Boredom is good for you and might just be the secret key to getting your life back on track.
Normally I pepper my articles with data from carefully researched scientific papers and quotes from reputable writers in established magazines, but this one is different. This is from the heart. People outside of law don’t think of it as a creative field. Like a recent meme I shared, maybe a million times too many, they think of attorneys as “attack librarians.” That is not too far off the mark. Attorneys are fierce factotum warriors armed with quivers of precedents and the ruthless blades of facts. They are also wildly creative.
You are wildly creative and that creativity needs to be nourished. And, even though you love your diet of watching trash TV like “90-Day Fiancé “and playing deeply strategic games like “Match 3D,” that’s like living on Cheetos and Diet Coke. You need real sustenance. Food you can sink your creative teeth into.
You Need Boredom to Feed Your Brain
It’s not easy. We carry the world in our pockets. We carry all our friends in our fanny pack. Our little lozenge of regard pings us day and night as if it knows when we aren’t paying attention. Because it knows when we aren’t paying attention.
Only they’re not stalking you; they’re stalking your attention, and let’s get something straight here:
Your Attention Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
Think about your job. You don’t get paid to show up, and you don’t get paid to type out briefs and opinions. You get paid to pay attention. You pay attention to lines of precedent, the evolution of IP law, trends in attorney-client relations, and the precision of your contract language. Your attention is your most valuable asset. Yet, it is being snarfled out from under you by every device you own, by the endless buffet of streaming platforms, Reddit, Facebook and Words With Friends. They all lob little crimson circles of alarm over your walls, trying to inspire you to tap their icon and spend a minute or two staring at their goods and services as ads pop up and their bank accounts swell.
Worse, the algorithms know your scent. Like a bloodhound (or a wolf or a honey badger) they track your journey through apps, reading the nearly invisible wake of Google searches and downloads and snarky comments the way Bear Grylls reads deer prints. Like a book. And you can’t tell me the sudden appearance of gout medicine commercials isn’t related to me arguing with Walgreens on the phone while my toaster and my TV listened in, taking notes. Escape is impossible. Resistance is futile.
An Amtrak train from Pontiac, Michigan, to Chicago takes about five and a half hours. It’s a lovely trip. Unless things break down as they did in early October when the trip turned into Trainte’s Inferno. A string of power failures, medical emergencies and a shift change stranded the train in the middle of nowhere four times. Passengers were cold and hungry. People panicked. There were screams. No power meant the toilets couldn’t flush and the air couldn’t circulate. For 19 hours.
I can’t determine this as factual, but I will bet good money it wasn’t their cold, crappy environment that drove them to flee into the cornfields. It was stark, featureless boredom creeping into their consciousness when they realized they couldn’t recharge their phones.
We live in the world of our devices, and I hate to be the old man in the room, but it’s killing us.
I have grown to the age where I’ve actually leaned out my front door and yelled at some kid to get off my lawn. (I’d just sprayed it with chemicals, it was a safety thing.) But in the not-too-distant future, that hackneyed image of an elderly curmudgeon will be replaced by the same old guy yelling, “HEY, KIDS, GET OFF YOUR PHONE!”
Actually, Maybe You Should Just Turn Off Your Phone
I know. If you need a minute to process this, please, by all means, go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ll just chill out here in the middle of the article while you take a deep breath and … are you playing Bubble Witch!?
See how hard it is?
But think about it. Think about the most boring situation you can endure. (And please don’t comment with “You mean this story? Lol!”) Put yourself at the DMV at 11:34 a.m. on a Saturday. Wall-to-wall working people who can’t come on a Tuesday. Your ticket is M99, but the scoreboard up front is calling out for A13. You’re going to be here awhile. Now, instead of pulling out your phone and ruining your best buddy, Notarussianhacker33, in Words With Friends with a triple word score using a Q AND a J, just sit there.
Don’t Do Anything
In the past couple of decades, a lot of people have developed systems and products for gaming one’s cognitive faculties. Brain-enhancing substances, vitamin regimens, highly specialized meditation routines and expensive retreats in the Maldives. They are trying to game cognition, boost creativity and pitch productivity into the stratosphere. That’s an awful lot of money and way too much PowerPoint. Especially when you can do it for nothing, anywhere.
Your Brain Takes Care of Itself
Boredom engages the brain’s default mode network (DMN). This sounds redundant. It’s not. Default mode engages when you have nothing to do. It is different from what happens in the brain during sleep. It’s more like a kind of screen saver for your gray matter. Zila Ma and Nanyin Zhang explain it in their 2021 book, “Factors Affecting Neurodevelopment“:
DMN is a well-known large-scale brain network that includes several high-level cognitive areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and parietal regions (PTL). DMN is mostly known as the “task negative” network where regions show strongly correlated activity at rest and are deactivated during cognitive goal-directed tasks (Raichle et al., 2001).
Monoush Zomorodi, a podcaster and journalist, gives a TEDEd Talk about the benefits of boredom. When your mind wanders, as it inevitably will when you’re bored, there is a beneficial deepening of your focus from the conscious, task-oriented present to the non-task-oriented subconscious. You ruminate. You think about where you are, what you’re doing with your life, and what comes next. You even make plans. Part of this mental phase is “autobiographical planning,” wherein your conscious and subconscious kind of have tea together and go over their relationship and work stuff out. And presumably, have a consciousness sandwich.
Because Multitasking Starves Your Brain
From that same TEDEd talk, Dr. Daniel Leviton examines multitasking and the “get shit done” mentality:
Every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that. If you’re attempting to multitask — doing four or five things at once — you’re not actually doing four or five things at once because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly switching from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.
The brain uses glucose each time it switches, which is a problem because, as Leviton shows, you have a limited supply. According to Zamorodi’s research, we change tasks on our computers 566 times daily. We check our email 74 times. Ten years ago, we shifted focus every three minutes. Not great. Maybe a little too busy. Today we do it every 45 seconds.
In the push for ever-greater productivity and creative problem-solving, we may be rusting the very tool we’re supposed to be sharpening.
Why You Should Embrace Boredom: It Is Beautiful
Not enjoy it. The fundamental feature of boredom is that you aren’t enjoying anything. The fundamental feature is a lack of features. But just try it. Go to bed with your phone charging in another room. Wait on a bus and leave your devices in your bag. Take a walk. You will find, as did Virginia Wolf’s memorable character Lily, from “To the Lighthouse,” that:
Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.
We spend so much time with the reins of our minds grasped tightly in our fists, worried if we let them slack, they will run away like a deranged mustang. And they will. They should. Let your mind wander because when your mind is wandering, it isn’t wandering. It’s exploring. It’s discovering. It is nourishing.
How to Maximize Boredom: This Is Going to Hurt
- Turn off your phone, your tablet and every other device. Put your phone in a drawer in another room. Sit down at the kitchen table. Don’t do anything else.
- You’re gonna freak out. Let it happen. You’re going to feel the urge to check Facebook. You’re going to reach into your pocket without even thinking about it. You will turn and look at the drawer where your inert phone lies. Don’t give in. Ride it out. All of this will happen in the first 45 seconds.
- After a minute or so, your mind will explode with an endless bullet-point list of everything you should be doing instead of sitting there doing nothing. You might hear the stern reproachful voice of your Aunt Octavia asking you why you’re just staring out the window. This is all fine.
- After two minutes, you will make a little deal with yourself to meditate. Don’t do that. Meditation is about focus. Boredom is about dissolution.
- At some point, your mind will tell you a story. I can’t say exactly how this will happen, your mileage may vary; but your unconscious mind will take the stage and you will disappear into this moment the same way you disappear into a good book.
- Things will happen. You may dream. You may gently cradle an idea you’ve neglected. Or, you might just have a lot to think about the kitchen table.
- After a while, you’ll snap out of it.
The Results Aren’t Obvious, So Don’t Look for Them
This isn’t a slot-into-slot kind of thing. You don’t come back from the hallucinatory trip of boredom with a new box of skills. It’s about nourishment. It’s about deepening your river of thought. Letting your mind wander reconnects you to the trust you once held for the imaginative well. It rekindles that old flame and prioritizes that relationship over the needy beeps and pings sliding into your DMs.
Not to get too hippie here, but the gift of boredom is a return to the real, to the authentic, to a haptic scratchy authority over your attention, and that’s a lovely thing.
You are way more interesting than a triple word score.