Learning how to be bored again

by Kristin on April 10, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

“I’m bored!” was probably the most common of the slightly whiny phrases I uttered as a kid (after “I’m hungry!” that is). My mom was skilled at both feeding me creative ideas and tasty snacks, so I survived childhood just fine.

Now, that feeling I dreaded as a kid—of flat, empty, unchanging time creeping by like a stretch of Nebraska interstate—fascinates me. I know what it’s like to pass time being lazy or frivolous, but I can’t imagine what it would feel like now to be truly bored.

It seems like Time has been on my mind a lot lately. As the keeper of the family calendar, there are always plenty of opportunities to think about how we’re “spending” our time, and as a bill-by-the-hour freelancer, I can’t help but be aware of “saved” and “wasted” time. Our culture is full of opinions and suggestions about how we spend and waste our time. (Ironically, just a month ago, I wrote an article for RELEVANT doing just that—suggesting “better” ways to “waste time.”)

But mostly, this past month, I’ve been thinking about time not as currency, but rather as space. A pause. A small stretch of empty moments not necessarily waiting to be filled. It’s the sort of space that might even induce boredom!

Somewhere along the way my kids picked up the phrase “If you’re bored, you’re boring,” but I’m beginning to think there could be another way to look at it. An article I recently read suggests something I suspected back in the days of watching my little kids play and create within large swaths of empty time: Boredom (or at least space in our lives) is an important ingredient in creativity and innovation.

I know it sounds strange, but I welcome boredom. It forces me to ponder. But to make sure we’re on the same page, when I speak of boredom, I’m not referring to killing time on your smartphone, your iPad, or your laptop. I’m not even talking about paging through a book. I mean bored as in doing absolutely nothing.

Doing nothing.

Absolutely nothing at all.

Not only is doing nothing against our drive as individuals, it goes against the entire grain of our culture. I’m not even sure most of us know how to leave room for nothing, let alone how to do nothing. Even the way we phrase it—”doing nothing”—suggests that nothingness is still an act, something we do (worthy of putting on our To Do lists!). The closest I get to doing nothing is taking a walk or knitting, which are both still something, but at least they are available to the possibility of losing myself in open-ended stretches of time and thought.

I’m not sure how one gets really good at being bored, but I’m certainly going to experiment. I owe it to myself, because that sense of time as space seems to be the key to so much of what I love, and long for, in life—creativity, ideas, really seeing and hearing what’s around and inside me, and idly whittling away the hours with people I love.

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  • http://herjourneyofhope.com Lindsay

    I love this. I’ve put so much guilt on myself for how I spend my time because there is always something else I “should” be doing. This is such a healing way to see things. Free time is space to be, to breathe, to create, to imagine.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Awesome. So true. When I stop and create space for myself to just breathe and wander, my mind is often at its best. Thanks for this wisdom and the reminder that we all used to know how to do boredom really well!

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com Addie Zierman

    Love this: “I’ve been thinking about time not as currency, but rather as space. A pause. A small stretch of empty moments not necessarily waiting to be filled.”

    I’m beginning to realize I’m terrible even at rest. The things I do to “veg out” are not things that actually fill me or create a spirit of quiet in me. So often I choose the counterfeit, the escape, instead of the wide, open space of quiet.

  • http://tracytodd.wordpress.com Tracy Todd

    There was a time when I had a busy life, longing back to my childhood days of being bored from time to time. My world was shattered when I was left paralyzed from the neck down in an accident.

    Being a quadriplegic, I am acutely aware of the normalcy in other people’s lives: their need for exercise, entertainment or affection and even their need to do nothing at times, to be bored.

    Especially at night, I lie: trussed, myopic and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison. My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories and mis-memories. It’s during those hours that I have to dig deep, be brave and stay strong. But, if being lifted into a wheelchair brings a tremendous amount of joy and relief then, it has to say something about the loneliness of the journey. Yet, I’ve learned that it’s at those times that the most healing takes place, not physical, but rather emotional, psychological and spiritual. Therefore, I truly understand the human desire, and need, to have times of doing nothing, being recreational in different ways or being simply, bored.

    I thank God for the blessing of my intellect and the distractions that the daylight hours bring in form of relationships, friends, families, community, pets, Internet etc. but, I have to add that the pleasures of mental agility are often much overstated by those not exclusively dependent on them.

    My advice is: take time out for yourself. Take time to be bored if you like. Make that choice when you can but also be careful what you wish for.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Lindsay, it’s true—so much of my guilt issues are connected to how I spend (or don’t spend) my time. Culturally, the word “lazy” has become too negative and is used too often to describe even healthy down time. We need to start reframing it!

    ed, you mention wandering, an action that has both a happy, free connotation and one that can leave us feeling confused and defensive about our wandering. Perhaps it’s just not culturally accepted and admired—once again, we need to reframe it!

    Addie, oh, the escape is so appealing, though! My husband and I have gotten hooked on the show Friday Night Lights. It’s streaming on Netflix and there are five seasons, which means we can watch it every night if we let ourselves. I tell myself it’s “down time,” which we need and deserve, but I also realize it often takes the place of that “wide, open space of quiet,” which I also need. As always, it’s all about balance—I’m just currently way off-kilter.

    Tracy, your perspective always takes me by surprise and turns my world upside down, in ways that are disorienting and so very important. Thank you for being willing to share your story and wisdom with great honesty and patience.

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  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    Recently, I’ve been working on this writing project. And I want it to be the best thing I could possibly ever do. It’s the most still time I spend, my fingers poised over the keyboard, my body totally still, the room around me completely silent, and I stare into space, thinking, not thinking. Waiting. Breathing. The instinct is to move the fingers, to get it down, to not WASTE that time. But is the time wasted if I’m purposefully still. Purposefully searching, in the stillness.

    Also, this made me giggle: “I’m not sure how one gets really good at being bored, but I’m certainly going to experiment.”

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    As a Chicago boy who moved to the country, I want to add hearty agreement to your post! It took me two years to slow down enough to enjoy an evening sitting on the porch, watching the sun set, and just passing the time with my family and neighbors. Now–I’m spoiled forever.

  • http://www.tararobinson.com Tara Rodden Robinson

    Hi Kristin,

    As a productivity coach, I think about time a lot! :) And I hear so much about time from my clients. Now, I’m even writing a book on it. And I love your post on time as space–space that can be opened and not filled. Yes! YES! I experienced this myself a couple of weeks ago when my husband and I visited Costa Rica.

    When we arrived at our lovely beachfront hotel, we went out on the balcony and sat there, staring out at the sea. For hours. When I felt bored, I immediately felt restless. Shouldn’t I be “doing” something? Well, no, I was already doing something: I was resting. The longer I sat still, just allowing myself to be in the space of that time, the more relaxed I became. And then something miraculous occurred (on about day four or so). My creativity began to return. Wow.

    Thanks again and many thanks to Ed Cyzewski for introducing me to you and your writing.

    With love,

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    I needed to read this, so much. Thank you.

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