Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Benefits of Boredom for Writers

I hate being bored. To prevent the bleakness of boredom from descending on me like a grey fog, I have bought a digital subscription to the New York Times. For just $17.85/month I can read the Times on my cell-phone, which I do, regularly. Standing in line at the bank. Waiting for a train. Sometimes, even, waiting for a stoplight — but only when I’m walking, not when I’m driving. I’m not a total idiot!

On the other hand, I may be crazy. It sounds as though I'm sacrificing some creativity in exchange for my own amusement.

This was the conclusion of a 2013 study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire, England. There, researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman challenged two sets of participants to come up with as many uses as possible for a set of polystyrene cups. One of the groups first had to spend 15 minutes, performing the extremely boring task of copying numbers out of a phone directory. (The "control" group had no such obligation.)

And, guess what? The participants who'd done the boring task first produced far more creative responses.

It turns out that boredom is not just a troublesome feeling that we should avoid. It's something we should embrace. And entertainers around the world know this already.

Here, for example, is what comedian John Cleese has to say: "We don't know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops." I also agree with his aphorism "busyness is the enemy of creativity."

Irish TV comedy writer and director Graham Linehan feels the same way as Cleese, but notice how he puts it. "The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck," he says. "That's actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer's block, but it's actually just part one of a long process.

"The Internet has made it very difficult to experience that," he adds.

Isn't it interesting how the digital world may be guilty of ramping up our need for amusement and squashing our ability to be creative? When I started writing 35 years ago, I used a pencil and paper and then proceeded to a typewriter. Rewriting anything was damn hard work, frequently involving scissors and scotch tape.

Now, with my computer, I can use "move block" to transfer words in a moment or two. Easy-peasy. The research process has become equally facile. Just ask Dr. Google any question you like and you may get 21 million results in a few seconds.

Here's the real issue, however: When you've found that answer, can you stop yourself from following the breadcrumbs (IT people call them "hotlinks") inevitably buried inside that article you really needed. Or, worse, can you prevent yourself from wandering over to Facebook or Twitter and, before you know it, discovering that you've used up half of your working day?

The "work" of sitting at our computers and trying to prevent ourselves from being bored is really a form of idleness — masquerading as diligence. But idleness, per se, is not a bad thing. It's good for us, argues Andrew Smart in his new book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. Being idle is one of the most important activities in life," he says.

Just be aware that when Smart uses the word idle, he means really idle. Not checking on our Facebook status or, reading theNew York Times on the phone, like I do. He thinks we should get away from our desks more. Go for more walks. Engage in hobbies we really like. Sit in coffee shops and drink coffee while listening to the hiss of the cappuccino maker (instead of using our laptop.) Why?

Smart believes that our brains are equipped with "autopilots" — like the ones airplanes have — which we can use only when we relinquish manual control. "The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do," he says. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you." (Emphasis mine.)

Boredom will come and go. When it's there, don't chase it away. Take advantage of it.

And please excuse me while I cancel my subscription to the New York Times.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 21st 2016, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Ha ha. I read this while sitting on a train chucking my emails! I think I better switch off and gaze out of the window! Thanks Daphne, once again.
Thursday April 21st 2016, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Ray S.
The (young) computer science professor and efficient learning guru Cal Newport has a new book that makes this argument in detail. His book Deep Work explains the value of extended uninterrupted periods in which your mind can do its highest-value work. Part of the formula is not giving into the many distractions available. If you are bored, stay bored. Don't escape by checking emails or social media. Highly recommended.
Thursday April 21st 2016, 10:57 AM
Comment by: David D.
Perhaps definitions are different for some people. I do not equate idleness with boredom. But then, I don't think I am ever bored. I am alive, I have a pulse, the pattern of veins on the back of my hands delight me in being both like and unlike other hands. I have napped on the ground and awakened to see an ant inches from my nose, struggling to move something. I watch for an hour, physically idle yet my mind is active. Of course it is a great difficulty to convey this sort of being alive to some people who sigh and say, "I'm bored."
Thursday April 21st 2016, 8:07 PM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
I wonder if the phone book task was really an exercise.

Musicians warm up by playing scales or phrases they've played many times before. Likewise, singers, before performing, run through scales performed many times before as a way to warm up their voice. The musician is working his muscles with his brain, certainly in a way that is familiar and quite...boring. But it's all in preparation for the creativity of what's to come.
In the phone book task, maybe the writers were waking up the creativity in their brain.
I've got to quit throwing out the new phone books as soon as they arrive in my driveway.
Monday April 25th 2016, 10:43 PM
Comment by: Martin E. (Hudson, TX)
In the 80's I used to sit at my desk, smoking my pipe, writing code. That is, Machine and assembly code. I might flowchart the program/routine and certainly write it down on a tablet. I would X out the bad code or line out it and 'insert' from the margins. My computer room was cold. All terminals were in there and I was writing with my mind and body at ease, my brain on the subject and the code written. The time in the computer room was to type it in at high speed, compile and test the code. The process was fruitful. Thanks for the memories. Been some time since I thought of that process.

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