Boredom, creativity and the addiction of distraction

Boredom: bored camel.Boredom may not be as boring as you think

Of the three things you most avoid that may be what you most need — suffering, failure and boredom — the latter seems like the most innocuous. Suffering and failure might feel more like an open wound or severed limb. In comparison, boredom’s more like a hangnail: not pleasant, but more of an annoyance you’d prefer would go away.

And that is exactly the problem.

You and I do all sorts of things to avoid being bored when in fact, embracing boredom may be one of the best things you can do to enhance your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

No, really.

Boredom and creativity

Being bored (and I’m talking about short-term boredom such as standing in line, being stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, etc. as opposed to long-term situations like a less-than-stimulating job) provides something rare: mental space for daydreaming. Without white space or a blank mental canvas, we don’t allow ourselves the ability to imagine. And without imagination, it’s hard to be creative.

Those stretches of time when you have nothing else to consider gives you the chance to make seemingly random connections that are at the heart of creativity. So much of our creative life occurs indirectly: we back into ideas or connect dots from different realms. Welcoming boredom or opportunities to not think about anything in particular allows you to ponder things in a different, non-linear way. And that’s when the creative ideas often flow.

But you’ll never get there if don’t open yourself to boredom. And if you’re like me, you can’t do that unless you address a hidden but powerful addiction: distraction.

The addiction of distraction

An addiction? You tell me. How long can you go without checking your phone or email or Facebook or a TV screen? How comfortable are you with silence? How often do you read the ads on the metro or subway just to have something to do? Distraction. It’s an addiction in our society and all the worse for the fact we don’t realize we suffer from it.

Distraction not only robs us of creative thought, it diverts us from deep thought. We’ve become so ingrained at checking our devices and living in a constant state of unfocus that we likely don’t even realize the toll it has taken on our ability to do better, insightful work.

Going deep

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses the impact of distraction and its allies — networking and so-called productivity tools that keep us constantly connected and thus constantly checking rather than concentrating. I love this quote of his:

No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.

Cal Newport

His point is that to do the kind of breakthrough work that makes a significant difference to society, we need focused time and effort. And that’s not easy in a culture addicted to distractions. Newport offers a wealth of solutions in the book, but one of my favorites is this.

Because distraction is so strong, we can’t beat it by trying to contain it. That’s why the approach many promote of carving out say, a day a week, for focused work with no social media rarely succeeds in the long run. That’s like telling an alcoholic to not drink one day a week. You don’t overcome addictions that way.

A better way to do focused work

Instead, Newport suggests a rather radical flipping of that process. Instead of carving out time in your week for focused work, instead, think of your week as being all about focus. Then, create small windows within each day for distraction. For example, as much as you can, arrange your schedule so that you refuse to go online or check your phone except every two hours and then for only 15 minutes. Be ruthless in sticking to this schedule. If you need to look something up online for the focused work you’re doing, wait until your two hours are up. If you absolutely can’t proceed without that information, at least wait five minutes. That way you’re training your brain not to give into the addiction pathology. You’re forcing yourself to at least pause before you automatically go online.

If you don’t do something dramatic like this, distraction will kick in. As an addiction, that means our brains have become trained to default to distraction whenever we’re agitated, bored or semi-engaged in something else. You need to break those habits of distraction and this reorienting your schedule is one way to do that.

Since reading Deep Work, I’ve tried this approach. I haven’t always been successful (addictions die hard), but when I stick to it and orient my day around focused time with distraction breaks rather than the other way round, the results have been dramatic. I get far more done and I haven’t missed out on any emergency emails, Slack messages or tweets that I just couldn’t live without.

What you may be missing most

I realize this last suggestion doesn’t relate directly to boredom. But it is a powerful way of breaking free of the addiction of distraction. So is embracing boredom. I highly recommend giving both a try. For when you do, you begin to realize how much you’ve been missing in your attempt not to miss out on anything.

If you haven’t already, check out the overview of this three-part series on the three things we avoid that we may most need, as well as the specific entries on suffering and failure.

 

3 things you most avoid may be what you most need

3 things you most avoid - walking surfersIn our creative work, in travel and in life overall, we often flee from the very things we most need. In particular, there are three things you most avoid that may be most beneficial to your creative work and to achieving your dreams.

What are the three things you most avoid that may most help you?

Suffering, failure and boredom. Those three.

“Well, of course,” you may be thinking. Who doesn’t want to avoid pain, failing or being bored? In and of themselves, they are no fun. But what they produce may be the very ingredients, resources or character traits you need for success.

I am not suggesting you actively pursue these three. You don’t have to. They are inevitable parts of life. But I am saying that making efforts to avoid them actually backfires. Like scientists are now telling us, washing your hands continuously with antibacterial soap only makes you more susceptible to germs in the long run. Trying to avoid germs in this way, much like trying to eliminate all suffering, failure and boredom from your life, just makes you more vulnerable to each when you do encounter them. You have no resistance.

I’ll explore each one in separate entries over the next few weeks since we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But for now, let me give you a quick summary of why these things you most avoid may be what you most need.

Suffering

Suffering is the antidote to superficiality. Through it you gain empathy, acquire wisdom and build grit – the ability to overcome.

Failure

Failure is the antidote to blandness and playing it safe. Through it you learn how to take appropriate risks, eliminate your unknown variables, achieve better outcomes and reframe what success means.

Boredom

Boredom is the antidote to distraction. Through it you improve your concentration, imagination, creativity and most of all, your deep thinking.

How you approach these three

Intrigued? I hope so because this backwards way of embracing three things you most avoid can have a profound effect on how you live. I will explain the upside of each of these in detail in three successive posts here. In addition, I’ll show you how you can get positive outcomes through these experiences we normally view only as negative.

But until then, let me offer a helpful analogy on how to approach these less-than-popular notions of suffering, failure and boredom.

How a riptide works

In my youth, I spent a lot of time at the beach. If you swim or surf in the ocean much, you soon learn about riptides.

Riptides are strong currents usually caused by the outflow of other water (e.g. from an inlet or near a river) or a sudden change in the depth of the water. In these situations, the riptide tends to pull you out to sea in a relentless flow. Trying to swim toward shore means swimming against a current much stronger than you. Many people drown when they attempt to swim in against a riptide. They simply exhaust themselves.

With suffering, failure and boredom, our goal isn’t to pursue them nor to directly oppose them. Rather, it is to understand them, embrace them and use them to our advantage much like experienced swimmers and surfers do with riptides.

With a riptide, you don’t resist it. You move through it and swim at a 90 degree angle to it to escape it. If you fight it, you get exhausted and possibly drown. If you ignore it, you’ll be washed out to sea (and possibly drown). If you let the fear of it keep you from ever going into the water, you’ll never experience the joy of the ocean, or the thrill of the waves and surf. You won’t drown, but you won’t have much fun.

The upside of the riptide

However, if you embrace the riptide by recognizing it for what it is and you keep moving, not against it toward the beach but across it parallel to the beach, you succeed. You come to shore in a different place, tired but stronger — and better able to go back out the next time.

Surfers sometimes use riptides to help them get out to the bigger waves with less effort. Once there, they paddle parallel to the shore until they are free from the riptide and can surf in freely. They have leveraged a negative and used it to their advantage.

That is precisely how we can address suffering, failure and boredom. They may be three things try to you avoid. But as we shall see, they may also be more helpful to you than you realize.