There’s a long line at Target, so you take out your phone and check Twitter. As you open your eyes in the morning, you scroll through Instagram. You wait for the oven to preheat, so you peruse Facebook. You’re about to nod off for a nap but check your email anyway. You’re sitting at the park and start visiting random websites. You’re at the gym and fire off a text or two or 10. You’re at lunch. You’re waiting for a program to load on your computer. You’re waiting for the microwave to ding. You’re on the subway or in a cab. You’re home alone. The idea for your next blog post isn’t arriving fast enough…
Whenever there’s a pause in our day, whenever we’re waiting, whenever our mind seems blank, we reach for our devices, for our instant dose of entertainment, for something to fill the void.
There’s a discomfort in being bored, in being alone with our thoughts (or lack of ideas), and so we naturally yearn to feel better. And today we find the (quick) fix in our smartphones and tablets. We find the fix in social media, some website, our inbox.
But being bored is important. And it can actually be quite fruitful for our creative process.
Recently, in this piece, professor and author Cal Newport shared some wisdom about boredom from writer Neil Gaiman: “I think it’s about where ideas come from, they come from day dreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there…” Gaiman added: “…I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,” I say ‘great, get bored.’”
In this piece Gaiman told writer Liza Power: “The biggest problem with Twitter is that I’d be in a taxi and I’d be on Twitter and it would keep me interested. I realized I wasn’t getting bored enough and [that I needed to get bored] to start plotting things and coming up with ideas.”
Gaiman further explained (the “we” includes his wife Amanda Palmer): “We both became who we are when we were teenagers. I was writing stories, she was writing songs. We did it to fill the empty space in our heads, the lack of connection. You were entertaining yourself, finding what you had to say and saying it. I’m concerned that it’s too easy for people to connect and be interested all the time these days. And that’s like breathing in. But you also need the dead moments when you exhale and nothing’s coming in in order to stay alive. I hope today’s wired generation will learn to take its breaks and I especially hope our teenagers do too.”
The next time you find yourself reaching for your phone (or any device), pause. Give yourself some space instead. Space to think. To daydream. To sink into the silence. To hum a tune. To use your senses to experience your environment, to see, smell, hear, taste and touch what’s around you. Or to simply do nothing.
It is in this empty, seemingly boring place where you might find your most creative self. Where you might come across a key detail. Where you might see a solution. Where you might come up with a boring idea, which leads to an interesting one.
Or maybe you don’t see or find anything at all. Which is OK, because you still give yourself a much needed breather from all things digital, shiny, bright and jarring, and you start practicing the art of becoming more comfortable with discomfort.
Either way, you give yourself the—significant—space to exhale.
What happens when you let yourself be bored, when you stop reaching for instant entertainment and exhale instead? Does it help or hurt your creative process? What do you notice? What do you find?