The Importance of Boredom

An often overlooked aspect of well-being.

Originally published in: The Startup

“I’m bored”.

I’d learned to associate statements like this with negativity, but today boredom has become something I celebrate.

Our beautifully over-stimulated culture, which places such emphasis on “productivity”, often makes it difficult for us to be okay with not doing anything.

But boredom, or rather time spent not actively doing, is vital to our well-being.

When many people, myself included, begin to practice boredom, its not uncommon that we instead find ourselves habitually seeking out distraction whether it be through a TV show, a friend, or a book.

When we have phones within arms reach virtually 24/7, it’s easy to jump into the infinity that is the virtual world instead of paying attention to our bodies or our surroundings.

But boredom is a practice that can have tremendous benefits; research showsthat its linked to higher levels of contentment, productivity, and general wellbeing.

Boredom Can Be Uncomfortable

When I first started practicing being “bored” on purpose, whether in the form of meditation, cloud gazing, or literally staring at a wall, I found it to be very uncomfortable.

If enough time passed, I would often start crying. Sometimes I would laugh. Sometimes I’d get frustrated. The theme that many of these experiences shared? Pent up emotional energy; that is to say emotions, feelings, or sensations that I’d had yet to process, perhaps from suppressing them in situations where they were deemed either inappropriate or too uncomfortable for me to face at the time.

As I became aware of this, and began to embrace these sensations more, I felt clearer.

As I gained momentum in not doing anything, I didn’t feel as constant a yearning for distraction or entertainment.

Another feeling that came up a lot for me was this idea of being less than. Boredom seemed like either something I didn’t deserve, or something that was a waste. I would fall into the habit of comparing myself to people I saw as being more “successful”. It felt that if I wasn’t producing, I’d be behind in some way.

So What About Productivity?

We’ve come to value productivity more than many things. Productivity, however, is intensely subjective.

My productivity is based almost solely on how I define and relate to it.

Today, the term has come to equate almost strictly to some sort of output: creating tangible content, ticking off items on a to-do list…essentially some form of doing.

This contemporary understanding was something I shared. But now, I’ve come to allow for the idea that being bored is actually one of the most productive things that I can do. It makes me happier, more content, and better equipped to tackle more traditionally “productive” items.

If this doesn’t have you convinced, studies have shown that being bored is actually linked to higher levels of task-oriented productivity.

Boredom is a Luxury

I understand that boredom is a luxury.

On a recent podcast with Jay Shetty, Yuval Harare (a well known historian and author of one of my favorite books, Sapiens) spoke to the importance of boredom and the fact that it simply isn’t available to a lot of people.

One of the most troubling things about this is that these are people who have a tremendous amount of influence in the world.Political leaders, CEOs and other influential figures don’t necessarily have the luxury to be bored. They face many pressing issues that necessarily soak up their attention (like having thousands of people depend on their decision making…oof).

Why is this concerning? Why do we need, at all levels of our culture, place more importance on boredom?

Boredom is Vital for our Wellbeing

Photo by  John Fornander

Our minds need time to wander. When we allow them to flitter from seemingly (and often) random, non-sensical things, we have a higher propensity to create, innovate, and approach problems and life events from new angles.

Boredom helps us to process our live’s events and reduce the information overload that makes so many of us feel like we’re always playing catch-up.

Boredom Means Paying Attention

Boredom affords us more opportunity to pay attention.

When I’m “bored”, I’m more aware of my surroundings, my internal dialogue, the sensations around me…I’m more self reflective, calm, and content in most situations.

I’m a strong believer, both from experience and scientific research, that meditative states are our natural ways of being. By allowing myself to be bored, even if only for short, minute-long intervals throughout the day, I’m essentially adding to my meditative practices which accumulate and become increasingly impactful.

How to be Bored More Often

So now what?

Once I started embracing boredom, I realized how frequent the opportunities to be bored were in my life, despite my perception that I was crazy-busy all the time.

Here are some things that I found to be useful:

  • I spend less time on internet-connected devices. Whenever possible, I elect new activities to fill the free time that used to be consumed by mindless content consumption. Instead of watching TV, I’ll go for a walk, read, or just sit outside and soak in my surroundings.

  • I put my phone in a different pocket and/or in a backpack, or didn’t carry it with me at all. By doing this, I’m more mindful of how frequently I’m used to reaching for it. These instances often represented perfect opportunities to be bored; if I was waiting for something, I would often reach for my phone. This included commutes (trains, buses etc.), rest periods during workouts, waiting for food to cook, or breaks at work. Now, I do my best to use these periods to focus on bodily sensation (like my breathe), observe my surroundings, people watch, or something of the sort.

  • …and on that note, wait more often! I’d be willing to guess that you wait around a surprising amount every day. Whether it be for your food to finish cooking, for a train/bus/car, for a friend or whatever it is, use these opportunities to be bored!

  • Dive into strong emotion. My habit to reach for the nearest distraction is particularly appealing when strong emotions come up. With practice, it has gotten easier for me to explore these emotions. By doing so, and not avoiding these inevitable sensations, I feel far more emotionally healthy. Practice is the only way through it, as avoidance just feeds them.

I hope you found this article to be of some benefit. I’m always eager to hear your thoughts, so please do leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!