Along with outdoor toilets and riding to town by horse and buggy, one thing modern society has pretty much eliminated is boredom. And it may surprise you to learn that this is actually a bad thing. Because being bored sets up a special condition in our minds to be our most creative selves. Today, I have tips for how and why to spend more time alone inside your own head.
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My best thinking moments are when I’m doing something routine like taking a long shower, or a solo road trip that hypnotizes me with the dotted centerline, or some other monotonous task, Sounds familiar? You’re going to love today’s show about boredom.
Yesterday, I had a zoom coffee break with a good friend. And we started out listing all the stuff we were up to. For me that’s work, family, pets, hobbies. You know how that goes we took turns, back and forth. Some of the things were going really well, and some aren’t going as well. But good friends can always make you laugh anyhow—especially at yourself.
It was a great conversation. But then, my coffee started getting cold and and we started to wrap it up. We each ran through our to-do list for the rest of the day, and then just before we were about to sign off, I said something that felt really ordinary at the time, it wasn’t profound, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
What I said was: we will never, in a million years, get bored…. That’s it. Just: We’ll never get bored.
And the reason I can’t stop thinking about that, is because I know a thing or two about boredom. And I happen to know, it’s important. That’s right, being bored is a really good thing in a lot of ways. And if we completely wipe it out of our lives, we will miss out on a lot of important things. So we should all make a little more time for boredom. Don’t believe me?
Well, I understand why boredom doesn’t sound like a good thing. It sure as heck doesn’t light up the same spots in your brain as say, an ice cream cone. And I can remember being bored as a kid. You can too. I would go whining to my mom, “I’m bored. What can I do?” Dad always had plenty of hard work ideas lined up, so I never asked him, always mom. And she would list a few things: You could do a puzzle sweetie, or draw a picture, or train your little dog to do a trick. I would roll my eyes and never ever want to do any of the things she came up with. Still, she’d patiently keep listing the most boring things in the world. My same old toys and games. And eventually I’d wander off, aimlessly bored. Until, all of a sudden, wham, my very own idea would strike me out of nowhere. Something brand new and fresh. The exact thing I’d LOVE to do right then. And off I’d go. This has happened to all of us.
Just get someone to list a bunch of really bad ideas, give up, wallow in your boredom and THEN you’ll have a good idea. It sounds silly, but it works and there’s actually a really good reason why this works. And it has everything to do with the positive side of boredom. But before we get into that, let’s get a couple details out of the way.
First, what exactly is boredom? It’s different than restlessness. Which is what we’ll talk about that next week so make sure you’re back here for that. Restlessness is a little wiggle of a desire to do something—you’re just maybe not sure what. So restlessness is like a kind of launch into something. But boredom isn’t a push like that, it’s more of a sinkhole that you’re stuck in. Boredom is a yawning emptiness. You feel hollow and it feels like everything has been happening exactly the same over and over again and you want something DIFFERENT to happen. It’s like being stuck on a hamster wheel. A loop. It’s the movie Groundhog Day. You just want something new. A change of scenery.
Boredom is a negative feeling. We don’t like it at all. When we’re bored our body language, our word choice, everything about us shows that we don’t like being bored. Kids are really obvious about it. They’ll groan and flop down on the sofa all dramatic, and it’s like they are in physical pain, they practically wail: “IIIIII’mmmmm booooored!”
Adults don’t like to be bored any more than kids do. In fact, oh you’re going to love this. Let me tell you about this experiment about boredom. It’s fascinating. Or maybe it’s actually a little creepy. So some researches at the university of Virginia I’m pretty sure it was, did a boredom experiment. They put volunteers, all alone in an empty room—blank walls, just a table and a chair. A place where they would obviously be bored. And the only thing on the table was a little device that if you pushed a button you would give yourself an electric shock. Everyone got to try the shock device before the experiment started so they would know what it felt like. And it hurt. Not like a taser or anything, but a little electric shock. It was strong enough that almost all of these people said if the researches gave them $5, they would give some of that money back to not be shocked again. Obviously, the shock was strong enough to be uncomfortable.
Ok, are you with me? They stick a person alone in a room with a button—if you push the button, you shock yourself. Which obviously no-one would do. Because who wants to get hurt. Not me. I could sit there bored all day long and I’m not going to push that button. That’s what everyone would do, right? Ummm, actually, no. Half of the people when they got bored, pushed the button. Yeah. Seriously.
You heard me right. Half of the volunteers would prefer hurting themselves to being bored. One guy shocked himself 190 times—they excluded him from the study though, because come on, guy. Geez. You’re a little too extreme. Now about this room though. When I say they were locked in this room and bored I don’t mean for a week, or a day, or even an afternoon or an hour. They, were, in a room, alone with their thoughts, oh boy, are you ready for this: FOR 15 mins. Or less. Wrap your head around that!
More than half of us are so horrified by 15 minutes of being alone with boredom that we will hurt ourselves to make things interesting. That’s a little disturbing. Of course, thankfully, in our real lives we have lots of other things to turn to when we’re bored. Netflix, a bag of chips, our phones, or even taking a walk or hanging out with friends. We have tons of distractions at the ready and we really as adults rarely get bored anymore. But remember, I said at the beginning today that boredom is important and good. And that we’ll miss out on things if we don’t find a way to be more bored more often. And that’s because boredom serves a couple purposes.
First, our ability to get used to things that happen over and over again, makes room in our head for new things. If we couldn’t to do this, if we couldn’t get used to things around us and get bored with them, think what our life would be like every single day. We’d just sit in stunned amazement by the way the water falls from the shower and then we’d get over-the-top excited by the buildings and fields we pass on the way to the grocery store. We’d have to pay extreme attention to all the details of all the things all the time.
Nothing would become routine or boring. So we’d be locked in to all of it. And that means we’d be exhausted by the over stimulation of all of it, and we’d also have so much stuff in our head all the time that we’d have no room for new ideas and new things. No place for our minds to wander. The world, innovation, would stand still. And a world (or a life) without forward progress will die. Boredom is not just good, it’s essential to coming up with new things. Let’s expand on that.
Does that mean if it’s good to be a little bored, with things like the drive to the grocery store and my shower, that being a lot bored is even better? Hmmm. Well it would seem like the whole electric shock boredom experiment would say Nope. Nuh-uh. A lot of boredom is bad. But unless you were listening really close, I bet you missed something important that happened in that room. Let’s look a little closer look and we’ll find a completely different answer.
. . .
Before we dig into those details, we’re going to take a short break.
Do you have an idea that you just haven’t been able to get off the ground? Or maybe you worked on it for a while and then got stuck? And even though you still love the idea—can’t get it out of your head, you just have no idea how to get unstuck.
If you could *just* take all the time you spent putting off a project, and put that time into doing the work to reach your target it would change everything. Take the distractions, the extra coffee breaks, TikTok videos, and Netflix binges and instead spend all those hours, weeks, sometimes years making real progress toward your goal.
If procrastination has been holding you back, my course Build Something can help.
I’ve put EVERY SINGLE THING you need to build your ridiculously big project into Build Something. All the strategies, tactics, and methods I used (and still use) to successfully turn my big ideas into real-life projects and finish them. #BuildSomething will teach you how to: plan your projects, get started, take action, actually do the work, work through the hard parts, and stay motivated until you reach your goal.
This is your chance to get unstuck and start the project of your dreams so you can #BuildSomething you’re proud of.
. . .
And now, back to the show.
Okay, let’s reopen the doors of that boredom room with all these volunteers for just a minute. Because we haven’t talked about the other half of the people. The ones who didn’t shock themselves. What in the world were they doing? Who were these people and how were they different than the people shocking themselves?
It turns out, they were different in really specific ways—and that’s really important. These were people who daydreamed move often and had happy daydreams. They were people who planned out things in their head. They were self reflective, which just means they thought back about their decision and why they made good or bad decisions. And they also had more agreeable and cooperative personalities. They had strong imaginations and were more creative. I think the way I would summarize all of that is that they spent a lot more time in their own minds so they were comfortable there. But what exactly did they do with their time alone in that room?
They used their 15 minutes to let their minds wander, and they didn’t mind it. They came up with new ideas without being distracted from them. They thought back on past events sometimes, but mostly they thought forward to things they were planning to do. So really, they were doing a whole lot of things that we would all like to be able to do better. What’s the deal then, can we all become more like this half of the group?
Yes. Yes, we can. Because the only real difference is, that instead of looking for a way for their body to get rid of the boredom, they charged right into that downtime. They faced it down and aimed their brain at it like a target so they could take advantage of the boredom. And this is a really powerful tool that anyone can learn to use. Here’s what I mean by that.
When we’re bored, our brain starts looking really hard for something to stimulate us. We’re wired that way, and we can’t change it, we actually shouldn’t change it. In this experiment room though, half of the volunteers in that room turned to the quick, easy zap of electricity to bring something new and interesting to the table. Zap, boredom gone.
But the other half who had a habit of letting ideas run wild in their head, just sat there and let their mind wander. They day dreamed. Instead of wasting the boredom, a moment their minds were actively and desperately searching for new things, they used the boredom.Their brains were more open than ever to making new connections because they were bored. Think of it like this:
It’s the difference between driving down a 12 lane hwy at rush hour when you can barely move from one lane to another or get to an exit ramp because of how crowded it is—that’s your normal busy, overloaded brain with all these thoughts crowding in on each other. Compare that to the same 12 lane hwy if you’re the lone, single car driving on it. You can switch across lanes at will, take any exit ramp you want and get on and off the hwy, maybe take alternate routes if you want. That’s your brain on boredom!
You can freely explore all kinds of ideas in new ways and come up with things you never would have on a thought-crowded hwy.
Because thoughts in that empty room were so clear, unblocked, and undistracted, the non-shocking people could turn from the conscious stuff in front of them to the subconscious. And that’s where it gets even more interesting.
Because there are a lot of different and unusual connections our brains can make when it moves into the subconscious. It’s like you bypass some of the normal habits and rules and ANYTHING is on the table. The more bored you are, the more unusual the connections will become. You’ll think of brand new things, you’ll plan and imagine and invent in ways you never have before. Being bored, creates an environment in your mind with the most potential for creativity you’ll ever have. That’s a pretty wild system isn’t it?
This kind of day dreaming thought process we go through is so important to us as humans that scientist think of it as one of the things that separates humans as more complex creatures. And one of the reasons is because it is how we project into the future. A thing that is 100% essential for setting goals. You can guess what that means.
The better you are at daydreaming, at letting your mind wander, at even setting up specific times for your mind to wander, the better you are at setting goals, visualizing the result—which is kind of like looking into your future. The better you are at imagining, the better you’ll be at reaching big goals. This is true for two reasons, One taking advantage of that clear brain space gives you more innovative ideas, and two because you are able to imagine the results, you reach harder for the goal.
You can imagine every single detail of what your days will look like after you reach your goal. The more detailed you can be in imagining your results every single day the more driven you are and the more motivated. If you can really see and feel in your mind what it’s going to feel like to wake up in your new house, drive your new car, work your new job, step across the line in that marathon, nothing in the world can stop you from starting and achieving that goal. So let’s get busy at… not being so busy.
Start by practicing. Put yourself in a boring room and set a timer. Maybe just five minutes the first time instead of 15. For five minutes let your mind explore options for your next goal. No pencil and paper. No phone. Nothing. Just think, and let your mind wander in all different directions about that project. And if you don’t have a room or this isn’t working for you, practice this in the shower, when you are doing boring stuff that you don’t need to think about. Or on your morning commute. Turn off the music, the podcast in your car, or if you’re on public transport, don’t play a game or scroll through social media. Just you and your brain taking off like crazy to create pathways you’ve never imagined before. This is exciting!
I want to know what ideas you have or what problems you solve when you create some of this intentional boredom. Go over to Instagram and tag me with some good stuff. I’m easy to find over there, just my name, Cara Brookins. I know your results will be anything but boring.
Instead of having all sorts of chaos in your head with neurons firing all over the place with everything you can do or see, you’re clearing that out and making room in your brain to make new connections. Companies that really value creativity and innovation will schedule this sort of brainstorm time on the calendar for employees. And they understand that someone staring at a blank wall is actually doing productive work. Practice this. Practice zoning out. Spacing out. Run straight towards boredom, invite it in. Boredom is a bullet train straight to your best creative work.
I’M going to be a lot more intentional about finding time to be bored so I have room for the most creative thoughts. You’re going to see a huge difference in your life after you learn how to be alone with your thoughts. After you practice using these times that we have every single day to invite creative thought in, instead of wasting your boredom by drowning it out with music, games, Netflix, or the constant minute to minute schedule of our modern lives.
Picture the next time you see someone staring out the window, or stretched out on a blanket in the park just staring at the clouds, and now you will know there’s a good chance that they aren’t being lazy. In fact, there’s a good chance they are doing some of the hardest, most important work of their life, and now you know how to do that too.
Go bore yourself.
I’ll be right here next week to talk about restlessness, a close cousin to boredom that serves a great purpose when you know how to use it. And I’ve also got a great story for you about an amazing person who proved that restlessness can awaken your hidden talents.
Thanks for hanging out with me today, head over to carabrookins.com for more (free) tools, and we should really connect on social media too. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast.