Boredom, the Disregarded Fuel of Productivity and Creativity

If you were dropped on a deserted island (let’s call it Island 1) that is absolutely barren, aside from an unlimited buffet and an empty cabin with a huge stack of paper and some pens. After the novelty of the buffet wore off, how long would it take for you to get so bored that you start writing, drawing, folding the paper, or playing with the food and making different things? How long would it take for you to start creating and producing things?

Now imagine a clone of that island (let’s call this one Island 2) except along with the cabin, buffet, pen and paper, you have a magical rock. This magical rock is the gateway to an endless catalog of entertainment, media, books, shows, news, comics, articles, games.

Now how long would it take for you to start creating and producing things on Island 2, and how would you feel about it?

My goal is to go on my computer this morning and write this blog post. Unfortunately I live on Island 2. I have to use some willpower to not check the news, or browse social media and see what the world is up to. The very nature of my computer, my smartphone, my tablet, my smart speaker, all these devices that can connect me to an endless catalog of entertainment, makes it so that a state of distraction saturates my life. The side effect of this life is that the anticipation of doing something ‘productive’ fills me with a sense of dreadful obligation.

If I lived on the barren Island 1, this task of writing a blog post would be the farthest thing from an obligation, it would be a massively welcome oasis in the desert of boredom that I would be stewing in. Focus, distraction, would not be concepts I would even have to think about because I would be jumping at the opportunity to do something other than stare at the wall. I would have been so full of boredom just waiting to be burnt to make something.

This example is extreme but it highlights the obvious ability for boredom to drive us to do something, to create, change or produce something. The uncomfortable state of doing absolutely nothing generates boredom, which fuels us with the drive to do something to get out of that state.

Boredom acts like a pressure that builds up within us. After a certain point, it becomes extremely uncomfortable to hold in, and we feel the need to release it. We all learn as kids or teenagers that entertainment is a black hole for boredom, it can eat up a seemingly endless amount of our boredom, so as we grow up, we use most of our leisure time (and sometimes more than just our leisure time) engaging in this systemic destruction of our boredom.

Unfortunately we may have gotten too good at it.

Boredom as shown on Island 1, and evidenced by the universal anecdote of ‘I did it because I was bored’, can fuel productivity and creativity but it’s rarely remembered as a driving force to create. Other more fuels of productivity and creativity are vastly more popular: survival/necessity (an increasingly rare motivator for those of us fortunate to live in developed countries), willpower and inspiration. The latter mental resources are some of our favorite fuels when we try and ‘be more productive’ or ‘create’. But although they can be effective, we are all too familiar with the ill side effects of relying solely on willpower or inspiration to help us get things done: we procrastinate or we burn out.

However if boredom is the fuel for your productivity and creativity, it produces none of these nasty by products. If you’re writing out of boredom, the concept of procrastinating on the task is ridiculous. If you’re building something because you’re bored, the concept of burning out makes no sense.

But how do we direct boredom to drive us to the things we want to get done? Well we don’t have any playbooks yet, because we’ve vilified it too much to explore the possibilities on a mainstream scale. We’ve been taught that being bored is a waste of time: Carpe Diem, YOLO, Live every day as if it were your last. These mainstream mantras are the antithesis of the engine of boredom. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to be bored, there’s too much to do and we need to do all of it. So we drive ourselves to the edge of our limited capacity of willpower and run on what small fumes of inspiration we have sputtering from our brains. Often, we produce more frustration than results. We spend large chunks of time procrastinating, dreading the things we have to push ourselves to do, and eventually we’ll need to recover from the inevitable burn out of squeezing our willpower and inspirations dry.

Yet this resource called boredom, that we all know can motivate us to create and produce things, piles up for free in our brains. We can’t even get rid of it fast enough, it keeps coming back, replenishing naturally, no matter what we do. We invent new forms of entertainment, gadgets and activities to try and decimate it, but it defies every attempt to clear it for good and inevitably comes back, more plentiful than before. What a crazy, endlessly renewable resource.

What if we experimented and learned how to harness it to fuel the things we want to do, instead of disregarding it because of it’s rough edges.

I’ve been practicing letting myself be bored for about 4 weeks now, just to see what happens. Instead of reaching for my screens as soon as I feel a little sprout of boredom poking out, I just do nothing, maybe stare out the window. Initially it was awkward and uncomfortable but after a while it became very refreshing. I find myself more focused, clear headed, and looking forward to work and writing because I’m so bored. Also my house is the cleanest and most organized it has ever been.