Modern humans do not do well with boredom. If we’re waiting for an elevator, we’ve got our phones out to check email. Downtime at work becomes a chance to read blogs.
It feels productive, but such constant stimulus may also be short sighted. "I think there is some merit to being bored," says Tsh Oxenreider, founder of The Art of Simple website, which promotes simple living, and author of the new memoir Notes from a Blue Bike.
Consider what happens with kids on a rainy day. "When you actually don’t give kids an idea of something to do when they’re bored, they whine, but eventually they come up with something to do—something with a cardboard box." Likewise, if you need great ideas in your line of work, boredom may be your friend. "There is some evidence that when you actually disengage your brain, that’s when the best ideas come."
So how do you simplify your life, and create little pockets of boredom, so those ideas have space to grow? Here are Oxenreider’s suggestions.
Stick with me here. The world is full of things you could be doing with your time. Part of creating space in your life is knowing what belongs in your life and what doesn’t. Oxenreider says that knowing what you want your life to look like means "you can say no to things that don’t really foster the mission statement." These things are just schedule clutter—and not worth the hours and fuss they take.
Even the busiest people have leisure time. The problem is that we tend to fill it with TV or web surfing. These are the easiest "hobbies" to seize but "No one ever says ‘I finished the internet today,’" Oxenreider says.
So think back. What did you love to fill evenings and weekends with before life got busy? Whether it’s crafting, gardening, woodworking, or something else, you need something you actively want to do—something that will help you feel an addictive sense of progress—to create screen-free space in a distracted world.
In John Keats’s famous poem, "Ode on Indolence," that literary paean to boredom, the poet describes himself lying "cool-bedded in the flowery grass." Open space creates open space in the mind. Or to use another literary reference, "We can kind of do the Walter Mitty thing and let our brains have an imagination again," says Oxenreider. Daydreaming is productive.
Jot these down in the schedule as "my do nothing time," Oxenreider says. (Okay, you can call it something else. How about your boss’s name and "prep" or "review" if you want people to leave you alone?) You probably have at least pockets of open time, such as 20 minutes when you usually check email and browse the web before settling back into work after lunch. We just don’t consciously seize them. Better to know that’s downtime and doodle or wander around instead. "It’s like recess for grown-ups," she says.
Let’s be honest: you aren’t going to give up your smartphone. You aren’t even going to leave it at home. Oxenreider doesn’t. The Art of Simple is an Internet business, so she isn’t against technology. But you might want to hide the email and Facebook apps, thus making your phone "smart, but not that smart," she says.
"It curbs the knee jerk reaction to need entertainment." When your mind is forced to entertain itself, you might be amazed by what you come up with—perhaps something even more creative than the myriad uses for a cardboard box.
[Image: Flickr user D. Sharon Pruitt]