Boredom is hard to come by nowadays, but it’s a great way to discover your brightest ideas yet.
I couldn’t remember the last time I was bored.
It was two years ago. I had just woken up and reached over to my bed stand to grab my phone so I can take my morning dose of digital notifications. As I was about to start scrolling through my various feeds, I had an epiphany.
I couldn’t remember the last time I was bored.
Along with my VHS player and Bon Jovi cassettes, boredom had become a relic of the past. Gone were the days when I would lie awake in bed in the morning, bored out of my mind, and daydream for a while before deciding to immerse myself into reality. I’d no longer twiddle my thumbs while waiting for a haircut or strike up a conversation with a stranger waiting in line at a coffee shop.
I know I’m not alone here. We fill—no stuff—every moment of our day with activity. We switch from one form of social media to the next, check our email, catch up on the news—all within a span of twenty minutes. We prefer the certainty of these distractions over the uncertainty of boredom (I don’t know what to do with myself, and I’d rather not find out).
During rare moments of tranquility, we feel almost guilty. As notifications scream their 100 decibel sirens for attention, we feel compelled to sneak a peek at them so we don’t miss out. Rather than being proactive, we spend most of our days—and our lives—playing defense against the onslaught of notifications and rapid-fire breaking news.
Our responses stoke, rather than put out, the fire. Each email we send generates even more emails. Each Facebook message and tweet gives us a reason to return. It’s a Sisyphean torture, endlessly rolling a boulder up an impossible hill.
All this churn feels productive, but it’s not. We’re hamsters entrapped in a wheel. There will soon be a whole generation of people who lived their lives without ever being bored.
I see two major problems with this trend.
The decline of boredom undermines our ability to think. And if we don’t take the time to think, we can’t question what we hear. Over time, our critical-thinking muscles begin to atrophy due to disuse. We move from one notification to the next and one Google hit to the other without pausing, understanding, and deliberating. (This, by the way, is exactly what Silicon Valley wants: We’re not supposed to think. We’re supposed to hit “Buy now, with one click.”).
Without a public unwilling to question—really question—what they hear, democracy decays and misinformation spreads. The reality comes close to the dystopian fiction depicted in Fahrenheit 451 where front porches are eliminated for their undesirable side effects:
“My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over . . . . [But t]hey didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong kind of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.”
Another casualty of a world without porches is creativity. There’s a saying that I love: “It’s the silence between the notes that makes the music.” It’s the silence, generated by boredom, that spurs innovation and catalyzes creative thinking. Even when it appears to be idling, the brain is still active. As you get bored, your subconscious kicks in and begins forming new connections.
This is why the best ideas come to you in the shower.
This is why numerous creatives and entrepreneurs credit boredom for their success. “Ideas come from daydreaming,” the author Neil Gaiman explains. “They come from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there.” When people ask Gaiman for advice on how to be a writer, his answer is simple: “Get bored.”
Stephen King agrees. He believes that “boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.” It was during a boring train ride that the idea for Harry Potter “simply fell into” J.K. Rowling’s head. The Hobbit was also borne out of boredom. As Professor Tolkien was grading, bored out of his mind, he scribbled on one exam paper, for no apparent reason, the following sentence: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” That’s how the opening line to The Hobbit was conceived.
Other examples abound. Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, had a chair in his living room dedicated to daydreaming. Albert Einstein believed that “the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” In yet another memorable quote, George Bernard Shaw said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I’ve made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
Following in the footsteps of these masterminds, I decided to rekindle my long-lost affair with boredom. I began deliberately building time into my day that I would call “airplane mode” when I sit on my recliner doing nothing but thinking and daydreaming. I spend 20 minutes, four days a week, in the sauna, with nothing but a pen and paper in hand. Odd place for writing? Yes. But some of the best ideas in recent memory occurred to me in that solitary, stifling environment.
The next time you feel boredom arising, resist the temptation to take a hit of data. Instead do what you did as a six-year-old: Embrace boredom and begin daydreaming.
The results will surprise you.