The Blessings of Boredom

I hate doing dishes. It feels like time squandered—even though I almost just as much dislike a messy kitchen. I have always had a hard time with time not used in the interest of good—good for me that is. If I need to wait for somebody being late, my body starts to ace. If I have a minute off in between work projects, I find a book or something else to read. I bet it doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that I also have to admit that I loathe standing in lines, can’t stand slow drivers, get irritated when things aren’t working as they are supposed to do.

But of course. I do dishes. I do wait for late friends. I do stand in lines. And surprise: over time I have found that it’s actually not time squandered. You know why? Because our brains need to wind down in between the battles. Brains get tired of always having to be creative, to find solutions, to navigate challenges, even to always be entertained—which seems to be modus operandi these days. Yes, I hate being bored, but my brain doesn’t. It thrives and expands on boredom.

I think you know exactly what I mean. You have worked on a project for hours, maybe even days and weeks to an end, and suddenly it’s full stop. You seem to not be able to progress with the project any more. Where you almost moments ago where sky high and taken away by the creative flow, suddenly it’s as if the muses have left you behind. Dropped you dead. Certainly, you feel dead.

What happened? Brain is overworked. That’s what happened. It just needs time to recover. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. You still push on, though, try a little more, but nothing happens. You simply cannot move forward with whatever you are working on. In pure despair—and probably a little irritated with yourself—you go out and do the dishes. Slam around with the cutlery, getting all worked up about how unfair everything is, now that you were almost done with the project. And you hate doing dishes, it’s so boring. Dull. Uninspiring. You hate being bored. Out of pure boredom, your mind starts to wander. Then out of nowhere, half an hour later because you have procrastinated doing dishes for all these days you were in flow—not wanting to interrupt the flow—out boredom comes a blink of an idea. Something you haven’t thought about that will move the project ahead.

You know?

It’s not rocket science. When actively working on a project, we sometimes need to step back in order to gain perspective. Such as getting bored. Sometimes clarity and renewed energy can only come with distance. Particularly if we have pushed the brain to its limits over a sustained period. Brains are like us, they need to rest, to recover, to reconnect, to deactivate. We need to get bored a little—that’s how our brains can get a bit of rest. Walk around the block, perform some physical tasks, such as filing papers, cleaning the desk, or washing the breakfast dishes. Relaxing the mind—while you bore yourself—will eventually stimulate the flow of insight.

Fact is, boredom is an integral factor in the creative process and one not to be ignored. Our minds are regularly tied up, often on our devices, and as constant stimulations leaves no space for idle thoughts, who knows whether some of our greatest ideas have already been pushed aside while we were gaming or checking social media?

The German word for boredom is “langeweile” meaning “long while”, which seems very appropriate, as boredom is essentially about nothing other than our interaction with time passing. However, boredom provides the exact nothingness in time that allows our minds to wander and invent. Unlike meditation, where you concentrate on keeping your mind focused and away from escape, boredom concentrates on seeking the most creative exit.

Apparently, the scientist Galileo Galilei was bored during a religious service in Pisa. He started to measure the duration of the oscillations of the cathedral’s giant chandelier by counting the beat of his pulse. By letting the mind wander, he had discovered a way to measure time.

Once you acknowledge that boredom can play a meaningful part in your creative journey, the most tedious of jobs—like washing up, cleaning or queuing—will show you that they nurture motivation and some of your best creative sparks. You are still bored, but at least there is a purpose to the boredom.

74 thoughts on “The Blessings of Boredom

  1. What a fascinating perspective on boredom, Otto! I’ve never considered it as a means to creative pause leading to possibilities. I suppose it reminds me a little of the daydreams I indulged in as a child when I didn’t have anything else pulling on my time, and all possibilities seemed open before me. I didn’t identify that time as boredom, as I probably would today, but it was an important part of development. Worth thinking about now, I’d say! Thank you for the nudge! 🙂

  2. Very beautiful picture! Your creativity flows when you get bored. I guess that is not uncommon. I agreed when your brain are at the dead end, it needs a break. For me, sleep over, forget about the problem / project until tomorrow or finish other things that you need to do first seems to help me most.

  3. Such great insights. I so love (and relate to) this! I’ve learned so much more of the power and need to ‘step back’ and make the most of moments by not trying so hard to make the most of moments. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. I hate ironing and do as little as possible. Nor do I like washing floors, but they have to be done sometimes. Or maybe I could simply gaze out at the rain. Yes, I like that solution best 🙂 🙂 And your photo.

  5. i find boredom to be a gnawing, torturous emotion.. i think you are right that i should do more boring things, perhaps the secret is in the ‘DO more boring THINGS’ rather than just sitting around feeling bored…
    i must say tho, that you are lucky that your mind hasn’t ‘caught on’ to the trick you are playing lol coz my mind has… that i do things to relax with the goal of working again after the painful stop is over…
    i have gotten in a lot of trouble with it lately and had to abandon a very promising project for fear of not even being able to relax and watch a movie… for fear that my life will become, unable to do ANYTHING, a life of lying on the couch thinking scary thoughts!
    i may be weird, we don’t know yet. the results of the tests aren’t in 🙂

    1. Our minds are good at playing tricks with us, and sometimes we do have to be careful. It’s hard to know what is best, isn’t it: Whether to follow the thought created in our minds, or work around it somehow.

  6. Beautiful water drops. I so relate to your feelings about dishes and waiting in lines! Yet I think you’re right that we need the boring, mundane times. We can’t always be on and doing or we’ll burn out.

  7. Of all the many jobs I have had in my life, my favorite is dishwasher in a restaurant. The pay is low, but you eat for free, don’t have to deal with people, and your mind is free to wander and you perform the same rote task over and over.

  8. Otto, it seems me you just invented the “creative boredom” !
    Joke aside I really understand what you say and I find oft myself in your description. A short walk or even better a swim in the near swimming pool (but I’m lazy) or a chat with friends are very useful to relaxe my brain. Or sitting at my desk and try to draw something also works but this will than take more time.

  9. This is SO true. I know that when I get stumped with a problem, (especially a technical one) I find myself redoing it over and over and getting frustrated with the same wrong results. (Duh…will I ever learn?) Once I finally step away and do something else, all of a sudden a new “work around” to the problem will pop into my head. (It’s probably not a work around at all, simply the proper way to do it.)

    I also read something just the other day that recommended that we don’t reach for something to read the minute we find ourselves waiting for something or someone. That time should be spent allowing our minds to float freely. That’s very hard for me. I always have something to read, which actually allows me to be a lot more patient with unexpected delays.

    1. Not reaching for something to read, is exactly what I mean by cherishing boredom. Like you, if I have a second, I tend to find something to read. That’s why doing the dishes works so well or me. I can’t do them and at the same time read (and I have not turned to audio books yet). Instead in my boredom, the mind floats freely, to at least have something to do.

      1. Yes. I know I should do more of this. But when I’m doing household chores, I have to fight the urge to listen to the news. It’s terrible. I’ve tried meditation and you can guess how successful I am—not. I should practice that, I guess.

  10. The brain is a fascinating organ that likes to operate at its own speed. It won’t be bullied into thinking faster, nor can we stop thinking just because we say we will – dreams are a good example. As we get older the time lag between seeking an answer to a problem and actually finding a solution can be considerable. We may engage in various other activities and then, suddenly, Eureka! The brain has continued to function at its own pace and lets us know when the task is completed.

  11. I used to do long drives with my work, it was often so boring. But I liked to use that time to organise my thoughts and would often come up with some good writing ideas. House work is boring, but it can also be a welcome distraction from the more challenging type of work. So true that sometimes great ideas are born out of pure boredom.

  12. This was such a great article to read! Your wisdom and examples were so good and sometimes I do feel
    Guilty when I have certain down days – I know they are needed for decompressing and all – but still feel guilty – and now I can add this post to my knowledge and remember even more so the value of downtime – or times of feeling bored for the way it can fuel and recharge and help Give: clarity and renewed energy” that “can only come with distance.”
    Well said

  13. I think boredom often is rooted in a dependence on external stimulation. A ten-year-old sitting on the front steps and whining, “I’m bored!” may be surrounded by possibilities for creative engagement with the world, but he or she still remains oblivious to them. Another version of “I’m bored!” is “There’s nothing to do!” I was lucky enough to have parents who always responded, “So go find something.”

    Today, “finding something to do” often involves turning inward rather than outward. That’s why those times of doing dishes or standing in line (or in my case, sanding wood) can be so valuable. They give us a chance to find something inside ourselves that sends boredom flying away: a new idea, a perfect sentence, a sense of a new direction for a project.

    I’ll grant you there are tasks that I’d prefer to finish sooner rather than later, but that’s often a matter of impatience: wanting to move on to more pleasing activity. But boredom’s not a feeling I often get these days. I suspect becoming engaged with whatever task we’re faced with is key.

    1. My parents had the same attitude. No point in whining about how boring life was. Had to get out and get going, instead. I thing you touch on to something profoundly right in that turning inwards is necessary to not feeling bored and for the progress for instance of a project.

  14. Why, after all, we shall feel bored after finishing a hectic project. Now it is the time for a change, for relaxation, and for introspection. New ideas strike when the brain is diverted from the hectic project.

  15. I personally feel that sitting idle after a hectic schedule is very soothing. It is up-to us, whether to feel relaxed, or to feel bored by sitting idle.

      1. Thanks Otto. Please do visit my blog realistic am a beginner. Just Created my new blog after my retirement as a Banker. Please read my post on unrealistic objects and activities. Kindly suggest improvement in my script or otherwise. I like your writing style.Mine is just simple.

  16. I like the photo very much. I find that there can be miracles in the minute things. Your thoughts on and approach to dealing with boredom are helpful. As you suggest, instead of joining in all the protests about experiencing boredom–and just possibly being boring–looking outside of it (as challenging as that might be) can be a good remedy. Who knows what we might discover! A very thoughtful post, Otto. Best wishes.

  17. Otto, I couldn’t agree more. The mind must rest! You said nothing about cookies during this downtime, however. This is an unforgivable oversight. I demand you get bored, and after a sufficient langeweile, write in something about cookies during rest. And take beautiful pictures of the delicious Norwegian Christmas cookies! ❤️

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