I’m a freelancer, so I often end up working in different places. At the moment I’ve got a bit of a commute to my job, and sometimes this can be exhausting. After a full day at work, I’ve still got to catch a train, wait on a platform, get on another train, and so on. But recently I’ve started wondering ‘why is this so exhausting?’ I’m not doing anything. I’m not driving the train. I’m just sitting down or standing around waiting.
Looking around the train, everyone from the teenager to the elderly lady is using their phone. They’re checking social media, writing work emails, watching videos or playing games. The possibilities are endless. Now, I’m not one for social media, but I do still find it easy to busy myself on my commute – doing some extra work, reading the free magazines or attempting the crossword.
Recently, things have been getting pretty stressful at work, and I started wondering if it might be more relaxing to do nothing during my journeys. But I soon realised that doing nothing is actually really hard. I’m so used to filling my life with activities, looking for a newspaper to give myself stimulation, making sure that I’m not wasting precious time. Modern life offers me so many things to do that I’ve forgotten how to pause. I’ve become conditioned so that if I feel I’m starting to get even slightly bored, I’ll automatically find a new activity to give myself something to do.
But I’m so busy making sure I’m not bored, that my brain never gets to rest during the day. And then I stay up late doing all these exciting things, and don’t sleep very well because my mind’s going over all the important things I have to think about tomorrow. It’s no wonder I’m exhausted.
I really need to take some time out. I need to embrace doing nothing. Even if that means embracing boredom.
It turns out that, in moderation, being bored isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually help us work better and be more creative. It gives our minds space to think more flexibly, subconsciously solve problems and consolidate memories. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire have performed studies in which people, who performed boring tasks, later came up with the most creative solutions to problems. The authors suggest that we shouldn’t look at boredom negatively, but rather a force for good, and if you’re struggling to solve a problem, then undertaking a boring task might help to solve it creatively.
To take an example from everyday life, I used to think that household chores were things that got in the way. That these boring tasks were just inconveniences that stopped us from doing something worthwhile. But I’m starting to come around to the idea that maybe they’re an important part of life, that perhaps they allow our brains time to process, that these tedious tasks should be accepted, and maybe even embraced.
I think changing my attitude is going to be a long journey for me (quite literally) – it’s still very tempting to grab a paper to read on my commute. I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding boredom that my tolerance for tedium is quite low. But I’m gradually getting used to it. Long periods of nothingness that once felt agonising are slowly turning into welcome chances for calm and reflection – as well as opportunities to just ‘be’ in the present moment.
So, next time you have some precious free time, try doing something different. Don’t stick the telly on, get lost in the internet, or check social media. Try doing something boring – do the cleaning, the washing up, go for a walk, or just sit down and pause. Whatever you do, make sure that you’re actually giving your mind a break. I know it might seem counter intuitive. But it might just be the best way to spend your time.