Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I took a short trip to Bergerac and the surrounding area. It was a brilliant few days; we ate foie gras, visited ancient caves and even went kayaking down the Dordogne. But this post isn’t about any of those things. It’s about the most boring day I had on that trip.
I’d accompanied my girlfriend to France as she’d been invited to an old friend’s wedding. I didn’t know the happy couple and wasn’t invited to the event so I played willing chauffeur for a day. I dropped my girlfriend off at the beautiful Chateau de Lacoste in the morning and agreed to return after the wedding reception, at around 1am.
I now had 15 hours to kill, in France, on my own, with limited internet access and absolutely no plans.
A whole day of nothing
I drove to Sarlat — the nearest town — and parked the car. I took a stroll around the picturesque streets and idly wandered into random shops. I took photographs of buildings and spent time messing around with image filters on my phone. I soon gravitated towards a cafe on the square for lunch. No need to rush; I sat for a few hours drinking coffee. I watched the world go by and read a few articles I’d saved to my phone (I’m far too cheap to use data in a foreign country).
Later, I took the quiet drive back to the tiny village where we were staying. There was no TV, and the internet wasn’t very good. But it was just about quick enough to visit a few news websites and blogs for a short while. Later, I drove to a nearby village. Nothing was open except a small pizza place, so I bought a takeaway and took another long walk. I took more photos — of the church and view from the big bridge. I went back to the apartment, took a shower, read a book, listened to music and did pull-ups on a wooden beam. Anyway, I think you get the idea. I was totally bored. And I loved every minute of it.
Why I cherish the tedious times
I’ve always secretly relished the prospect of being bored. I love spending hours sat on a long-haul flight. I love choosing a boring walk home over a taxi. I even loved — well, sort of — spending the early hours of one morning sitting quietly in a hospital waiting room after a minor accident at a climbing wall.
But boredom is something that seems to come in too short a supply today. Busy lives and always-on technology leave very little room to enjoy the benefits of simply doing nothing.
Boredom ignites creativity inside of me. I come up with ideas and I solve problems. On that tedious day in France, I actually achieved a lot. I contemplated my life and the things that I wanted to achieve. I came up with plans and projects and solved minor conundrums that had been weighing on my mind. It was a productive day, but I didn’t really do anything.
The link between boredom and creativity has not gone unnoticed by scientists. There’s a great article on the Harvard Business Review website about the creative benefits of boredom. Two studies undertaken in recent years suggest that boredom stimulates both divergent thinking (ideas generation) and convergent thinking (problem-solving).
It seems that the brain simply tries to escape to more exciting pastures when presented with things that it finds boring.
Good and bad boredom
Of course, not all boredom is good. Sitting in an angry traffic jam when I should have been in a meeting a half hour ago isn’t a good form of boredom. Neither is being cornered at a social event by the most boring person I’ve ever met. In fact, I would say that any form of boredom that involves other people isn’t a good thing. Being bored in somebody else’s presence is just awkward for all parties.
Good boredom — for me — is fairly specific. It can’t involve any kind of time pressure and certainly shouldn’t induce any feelings of stress. It needs to be reasonably comfortable, but not so comfortable that you can sleep. And it can’t exist in adverse weather conditions if you happen to be outside. It can be peeling potatoes or jogging the same route that you’ve run a hundred times. It can be a boring admin task, but not one that’s too mentally taxing. It needs to be just the right level of tedium.
When I was 16, I worked on a checkout in a supermarket. Tuesday nights were my favourite. Between around 8.30 and when the store closed at 10, the place was dead. I’d sit alone at the checkout and just… think. One evening, I remember planning an entire piece of English A-level coursework in my head due to a complete lack of anything else to occupy my mind. Boredom can be constructive.
I think that a little boredom can be useful in the workplace. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m trying to avoid an especially mundane task. Charismatic illustrator Jessica Hische calls this phenomenon “procrastiworking”. I think it can be a powerful thing (in measured doses of course).
Don’t fight it
Boredom and quiet times are perhaps most appealing to natural introverts like me. But I think that we can all benefit creatively by pausing to embrace forced periods of reflection.
So what can we do to ensure that there is still space for boredom in our lives? We can start by switching off our phones from time-to-time. Smartphones — social media apps in particular — are the arch-enemy of good quality boredom. Technology, in general, is a problem. Netflix, YouTube, PlayStation… all seek to eradicate constructive mundanity. People too, don’t help. Boredom — in my opinion — is best undertaken as a solitary pursuit.
So let go, get away, switch off. Don’t fight it. Save a little space for being bored.