to the goals I’m working on.

I am my own worst enemy.  I put an expectation on myself that I don’t need to, and it ruins my output.  It robs my production.  But it alleviates my boredom.

Boredom though – can sometimes be restful.  It can help our minds process or develop new ideas.  Boredom can also calm us down.  And that keeps our ambition high – because we don’t work ourselves ragged.

Wrapping It Up

Being bored can be one of the best things in the world.  Or maybe I just say that to justify all the ways I’ve used it.  Either way, it has been majorly beneficial to me.

Boredom is how we feel when we have nothing to distract us.  And that often feels crumby and numbing.  From there, that blegh feeling, can come all sorts of benefits, however.

Boredom leads to creativity, to ambition, and allows us to rest.

All in all, boredom can be one of those things that helps us produce much, much more than we thought.  We’ve just got to learn to harness it, instead of succumbing to it.




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