The first in a four part series on the unexpected problem of boredom. Stay tuned for a FREE worksheet at the end of the post.
In 5th grade, I was profoundly bored with school.
Over the course of more than 5 years of elementary education, I had built up such a dissatisfaction with the everyday ordinary of school that my mind began to wander in unpredictable ways. We were in school 7 hours, busy with schoolwork at least 5 of those, playing or eating the rest and I simple couldn’t take the tedium anymore.
It wasn’t from a lack of activity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there. School was utterly uninteresting and unchallenging.
The biggest problem was that I wanted to learn. I wanted to be engaged. I wanted to create. I needed to be challenged.
One vivid memory I have from that school year has me in the back of my classroom. The rest of the class is reading or working through a lesson. I’m busy with constructing a roller coaster entirely of classroom supplies.
It was an extension of a project that we started as a class. But my mind took each tiny detail as an opportunity – a loop here, a dip there – and so my teacher let me continue to work through it. I didn’t need the other lesson. I needed this.
I had wonderful teachers that year.
Mrs. Osif, Mr. Kief, if you’re out there, you made a difference.
I was bored enough that I got out early for good behavior. Lucky me, I got to skip 6th grade and move on to the torture of junior high. While my secondary education wasn’t without glimmers of engagement, it really took til college, when I could truly stretch my creative muscles, that my boredom eased.
“Busy” is not a cure for boredom.
Earlier in the week, while preparing to write a post on the negative effects of boredom on creative people, I polled Twitter.
“How often do you experience boredom?” I said.
You said, “Never.”
“No,” you said. “I’m too busy to be bored.”
Yes, I do understand that. Being busy masks that sense that you could be doing something more, that you could be challenging yourself further, that you could be more engaged with each minute of life. But being busy is not the same things as being not bored.
It doesn’t help that the things that make us feel busy are quite important: our families, our day jobs, our community responsibilities.
Identifying the busy parts of our day as times when we experience boredom is just downright uncomfortable.
So, perhaps, I thought, boredom isn’t the right word.
How can I deconstruct (because that’s what any self-respecting postmodern theology student would do) boredom – ennui – so that I can know when it’s happening, identify the causes, avoid the consequences, and use it to create a more fulfilling creative life?
That is a tall task. And why this endeavor will be a 4 part post series.
Boredom is not as simple as having nothing to do.
Instead of asking “how often do you experience boredom?” I could ask, “how often do you feel a profound lack of energy?” or “how often do you feel distracted?”
If you’re a busy person, you probably feel that quite often. I do.
Those are feelings are both part of the definition of boredom.
How often do you feel listless? Listlessness is a feeling of lack of energy or enthusiasm. It comes from an Old English word meaning “desire.”
Now, I don’t know many crafters, artists, or creative people who are without desires. But I know many who are without the energy to achieve them. It’s the kind of creative fatigue that comes from exercising your creativity too little – not too often.
How often do you find yourself on “autopilot?”
I put myself on autopilot when I’m unengaged with the task at hand. If I wonder where the day has gone, how I got from point A to point B, how 5pm turned into 9pm, I know I’m on autopilot. A recent study by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, found that we spend about half of our day on autopilot.
And autopilot doesn’t make us happy.
Researchers found that people were at their happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.
— via Psychology Today
Now, I’m not going to tell you that you should be happy all the time. But I’m sure you find it as disconcerting as I do that we should be doing something unhappy a majority of the time. Especially, when we could just wake up to a more mindful state of being.
And to me, autopilot is just another way to say “boredom.”
Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.
— John Teasdale
It appears that it’s human nature to put oneself on autopilot. Working through the day without clear objectives, distracted by other responsibilities, multitasking in a futile attempt to get more done, boredom may not be the first word that comes to mind but I think it’s apropos.
And finally, just because you find things to fill your day doesn’t mean you’re not bored. Steven Pressfield calls this “depth of work.”
What is depth of work? Have you ever had one of those days at the gym where you go around yakking to your buddies, schmoozing and chilling. That is NOT depth of work. Have you ever tweeted, or checked your Facebook page, or succumbed to serial e-mailing? That ain’t depth of work either.
I love that. Boredom isn’t just an alleviation of inactivity, it can be a fundamental state of just getting by.
Depth of work is what we crave. Depth of work is what we hope for. We can’t have it all the time but we can always be looking for it, identifying it, and learning how to reach it more often.
Boredom – ennui – is a natural part of the human experience. Learning how to identify it, manipulate it, even use it means that we’re more open to the deeply creative experiences we desire.
We may be busy but it’s doesn’t mean we’re not bored.
So, how often are you bored? How often are you unchallenged, uninspired, or unengaged? How often are you on autopilot?
The rest of this series will focus on what we do with our boredom and how we can channel that into more focused, more fulfilling creative experiences.
Take an “energy inventory” to find out about how you use your personal energy reserves. To help identify patterns and discover opportunities for living a more mindful & creative life, download my FREE energy inventory worksheet.