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The magic of boredom

During the summer as a kid, I remember being bored. I remember being bored a lot throughout childhood, actually. I also remember playing epic games of pretend, creating elaborate music videos and soap operas, and going on a ton of neighborhood adventures.

What I didn’t know when I was small was that the boredom was connected to the fun, creative stuff. It might have even caused it.

This article about letting kids be bored in the summer is getting shared around the social media space right now. Let’s us grown-ups take serious note.

Boredom is creative fuel

When I first started developing Constructive Laziness (something you’ll be hearing about a lot more on this blog in the coming weeks), it was purely as a creative tool. I needed to find a way of working that didn’t flare my anxiety and perfectionism, and make me choke the life out of whatever I was making.

“Take breaks so long you get bored” became one of the central tenets of this nascent practice. When I figured this out, it felt like discovering fire. The longer the breaks I took while working in the studio, the more productive my work became.

Why?

Because boredom leads to curiosity and creativity. A bored mind is an open one. It’s a mind that notices. It’s a mind that wonders and wanders and reaches.

Take a long enough break and you’ll find yourself noodling with the next scene or tracing light patterns with your hands or attempting to hold your legs in the air with as little muscular effort as possible. In other words: you’ll experiment. You’ll get creative. You’ll do the weird shit that kids do with their bodies, minds, and the spaces they occupy also known as…play.

Allowing boredom

But, when’s the last time you were well and truly bored?

We reach for our phones without even thinking about it every chance we get. We work too much. We put too much on ‘the list.’ We feel guilty and weird if there’s empty space in our lives. We don’t know how to relax.

I had a friend once who worked herself sick with a more-than-full-time job and a bunch of freelance clients. She and her partner would zip off on whirlwind four-day trips to Mendoza, then she’d come home and look into buying yet-another rental property. Even her down time was exhausting.

Finally, her body began to talk loud enough that she listened. A close-call with cancer helped her reorganize her priorities and she decided to stop. For at least six months. She took a break long enough she got bored. And getting bored was actually a conscious part of her plan. She’d been running on automatic for so many years, she was curious about what she might be drawn to on the other side.

To me, this was the wisest and most ballsy move she could have made.

Our culture doesn’t value stopping. And it doesn’t value boredom. We’re just like over-programmed kids. We jump from one project or job or hobby or relationship to the next without any space between. We pack our minds full of cat memes, catastrophe, and conflict. We stuff our schedule full of work, parenting, consuming, surviving.

What would happen if we stopped? Long enough to get bored. Long enough for that boredom to turn into something else.

I’ve written about using your intuition to clarify your dreams, but boredom can be just as powerful. If you create space for it.

Escaping the escape hatches

So how do you build a practice around boredom?

Week #5 of The Artist’s Way process is one of the hardest weeks. It’s the one where Julia Cameron tells you not to read anything. No reading. None. Not even a take-out menu. Most folks try to wriggle out of it. They bluster about having to read for their jobs, having to stay current with the news. They throw up blocks and resistance like nobody’s business. They huff, “Ridiculous!” They quit the program.

This is how deep our fear of empty space goes. This is how rigorous a boredom practice needs to be.

But in order to get bored, we need to deke around our escape hatches—those habitual patterns that operate a little like static in our lives. Take note of your own personal favorites. Get really honest about them.

Here, I’ll go first:

  • reaching for my phone and cycling through this obsessive loop: Facebook, email, work chat, repeat;
  • switching between probably five different books;
  • batch- or binge-watching TV (betcha can’t watch just one!);
  • “pre-worrying” about things that may or may not turn out to be actual problems in my future life;
  • just sittin’ there procrastinating;
  • eyeballing various points of entropy in my apartment and feeling defeat and/or failure; and
  • food (thinking obsessing about what my next meal will be, fantasizing about treats I desire and deserve, calculating the distance between my body and said treats, trying to figure out what to make with the four unrelated, possibly rancid ingredients in my fridge, complaining about having to acquire, prepare, and clean up after food. There’s just a whole lot of time eaten up by food. Pun intended.)

These are the things standing in the way of boredom. I’m sure there are more. And when my escape hatches and my self-care practices meet? Whoa. I could spend a whole morning procrastinating about meditating.

Boredom is actually difficult to achieve. And one must be conscious about cultivating it.

Conscious boredom

I now give myself afternoons where I practice Doing Nothing. It’s freaking HARD, y’all. And really not as pointless as it sounds. When I gently and continually guide myself away from reaching for escape hatches (which is a form of meditation), I create a gap. That gap is precious and fleeting and powerful.

Because, friends, it’s the gap between things that pulls us forward into the realm of dreams.

If I allow that gap to be there, stretchy and billowing and light, eventually something will pull me. I will be drawn to the things I actually desire. Instead of picking up my phone, I’ll pick up my piece of rose quartz. Instead of staring at the TV, I’ll stare at my tiny potted tree. I’ll reach for my sketchbook instead of my Kindle.

What happens after that is nothing short of magical.

As I sit there, gazing at my tiny potted tree (whose name is Happy Plant), I begin to notice things. Three new baby leaves starting. An interesting row of dots along one of the broader, larger leaves. Soil that needs watering. I feel a desire to tend to this plant, and so I do. I water the tree and somehow I can feel its appreciation. I think about how satisfying and beautiful it is to tend to a living thing. To care for something. To notice its progress and its subtle transformation.

I might think about ways I could care more tenderly for other beings in my life. Or for myself. I might contemplate how much joy I could generate by tending to other plants. What if I started a garden? I might wonder where Happy Plant grows natively and think about traveling there. I might contemplate which environments help me to thrive.

My desire, curiosity, and impulses are now free to take me absolutely anywhere. I am generative. I am dreaming. I am creating my life, instead of being pushed around by it.

I have subverted the frenetic feedback loop of constant stimulus. I’ve embraced empty space. More profoundly, I’ve created agency within myself. Presence of mind. Nuanced awareness. I’ve tapped into the world as it is—stretchy, billowing—not as “productivity” would have me see it—tight-arsed and urgent.

This stretchy, malleable space is the space I grew up in. This is the space where, after my boredom pulled me forward, I started creating scenes, epic dramas, characters. I became a storyteller here. A maker of plays. Down in the basement on a misshapen piece of green carpet, dress-up box yawning wide, I became myself on the other side of boredom. Why would this be different now, decades later?

What lies are we carrying about what it means to be adult?

I have a friend whose child is homeschooled. Her school work only takes up about half of the day, leaving her several open hours. “What does she do with that time?” I asked my friend. “She builds worlds,” he said.

How has boredom led you to build worlds? What world is asking to be built now?