I’ve been thinking a lot about boredom lately.
About what boredom looks and feels like. About what I do to avoid it. About what I do when I am bored.
Also about what boredom looks and feels like to my clients. What they do to avoid it. And their behaviors when they are bored.
And this much seems clear: boredom does not bring out our best.
Not unlike Sherlock Holmes. When the great detective is bored he abuses drugs, the people around him and his very walls.
For us, boredom can result in some decidedly odd self-destructive behaviors.
In the absence of properly engaging and satisfying challenges, we do things that are not at all in alignment with our values or talents.
We might not be shooting up ourselves or our houses, but that angsty restlessness and resentment about what’s on our to-do lists? Our overactive Worried Hurried Mind Hamsters? The unnecessary dramas and crises that come from procrastinating until the last minute and letting the little things pile up until they can’t be ignored? The distractions and shadow comforts of games, tv or social media? That’s often boredom at work.
Just as I’ve discovered much of my occasional resistance to work is a simple case of the zoomies due to a lack of sufficient exercise before I sit down at my desk, I’m now wondering if much of the remainder of that resistance is just self-induced drama manufactured solely to alleviate my own boredom, to create needed novelty and challenges where I haven’t given myself a sufficient stretch.
I’m also thinking that if I’m not occasionally relieved and grateful to have nothing more challenging to do than enter a few receipts, answer a few emails, fold some laundry or load the dishwasher – that’s probably a sign that I’m not spending enough time on my leading edge.
I’m becoming so convinced of this phenomena that I’ve moved boredom to the top of my list of Top Ten Early Warning Signs Things Are About To Go To Hell.
Turns out I’m not the stereotypically moody and neurotic artist I sometimes worry I’ve become. I just need to go on a lot more walks and do more things I’m not sure I can do.
What if Pierre feels he must sit, not from the mistaken belief that his art is better for a little suffering, but because he’s just plain bored? [Postcard brilliantly observed and illustrated by Everett Peck.]
• • • • •
Given the nasty side effects, boredom is clearly something to be avoided. The obvious thing to do instead is to seek out properly engaging and satisfying challenges.
But in doing so, we encounter a couple pesky problems.
First: Properly engaging and satisfying challenges are goals and projects we can’t get right the first try.
And me and my little tribe are generally used to getting things right the first try. At least that’s how things typically have gone down, especially in our early years. So any attempt that falls short of that expectation can both bruise our egos and leave us confused about our very identity. Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen, I’m a Quick Study!
To choose properly engaging and satisfying challenges requires us to drop the egos and identities that are built around instant success and immediate gratification – egos and identities to which we may be rather attached.
To choose such challenges requires us to enter the unexplored and unfamiliar territory of practice. Of get back up and try again. Of 10,000 hours.
And that brings us to our second dilemma: entering the territory of practice requires repetition – repetition that looks like it might be pretty boring.
• • • • •
The thing is, we do often choose properly engaging and satisfying challenges. We do enter that territory. For many of us, the opportunity to have such challenges is a key reason we chose an entrepreneurial path.
We really don’t want to be bored. The easy A hasn’t done it for us for a long time.
But that doesn’t mean we always recognize that territory for what it is. Nor does it mean, though we are attracted to it, we know what to do once there.
We tend to be Quick Studies in everything but the skills and techniques of consistent persistence.
Ironic, isn’t it?
• • • • •
So if we are to choose engagement over boredom, that’s our homework: becoming skilled in the techniques of consistent persistence.
Those skills and techniques are many, varied, and largely foundational – far more than I could cover in this already lengthy missive.
But here are the four strategies topmost in my mind right now as I think about how to remedy my own boredom.
Raise your bar.
I know that’s not the advice I’m supposed to give to people prone to perfectionism and over-commitment. I’m supposed to tell you to lower your bar. I’m supposed to be lowering my own bar.
And while we do need to shift our expectations of instantaneous success, I am discovering that I am much more willing and able to engage in the small repeated actions of consistent persistence when I am working towards an audacious (and well-articulated) goal than when I am faced with a project I know I can do.
The uncertainty of I-wonder-if-I-can-actually do-this? gets me to pay attention. To prepare. To think through the details. To stop being so cocky. To stop resting on my laurels. To pace myself. To take care of myself. To practice.
Raising my bar forces me to stop doing it in my sleep. It forces me to turn off autopilot.
And the uncertainty is what keeps the necessary consistent persistence from feeling boring. While the creative tension of an audacious goal isn’t exactly comfortable, it is exciting. Like the plot twists of a really engaging novel or movie, one can’t help but wonder: What’s going to happen when I do this? How’s it all going to turn out?
Raising my bar automatically plugs me into curiosity and puzzle-solving, two of my core motivators. But lower the bar, lessen the creative tension, and that curiosity is lowered along with it. I know how it’s going to turn out. Yawn.
Lower my bar and I fall back asleep. Lower my bar and I slip back into the dysfunctional behaviors of boredom.
Find the sweet spot of flow.
Low challenge + high skill level = boredom. High challenge + low skill level = stress.
But high challenge + high skill level = flow. Flow is found in that sweet spot between too easy and too hard. And it’s pretty much the best thing ever.
Flow is never, ever boring.
Flow has it’s own energy and momentum. It seems to fuel itself.
And when we’re in flow, we’re so engaged we lose all sense of time, surroundings and self. It’s all about exploration and realization of the idea. Ego and identity don’t matter. You don’t have to do any sort of pop-psychology anything to leave them behind, they just fall away.
Just as raising my bar automatically gets me to pay attention and plug into my curiosity, finding the sweet spot that is my leading edge (but not my bleeding edge, that would shift eustress into distress) automatically gets me to drop my Quick Study identity and her problematic expectations.
Gotta love that automagicness.
Learn to work with creative tension.
To work with creative tension, we first have to learn to recognize it for what it is.
Our resistance to that stress and the stresses of boredom can feel much the same, yet there is a discernable difference between wondering if and how you can do something and wondering if and how you can make yourself do something. If it’s the latter, you’re probably more bored than challenged.
Creative tension will also eventually resolve itself. With some consistent persistence, it will turn into something tangible, useful, beautiful, satisfying and worthwhile. The stress of boredom, however, will just turn into, well, Sherlock Holmes shooting holes in his walls.
Once you’re able to recognize it, learning to work through creative tension that cannot be immediately resolved is largely an act of discipline.
Discipline is about creating working conditions that bring out our best, keeping our eyes on the prize, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and the ability to bring ourselves back over and over and over again.
Discipline requires a solid, stable foundation. With a foundation comes the self-care and emotional skills that give us patience, resilience and tenacity in the face of repetition, setbacks and shifting moods and energy.
If raising the bar is what forces us to pay attention and take better care of ourselves, having a foundation is what helps us to know exactly how to do that.
A foundation is what allows us to be fueled rather than stressed by a prolonged creative tension that we’re not yet used to.
See yourself as more than a Quick Study.
If you’re working on your leading edge, you’re leading – a role that might be as uncomfortable as the creative tension itself.
To work from your leading edge, you have to get honest about the actual magnitude of your intelligence, talents and abilities relative to others.
And working from your leading edge probably means letting your light out from under the bushel of easy A’s you’ve been using to dim it down. And letting your light shine more brightly may not get you the same applause and rewards as those easy A’s. In fact, you’ve likely already had experiences that have taught you to be cautious.
Yet we are oh-so-much more than Quick Studies. Underneath that identity is something – someone – much more true and whole and needed.
But we can be neither authentic nor of service when we’re walking on eggshells lest we inadvertently trigger doubt, fear, anger, disappointment or pedestal-putting in others. As always, Marianne Williamson says it best.
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
Like learning to work with creative tension, getting comfortable with leadership has its challenges, but it also comes with rewards – not least, rarely being boring or bored.
• • • • •
Of course, this is all easier said than done.
As Richard Bach points out in The Messiah’s Handbook: “In order to live free and happily, you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice.”
- It’s not always easy to sacrifice ego, identity, immediate gratification, and ready applause for pulling rabbits out of our hats at the last minute.
- It’s not always easy to identify a truly engaging sense of purpose that is feels better than all that, one that makes creative tension bearable and can fuel a challenge until the reward of the results are achieved.
- It’s not always easy to find the sweet spot of flow that’s neither too easy nor too difficult.
- It’s not always easy to stop using initial setbacks as the sole measuring stick by which you choose whether or not to continue pursuing a goal.
- It’s not always easy to practice patience and master the skills of consistent persistence.
- Nor is it always easy to let go of the fear of threatening and alienating others.
And thank goodness for that! Because if sacrificing boredom was easy, well, we’d find the problem too tedious to bother with!
So, my friends, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I’m challenging myself to knock off the boredom-induced drama already and find some engaging ways to stretch myself.
And I’m challenging you to do the same.
If it’s possible that your lack of productivity is not caused by overwhelm or disorganization, but primarily because you are under-challenged in some way – explore that!
If the suggestion that your distraction, resistance and angst are simply the byproducts of boredom rings true for you – do something about it!
Experiment with raising your bar and finding your sweet spot of flow. Learn to work more skillfully with creative tension. Stabilize and solidify your foundation. Expand your sense of identity and purpose. Embrace the responsibilities that come with all of that.
Let’s sacrifice our boredom. Let’s offer it up in exchange for more freedom and happiness.
Please write back soon and tell me…
- in the comments below, by email [ hello at thirdhandworks dot com ] or postal service [ address at the bottom of the page ]
I’d love to know your thoughts on boredom.
- What does it look and feel like to you? What do you do to avoid it? What do you do when you are bored?
- How do you think boredom affects your productivity and satisfaction?
- What would you have to let go of if you chose to sacrifice your boredom?
Hope you are feeling the stirrings of spring wherever you are,