In praise of boredom
This last week I’ve continued the first draft of my latest non-fiction, a guide to supervision for managers. I’ve finished a couple of audiobooks during my commutes and gym sessions, started reading a paperback of “Nudge”, and also continued reading the Witcher series (I started last summer, then sort of forgot about it as other things took over). I’ve been reading/watching YouTube videos on AI, which I am convinced is going to be as revolutionary as the Internet itself was. I’m also watching The Expanse, an excellent sci-fi that I put on hold whilst keeping up with The Mandalorian and Picard, and have been binging Brand New Cherry Flavor. And don’t tell anyone, but my son’s long-neglected Switch has been getting an overdue retro NES/GameBoy workout. Y’know, just to test it’s till working. And whilst I’ve not worked on any music in months, I do try and pick up the guitar occasionally. #DadRockRules. That new Metallica has been getting a lot of play also.
As the world becomes more and more fast-paced and digitised, we are constantly bombarded by stimuli that keep us engaged and occupied. Thankfully I’m not into Instagram and Tik Tok videos, or that would be another few hours a week my brain doesn’t rest. We rarely have a moment to slow down and breathe, let alone experience boredom. However, studies have shown that boredom is actually critical for creativity.
Boredom is often seen as a negative state that we try to avoid at all costs. We fill our time with social media, TV shows, video games, books, and other distractions to keep us entertained. But when we are constantly engaged and stimulated our brains have little time to wander and think creatively.
Boredom, on the other hand, allows our minds to wander and explore without any particular goal in mind. It gives us the opportunity to daydream and think outside of the box. It also allows us to reflect and digest information, which enables us to make new connections and generate new ideas.
Many inventions and innovations in history have been born out of boredom. The idea for the postal service was thought of while a man waited impatiently in a long line, and the concept of the steam engine was conceived while James Watt was staring at a boiling kettle. I know from experience the effects of a long walk, lost in my own thoughts, can have on my fiction. The idea for my novel ‘Swarm’ came to me one afternoon when I was sitting on the sofa, doing nothing in particular. I didn’t have any new books, there was nothing on TV, I had no ideas on the guitar. My wife had been in the garden, and as she came inside briefly she mentioned the wasp problem at the front of the house. Thirty minutes later I’d outlined almost the entire plot. Had I been distracted by a YouTube video or some other mental occupation the conversation (and therefore the idea) would have passed by without me giving it any consideration.
Research has shown that boredom can increase our ability to problem-solve. When we are bored, our brains naturally seek out stimulation. We begin to see our surroundings and problems in a new light, which can lead to breakthroughs and innovative solutions. How many times has a solution struck you’ve given yourself the time to relax and subconsciously reflect? I’ve generated more ideas and solved more tricky plot-points sitting in traffic than I ever have whilst my mind is concentrating on something.
Boredom can also help us to develop new interests and hobbies. When we are bored, we are forced to explore new opportunities and try new things. This can lead to a newfound passion or an unexpected talent.
In order to experience the benefits of boredom we need to embrace it rather than avoid it. This means setting aside time to be unoccupied and allowing our minds to wander. This could be as simple as taking a walk without our phones or sitting outside and watching the clouds go by. In a way I have found that post-pandemic remote working has stifled my creativity. I used to use the drive to and from work to decompress, giving my mind space to wander. The same thing would happen in between meetings, supervisions, and other ‘tasks’. Ironically I find that, working from home, when I’ve not got an immediately pressing problem or task at hand, I find myself work to do as I don’t want to feel like I’m not ‘working’ just because I’m at home; whereas during quiet moments in the workplace I don’t feel the same pressure - I’m already at work so there’s less to prove, right?
We can stimulate boredom by doing seemingly mundane tasks like washing dishes or folding laundry. By engaging in these mundane tasks, we allow our brains to focus on something routine and straightforward which can lead to a state of boredom.
Boredom is essential for creativity. While entertainment and stimulation are important, we need to make time for boredom to allow our brains to think creatively and generate new ideas. So, the next time you feel bored, embrace it and see where your mind takes you.
I've been thinking a lot about work over the past few weeks. This month, we have three bank holidays. Usually, we work a minimum of forty hours a week, not to mention picking up text messages outside of work, making hands-free calls on the way home, and responding to a few emails in the evening. I haven't done any of that over the bank holidays. Instead, I've taken the dog for a walk, played guitar, swapped the pickups out of my Telecaster (a mini humbucker in the neck, for those fellow guitar nerds who are interested), listened to some music, played card games with the family, planted vegetables and flowers in the garden with my daughter, and caught up on some reading ("Nudge" and "Sword of Destiny"). So, with a few shorter workweeks and protecting my personal time outside of office hours, I should be miles behind, right?
Nope. Not even close.
Alongside all of this, I've read two thought-provoking articles on our working culture. The first questions what productivity is and how we should measure it (https://www.vox.com/technology/23710261/productivity-definition-measures-remote-work-management), and the second, from the same website, focuses on the successes of the four-day workweek (https://www.vox.com/22568452/work-workweek-five-day-four-jobs-pandemic). Already, I can hear the out-of-touch complaining that people only want a four-day workweek because they're lazy, comparing the modern workplace to the days when one had to be chained to their desk to produce anything.
Those days are gone. We are far more efficient than any previous generation of workers, and this only becomes more true as AI advances. Granted, there are some jobs - care roles, for example - in which workers currently need to be present to do the job they are paid to do. In such cases, it is apt to pay people per hour. But an increasing number of roles are dependent not upon where you work, but upon the interactions you have and the decisions you make. If you are able to meet the needs of all the stakeholders to whom you are accountable in less than forty hours a week, then why shouldn't you, if you are being paid for the results you achieve? Working less than forty hours a week means you are more likely to arrive at work recharged, refreshed, and more able to provide creative solutions to the problems you may face. Contrast this with the tiredness of someone who fills the remainder of their week with busywork so they can meet their forty-hour quota, or someone who lacks the self-discipline to manage their calls and emails outside of work hours. It's been said before, but if you don't manage it, it manages you.
I think the call for shorter working hours will only grow stronger in the coming years as we understand the benefits to ourselves and our businesses of being better rested, alongside reaping the benefits of AI.
Or perhaps I’m being overly optimistic. Few households can live on a single income; inflation and our refusal to deal with the nations’ failure to ensure an adequate supply of good quality, fairly priced housing will see this worsen. Many adults juggle more than one form of employment, alongside a side hustle of some sort, just to get by. Added to that is our experience of automation in industry. Those efficiencies were supposed to free us up to pursue our hobbies and spend time with our families, since we could achieve the same outputs in a fraction of the time (sound familiar)? Instead we saw no reduction in working hours, but an increase in the profitability of large companies. AI could lead to the same problems, increasing the already worrying concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
Dramatic words? Maybe. But if history is anything to go by, we risk sacrificing our health and relationships to work the same long hours to make the rich richer when we could be reducing our work commitments with no impact on our productivity. I don't think that working shorter hours will be a panacea for all our problems, nor that it's a one-size-fits-all solution. But as individuals and societies, we need to rethink our relationship with work. We should question why we work as much as we do, and what it is we're trying to achieve. We should reflect on whether we're sacrificing too much of our health, relationships, and well-being for our jobs, and whether the rewards we get are worth it. And we should explore alternative ways of organising work, whether it's through shorter working weeks, more flexible schedules, or more creative ways of measuring productivity.
Of course, these are not easy questions to answer, and there are no easy solutions. But as we celebrate the bank holidays, let's take a moment to reflect on what we really value in life, and whether we're spending our time and energy on the things that matter most to us. Perhaps then we'll start to see that working less, and living more, can be a win-win for everyone
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