Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Being bored is a good thing

 Being bored is a good thing

We are approaching a sacred time: the vortex between Christmas and new year, where we all wordlessly agree to forget time, stop pretending we’re too busy and maybe lie upside down, heads hanging off the couch, staring into the void.

I think this is healthy. You know the phrase “only boring people get bored?” Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe patient and interesting people can tolerate being bored, and the rest of us have forgotten how to. During this year’s vortex, I vow to.
Two weeks ago, on a slog home to Brooklyn from midtown Manhattan, I watched my phone battery dwindle from six per cent to two. As I turned it off, I realised I’d be undistracted, wholly, for an hour. This should have been fine: I had time. I knew my way home. The worst thing that could happen, really, was that I’d get bored. But for a moment, I felt pure fear. Scared, of boredom! I wanted to flip my skin inside out, to scratch some unreachable itch.
I stood at the stop. I squinted at the sign. The wait read 14 minutes, and I thought “FOURTEEN MINUTES!!!” An insurmountable mountain of nothing! I rummaged through my bag like an animal, emerged with a pen and four index cards, and started to ration. I wrote down what I noticed (“so many black coats,” “so many men chewing gum”). I then boarded the subway, looked at people’s noses, and drew a bunch of shoes. It was, in all, a pretty nice time, and I emerged at my stop victorious.
But the self-satisfaction quickly fell away. Since when did boredom feel so unfamiliar? I grew up in the ’90s. We were always bored.

For a week, I asked people when they felt truly bored as kids and now. As kids, most said waiting: for their parents, the bus, or literally anything to be over or begin. But they struggled to define times they get bored now. When they feel the first twinge (starting a new book, waiting, commuting), their distraction sits conveniently in hand. The best examples of true boredom were times they couldn’t opt out: either because it was rude, like at a party or in a meeting, or because they were digitally unattached, like me, on that train.

When I think about time and life, I often return to Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In it, he explains that where you pay your attention matters, because it makes up the actual contents of your life. And the reason boredom can feel so “surprisingly, aggressively unpleasant” is because it forces you to confront that you have limited control. When you’re distracted, at least you’re constrained by the thing that’s distracting you (“did Bad Bunny and Kendall Jenner break up? Were they ever truly in love?”). When you’re bored, you’re unconstrained. I can’t “use” those 14 minutes, or even “waste” them on reggaeton TikTok. All I can focus on is me: my past, my present, and a future that’s impossible to fully know.
In search of a solution, I called the queen of boredom: tech journalist and podcaster Manoush Zomorodi. Ten years ago, her public radio audio project Bored and Brilliant challenged people to see if getting bored made them more creative, using small experiments that pushed them to rely less on their phones. It was a hit: 20,000 listeners took part, including me. Zomorodi wrote a book, and has been reporting on technology’s effect on us since. I wanted to know how she inhabits boredom now.
“I think I’ve crossed over to the other side!” she declared. “I realised I can’t come up with good ideas if I live always switched on. My career depends on me not constantly being in touch.”
Zomorodi told me that she’s interviewed so many scientists that she knows what’s happening physiologically now when she switches off, and can feel her brain click over to being more present. “I tell myself, I’m just a lump of flesh. There are a lot of electrical impulses, and I can be very easily manipulated. These first 10 minutes of my walk are going to suck. But I know the payoff is there. It’s soguaranteed that that is when I have my big ideas.”
So should we think differently about discomfort? I ask her.
She said that recently, the war in Gaza came up in her home. Her son told her to “read the room, mom!” It was uncomfortable, and he didn’t want to talk about it. But she insisted they did. “We live in a society where people are constantly saying ‘you’re making me uncomfortable’ and that’s considered unacceptable,” she told me. “But uncomfortable things are worth talking about, and uncomfortable feelings can be worth feeling.”
Her other tip is based on her newest audio experiment, Body Electric, on Ted Radio Hour: “I have the answer. Go for a walk every hour or half hour, with nothing attached to you. Plain. It’s just that easy, and that hard.”
Next week, I plan to take Zomorodi and Burkeman’s permission to be bored: unconstrain my time, and sit in it. I won’t give it a name (meditate!), or make arbitrary limits (no screens at night, forever!). I’ll decide the things I want to pay attention to (a book, a walk, a drawing), trust my fallible silly human brain, accept the discomfort of the first 10 minutes, and remember that inevitably, it always starts to feel creative and good.
You should try it, too, and let me know.