Deconstruction of Ennui: Boredom & Creativity in the PostModern Age part 1

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.

bored - ceramic sculpture by artmind
"bored" ceramic sculpture by artmind - click image to see more

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.”

Wow. Really?

“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.

27 thoughts on “Deconstruction of Ennui: Boredom & Creativity in the PostModern Age part 1

  1. As a little girl I felt caged by school and created worlds inside my head that I could go to and escape the tedium. I also started to read like crazy, and the stories would sustain my fantasy life through school hours. Once I was finished with school,I have done everything to avoid letting boredom into my life. From the time I moved out at 16 I have chosen to create work that engaged my mind, body and heart, because anything less feels like prison.

    I have worn many hats since then doing everything from working the night shift with street involved youth, starting a summer camp, directing and marketing non-profits. And as my focused changed, allowing myself to pursue my love of art, design, and marketing handmade full time.

    I feel what might be boredom when I HAVE to do something: make dinner, wash dishes, clean the 500th load of cloth diapers, but the worlds I made for myself in my head as a child come in handy then. Since I can’t just not attend to the minutia of daily life, when I am scrubbing the toilet my brain is busy working-because my work does truly bring me joy. Even when the emails are piling up and it’s almost midnight and I am still editing the post for the day. I love that busyness, it fulfills and inspires me!

  2. My husband and I were talking about this just a few weeks ago – how you get on autopilot and end up working, but not achieving anything. We started to really pay attention and noticed some patterns – that we both seemed to have a natural three-hour period where we could work in a focused way. And then I remembered the Montessori three-hour work period. We’ve started to deliberately structure our days into three-hour work blocks and the results have been amazing. We both work from home and our daughter homeschools. We’ll start a three-hour block and everyone works on their own thing -with absolute focus – for that time. And then we take a break. And we try to make the break different from the work. If I was editing photos and designing a pattern on the computer during that three hours, my break is NOT continuing to sit at the computer to read my favorite blogs – it’s getting up and moving around, doing the dishes, folding laundry, going for a walk. If my work was standing at my sewing table cutting stockings out, my break might be lying on the couch to read a book. We’ll have another three hour block in the afternoon. We’re still settling in to the new routine, but so far the results have been really good. We all get our focus time and we’re REQUIRED to take breaks. That’s a good thing for us work-at-home types who sometimes feel like we’re living at work instead of working at home.

  3. I wondered where you were going with that question. Reframing it does change things. I answered that I am rarely bored and sometimes wish the idea mill would slow down a bit. This remains true concerning the ideas, but I do in fact spend much time with busy work. I think for myself there are different varieties or levels of boredom or ennui (I love that word BTW). The boredom of doing data entry for my website is different than the boredom when I worked retail on a slow day. The latter was torturous which is why I had to quit. Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of tedious work as I built a new website. However that tedious work is far preferable to the torture of waiting for customers. For one I am building something for myself. Secondly as I do the work I often get ideas that inspire me as I work and can choose to break and at least make some notes. I think the worst thing for me now is the time sink that FB and twitter can be. Like Wendy it has come down to structuring my day so that my creative energies are directed best and the busy work still gets done. I don’t quite have it down yet, but things are better. I look forward to seeing where this goes Tara. Good stuff! Thanks

  4. Yes! I am often bored even when I’m very busy. Boredom to me is: the same schedule every day – wake up, get my daughter ready for school, come home and try to entertain the dog while working – even though I relish the structure.
    I love what Wendi said above. I find that I have a time during the day when I’m most productive and feel creative. It makes sense to consciously take advantage of that time. I often feel out-of-sorts after a long busy day and this may be one reason why.

  5. my husband and i talk about this all the time. he is always bored, and i am never bored. in fact, i don’t know that i’ve ever been bored in my whole life, and i’m 52. i can’t imagine being bored in the future, as long as my mind and hands work. i have more things i want to do than time to do them, and i’m often doing a couple of things at the same time…knitting and reading, for instance.

    my husband is so profoundly dyslexic that he can’t read, which leaves out a surprising number of things (no foreign movies for him!). he is a therapist and when he’s working, he’s in heaven. but when he’s not, he doesn’t have hobbies or other interests (besides me, and i can only be engrossing and fascinating for so long :) ). no wonder he’s bored…..

  6. Ok, so I feel like you are talking directly to me because what I said on Facebook was exactly what you wrote we said, “I’m too busy to feel bored.” You’re post is great for calling me out on this statement. It’s true that I am very busy and rarely ever feel that sense of boredom which I felt in my younger years. I’m almost always working, creating, blogging, researching, or feeling a feeling of go-go-go. Even when I’m not, the down time is so needed that lounging or hanging out by myself doesn’t spark a sense of boredom at all. I don’t ever feel like I’m bored, but when I read what you say about being on autopilot, about or lacking depth of work, I started to think about when exactly I do feel like this. Right now I work 3 jobs, 2 part-time for other people and one for me. My business is taking off and I’m *almost* to the point where I don’t need to work for other people. I have noticed the most in the last 6 or so months that working for other people is probably my “autopilot” time. I work for others and think constantly about what I can do for me. I don’t put the effort into what I do for others as much any more as I used to do. I’m always thinking if I were at home, working on me, I’d be better off. I have lists to work on, a purpose, a goal to achieve. I don’t feel that way so much anymore when working for others. So, maybe that is my autopilot time. I trudge through what I have to do for others, just to get back to working on me. It’s a way I’ve felt for a while for sure. And you’re right, it’s not exactly boredom, it’s ennui, it’s lack of depth…

    1. Hi Martha!

      Your Facebook comment was just like so many others I read from people just like you. Kids, jobs, chores, responsibilities, we’re all so damn busy. But it doesn’t mean that we’re engaged with life. On the flip side, resting doesn’t mean your bored, either. I think rest is a whole other animal that we can choose to be fully engaged in or not.

      As this series evolves, my thesis won’t be that we *shouldn’t* be bored but that, if we can identify those times when we’re not fully engaged with what we’re doing, we can seek more meaningful experiences instead of looking for escape.

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. Tara-
    This post means a lot to me. Boredom has been my biggest enemy my whole life and I experience it big time, much of the time. I call it “The Rut” and have based my own blog on this very premise.

    Busyness is a cover-up. We fill our lives with it so we don’t have to see what is really there. Underneath it all there is like a big “void” and I think to look into that is terrifying. Personally, when i’m bored I try desperately to fill that void with activity, goals, and achievements. This leads to a constant need to out-do myself with more goals, achievements, etc. I’m just now realizing I don’t want to live like this anymore. I do not know the answer to boredom, but the way i’ve been doing it sure isn’t the answer!

  8. Tara, I am so glad the took the time from busy, busy (but boring) day to read this post; and I am so look forward to others. You have quite succinctly put into words the feeling that I have been experiencing for ages. I am 52 and have really struggled to find a way to transition from mom to the next stage of life. I have found that my level of creative thinking has soared but I feel “frozen” to act upon it. So I filled all my hours with “things to do”. Can’t wait to see what else you post, thanks for giving me some insight and a big thanks!

  9. I really like the way you put this. I lead a really busy life but I’m bored out of my mind at my job. When I was younger, “boredom” used to mean to me having absolutely nothing to do. Now, it feels more like what you say — a lack of engagement or inspiration regarding the tasks I am doing.

    I agree completely with Martha Latta — my time spent working for others and furthering their missions and goals rather than my own is my autopilot time. I hate that I spend at least 8 hours a day zoned out and thinking of all the things I’d rather be doing to further my own business.

    I’m really looking forward to future posts on this subject!

  10. Apparently, I am bored out of my mind, because you hit the nail on the head with this. Thanks so much. I am really looking forward to exploring this further!

  11. Hey Tara!

    This is such an insightful post. I’ve never really thought of it this way before, but I definitely fall squarely into the “never bored” camp. In fact, I’ve always found it IMMENSELY hard to understand how someone could, in fact, feel bored/have nothing to do. On the other hand, listlessness definitely creeps in sometimes, and despite having lots of exciting things going on it my life, I can feel de-energized just by thinking of my to-do list! One of my biggest realizations lately was actually that I needed to feel energized as much as possible to be happy, so this is worth thinking about for sure.

    It’s funny, too, because I’ve been feeling a definitely collision of ideas in the blogosphere this week. I just wrote an article a few days ago on how being conscious of your style decisions keeps us from going on autopilot, and how the reverse can infiltrate into the rest of our lives. (

    Your inventory looks SUPERB. Wow. Maybe I’ll create a “style inventory” 😀 (though I feel like Danielle LaPorte might have grabbed that name first at some point, rats!)

    Keep inspiring!

  12. The only time I feel bored is when there’s work that I’m not interested in but requires my attention. I don’t mind autopilot activities at all. It’s when something wants my focus and I don’t want to give it that I feel bored.

    In my experience, activities where we’re on autopilot can actually assist the creative process. Those are often times that my unconscious mind can ruminate on creative problems and ideas and ahas can come. Those are daydreaming times, and I love them.

    I don’t relate at all to the idea that I’m unhappy when resting, working or on the computer. Lies, damned lies and statistics. :)

    Can’t wait for the rest of this series, Tara!

    1. thanks for your comment, Sue!

      I can relate to you not minding the autopilot activities. I wouldn’t want to many of them – and, in fact, I would say I’m on autopilot a LOT less than the average working mom. Having my own business, working on my self-actualization, being a mindful blogger, those things help me stay plugged into every moment.

      And, isn’t the best part of statistics figuring out where they’re wrong?!?

      Oh! And I agree that autopilot is part of the creative process. I’ve got a guest post for part 3 that addresses just this idea!

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  13. so true, and I was that kid too. I so regret my schooling which was so drab and un-tailored to suit my interest, abilities or personality, which is a big reason why I am homeschooling my kids now.
    I like the depth of work idea, that resonates with me. I think that many moms experience this as kids keep us extremely busy but it is not exactly exciting work. in order to keep on the path it is so vital to answer the question you are posing here, how to live a vital life and not be busy bored. looking forward to the next few posts to see your answer to the question. thanks for taking the time to examine this issue.
    shona cole

  14. My grandmother always said that she felt sorry for anyone who was bored, because it meant they weren’t smart enough to entertain themselves. I took that to mean that being bored was a bad thing and I should avoid it at all costs. I’ve found a hecka lot of ways to avoid boredom… but your question was fascinating.

    You’re right, I *am* on autopilot an awful lot. Maybe that’s an aspect of boredom I’d never considered. I like the idea that, instead of trying to avoid boredom, I might be able to use it as a cue to check in and see if I’m on the right track…

    Thank you for a VERY interesting discussion, that really resonates with me!

  15. I agree “bored” is a confusing term because we do buzz around our day like crazy but at the end of it we feel like we haven’t achieved anything.
    I often can’t even remember if one thing that did leave an imprint in my mind happened that same day or two days ago – like I was not fully awake through half of my day.

  16. When I saw your Facebook post about being bored, I didn’t think much about it. I’m never bored; if nothing else, I can always pick up a book to take me to another place.

    But your thoughts on energy REALLY resonated with me. I have so many things I want to do — but I rarely feel like I have the energy to do them. And I’m trying to find out why that is. My job is not particularly challenging — and maybe it’s the drudgery of it that saps all my energy and leaves me with so little for personal stuff.

    Really great food for thought — looking forward to the rest of the series!

  17. Can’t wait to read this series! I’m finishing up my last two weeks of work at what was once a wonderful job. I’ve been there for more than a decade and I’ve grown bored. I’m perpetually busy, but not challenged.
    Now with thoughts of a new job on the horizon, boredom has been replaced by excitement mixed with a fear of the unknown.

  18. I have always said “I could never be bored”. What you wrote here is very interesting. “Depth of work” – I love that! I don’t want to go through my life on autopilot, but maybe I am doing that more than I care to admit. Can’t wait to read more about this! Thank you!

  19. I’m bored a lot…
    My school experience was a lot like yours, it was often unchallenging. I got fairly good grades, but often I created my own challenges to keep going. Some of them were good challenges, like thinking outside the box to complete an assignment in some way that worked, but wasn’t necessarily the way the teacher had originally envisioned it. Some of my self challenges were not so good, like waiting until the last moment to complete an assignment (this built bad work habits for adulthood). I want the challenges now to be good ones, but often at work I am completely unchallenged & find myself, again trying to create challenges (not always the best way to work). With my shops, blog & creations, I find more ‘natural’ challenges & I don’t feel the need to make them happen. Maybe, sometimes the answer is to find a more challenging environment rather than trying to create one when it doesn’t already exist. Thank you for getting us to think about something we don’t often think about!

  20. I just heard in the radio today that a new British study suggests that we daydream something like 48%of the time in any and every activity we engage in. I have personally found that if I stir consciously my ‘day dreaming’ into happier thoughts, boredom and lack of energy is less of an issue. The problem lies in our ‘self-talk’, I think, which is often negative and de-spiriting,thus draining.Hmm. Does that make sense?

  21. I love this post. Not only does it give me something to chew on about my journey through the day it makes me re-think what my 6-year-old might mean when she says she’s bored. Thank you so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *