Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Bring Back Boring

Our lives are healthiest when they’re at their least entertaining.

Bring Back Boring
Photo by Julian Myles / Unsplash

Last week, during a particularly long 10-minute wait in an exam room before a routine check-up, I had a creative epiphany. In that small, nearly quiet room I had several ideas for posts I’d like to write about, and a few other ideas related to a big project at work. I find this happens a lot to me during the short and sadly infrequent moments of margin I get in my days. I get ideas while running. I get ideas during quiet mornings with just me, the dog, and a cup of coffee. A few weeks ago, during an evening alone, I left all my devices in another room and posted up in the back room of our apartment — many pages were both read and written.

I am finding that all of my best ideas come when I am least distracted. We have this idea that the technological devices we’ve assembled (in my case, a full suite of Apple products) are going to help us magically generate a new wave of ideas, insights, and productivity, but often, it’s just the opposite. Devices are just as likely (if not more so) to distract us from a moment of epiphany as they are to facilitate one. The “noisy” world we’ve gathered around us is making quiet moments of true creativity more and more rare.

In the early 1900s, as the industrial revolution ground into gear, renowned German artist Jean Arp remarked: "Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.”

Today, overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious people often have to go on trips — leaving their normal noisy routine — just to find silence at a monastery, a retreat, or a treatment center. I wonder how much we appreciate these places simply because they offer us an increasingly scarce resource: peace and quiet.

Of course, when I remove my devices and distractions from the equation, a funny thing happens. I get bored. I get antsy. I get restless. I reach mindlessly for a device only to remember that I don’t have them with me. My body is reacting against not having a stimulant — I am an addict, looking for a fix.

Boredom is the space between the noise of our daily lives and the mindfulness that comes once our brains settle into a relaxed and open state. That space that we call boredom and scientists call “margin” is now being studied and is found to have many positive effects on our health:

A 2013 study monitored the effect of “sound” verses “silence” on mice. What researchers discovered was profound. When exposed to two hours of silence every day, the mice developed new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.
“In one experiment (researchers) found participants who had been asked to complete a boring writing task were more creative afterwards than a control group who had done more interesting work.”
Studies show ”boredom also helps children develop planning strategies, problem-solving skills, flexibility and organizational skills – key abilities that children whose lives are usually highly structured may lack.”

The truth is our lives are healthiest when they’re at their least entertaining. We are at our most open, creative, and peaceful when we are free from the many forms of amusement that now populate our pockets and entertainment centers.

Four things that actually fuel my creativity

In the study cited above, researchers found that it’s not the boredom itself that helps the children acquire new skills — it’s what they do with the boredom. So, how do you leverage quiet moments for your benefit, here are four ideas:

  1. Margin — I make a conscious effort each week to create spaces of margin. I go to bed earlier so I can create quiet mornings. I block spaces in my calendar and don’t allow meetings. It is particularly advantageous to plan these around times when your brain is at its peak performance (read Dan Pink’s When for more insight on this topic).
  2. Preparation — When I have a moment of margin upcoming, I like to get ready for it. I make sure the room is clean and that I have a book or article ready to get my brain started. Sometimes, I’ll even do some “pre-thinking” about what I want to think about. That sounds silly, but it works (especially when doing subconscious activities like taking a shower, driving, or running).
  3. Routines — The older I get the more I appreciate that we are cyclical creatures. I am at my healthiest when I am following routines designed to push as many decisions as I can to the subconscious. Simply going to bed and waking up at a similar time each day can do wonders for your health. I suggest living into your routines and even planning and editing them with habits (Atomic Habits is a must-read) to generate more moments of margin in your day.
  4. Review — After moments of margin, take time to reflect on what you gained: ideas you generated, things you created, quotes you read, etc. Write down what you don’t want to lose. I like to catalog and tag ideas, stories, and quotes in a notes application. This will ensure that you see the value of your margin time and that you don’t lose anything you gained in your quiet moments.

It’s high time we all started to see boredom as the scarce resource it is. When you see an open slot on the calendar or an evening with no plans protect it, anticipate it, and utilize it. Bring boing back and your brain (as well as your next creative project) will thank you.

Subscribe to Andrew McPeak

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson