Practicing “Boredom”

I’ve always loathed boredom.

Any time I heard a friend say “I’m bored”, I’ve always felt sorry for them. My response would be, “How does that even work? Find something to learn. Find something to create. It’s the 21st century, and you have a smart phone; the entire world is at your fingertips. How can you possibly be bored?”

I can’t remember a single time in the last several years when I’ve truly felt “bored”. If my day is at a lull, I can turn on a podcast, quiz myself on something I’m learning using Quizlet, or browse the vast void of the Internet for various learning topics (recent favorites: Church history, population density around the world, and differing perspectives on what sidewalks should be made of).

One of my favorite go-to spots when things are slow is TED.com.

I recently listened to a talk by Manoush Zomorodi called “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas”.

The premise is that the human mind solves problems subconsciously, and it does that best when it’s given long periods of quiet time. During times that we might normally get a sense of “boredom”, such as while folding laundry or sitting in a waiting room outside an office, the mind might actually be working productively in ways that it otherwise can’t. Zomorodi suggests that these quiet times should actually be sought out.

This is contrasted with the nonstop “busyness” produced by constant connection: You have five seconds before your webpage loads, so you check your email; you’re standing in line for 10 minutes, so you watch a video; basically your brain gets no “breathing time” because it’s actively being bombarded with something external.

Creativity benefits most, Zomorodi argues, when your brain gets a good amount of alone time.

It reminds me of Cal Newport’s concept of “productive meditation”. The name is a bit misleading, but basically the idea is pretty simple: Ponder one of your most difficult work problems while walking, driving, or showering.

Speaking of showering, this is how I’ve practiced this in the past. In the mornings, I sometimes used to look at my list of tasks right before getting in the shower. Then I would think about it while showering, sometimes coming up with solutions that I might not think of while sitting in front of a computer screen.

But Zomorodi’s idea goes beyond that: Instead of thinking of something specific, it involves not having an agenda of things to think about. You actually don’t plan to come up with solutions to problems. Paradoxically, your mind might even work better in some ways when it’s not given an agenda.

When I’m in the shower actively thinking about my work, I often come up with good ideas because I can think outside the box. But when I’m not trying to think about my work, I’m sometimes even better at this type of lateral thinking.

I’m planning to put these ideas to the test for the next couple of months.

My Boredom Agenda for Fall of 2017

For the next 10 weeks I’ll be traveling in Europe.

I’m crossing several cities off my wish list, including Madrid, Berlin, and Paris, three of the largest metropolitan centers on the continent.

During this time, I plan to crank out all my work in the mornings, leaving my afternoons and evenings open for “boredom”.

I plan to kill two birds with one stone: (A) my work itself will be more focused, and (B) my leisure time will be more enjoyable (and perhaps even productive).

New York Attempt

I spent 6 days in New York on may way to Europe, starting to adjust to the idea of doing all my work in the mornings.

During this transitionary period, I learned a few things:

(1) It’s extremely easy to be very productive in a short morning.

To be fair, I’ve learned this lesson many times throughout my life. In general, my productivity throughout the last 10 years has divided into two types of seasons: (a) unproductive seasons in which I sleep in regularly, and (b) extremely productive seasons in which I force myself to get up early and work for at least 2 focused hours before distracting myself.

This week I’ve written and produced more than

In particular, I’ve resolved to write 1000 words per morning, six days a week. This has proved to be surprisingly easy.

(2) I come up with ideas easily when I’m not trying.

I’ve already produced the central concepts behind many articles and other things to write in just a few days, and that’s without searching for them. Ideas simply come to me while I’m riding the subway, walking between skyscrapers, or standing in line at a salad bar.

(3) The combination is greater than either individually.

Alternating back and forth regularly (i.e. daily) is working incredibly well.

I now constantly have more ideas than I can write. Not only that, but since the ideas are fresh (often less than a day old), I’m more motivated to write than I have been in a LONG time.

One week in, I’ve already written over 7000 words. That’s about as much as I wrote in the prior two months.

Not only that, my writing flows smoothly. I don’t have to force myself, and I don’t have to rack my brain to come up with each sentence. As a consequence, I’ve only spent about 6 hours writing those 7000 words, whereas my previous writing speed estimates to about 500 words per hour.

(4) I still never felt bored!

Somehow, in all those long afternoons and evenings, I never felt restless or inactive. I found myself constantly fascinated and engaged, despite having little or no agenda.

– I moved slowly and enjoyed my surroundings.

– I sat on a rock in Central Park and read a book.

– I wandered around the World Trade Center and Tribeca, exploring corners of the city that I hadn’t gotten to know before.

– I sought out great cafes using Yelp, and I’ve serendipitously sauntered into random restaurants to take my tastes on a mini-adventure.

– I stumbled through Times Square on a weekend while on the phone with a friend at home (not a recommended combo)

But I never found myself bored.

Admittedly, it’s probably difficult to get bored in NYC. There’s always plenty to find yourself doing even when you have no agenda.

Barcelona Mistake

I crashed hard in Barcelona after flying across the atlantic and spending 30 hours awake.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling great on Thursday, the next morning. It was going to be my first full day in Europe, and I wanted to get it off to a good start. So I walked a mile and a half to go get breakfast at a place I’d been wanting to go.

Then I wandered a round between a few coffee shops and saw Ciutadella Park.

Meanwhile I began my work for the day, but I only wrote 400 words before heading back to my AirBnB.

Then, trying to get to my work, I was distracted and slow.

– I jumped from my writing (finishing this post) to my email.

– I checked my word count every 50 words, hoping I had finished my quota for the day so that I could get to the next thing, rather than writing with enjoyable flow.

– I plodded through each thing I had to do, thinking about how much was left.

– I watched the clock tick by, grieving a day in Barcelona spent sitting in front of my computer.

Of course, this clarified something for me. A short, intense workday can be fun. A long, slow workday, interrupted by attempts at play, is not fun at all.

Going forward, I intend to stick with the plan. I’ll create a clear separation between work and play, the one before the other. And I’ll plan my day as if I’m hoping to be “bored” for 10 hours every day. Even though that’s probably not the right term for the productive, peaceful leisure time I hope to have in Europe.

We’ll see.