As an only child until the age of 14, my memories are rife with long swaths of time full of…well, nothing. Lying on a prickly carpet, waiting for a parent to get off the phone; slumped in the grass outside my house waiting for my best friend to get home; withering on the cool linoleum of my kitchen waiting for the heat of a summer day to cool. Boredom was a full-body activity, a restlessness like being tickled all over by a mean older brother. And yet… in between all the waiting, the glazy-eyed boredom gave way to something else. Storymaking. Creation. Imagination. In these many idle hours of my life, without siblings or a stay-at-home parent to fill up the time, an urge arose in me as is natural, I think, to the human mind when not filled with constant input to make or do something more interesting.
While my child’s mind saw boredom as something imposed upon me and sought to slough it off, my adult mind knows that boredom is a gift. When we stop doing so much, stop focusing, working and distracting our conscious minds, the subconscious, where all manner of fascinating material resides, begins to work those gifts up to the surface–which is why writers often get ideas precisely in the moments and places where one can’t write them down: the shower, the car, or in line at the post office. And it doesn’t take long before that idle waiting turns into a deeper, newer form of creating. I see it in my son all the time—also an only child—when he is forced to turn off the TV and not allowed to play Minecraft.
In fact, when I’ve squeezed myself into every available time slot, filled my days with too much productivity and project balancing, my mind reacts like a petulant child all over again, only in reverse: it begs for down time by becoming confused, blurred, foggy. It forgets words I need, mixes up names, refuses to read any email correctly and screws things up. And then, if I still don’t listen, it rebels altogether and shuts down.
And then, like a wonky old computer, it needs a reboot before it agrees to get back with the program. Sometimes that reboot takes a lot longer than I have the luxury of sparing. What I’ve learned, especially as both a self-employed person and a writer, is that we need to give ourselves mental down time. Time in between work and projects where the goal is NOT to do anything.
Here are some strategies for bringing a little “boredom” into your own life (aka “daydreaming):
- Eyes Wide Shut: Take a little time during your work day to sit with your eyes closed. I’m not even saying meditate—I mean literally limit the sensory input you likely receive from computer terminals, smartphones and tablets. Tune in your ears instead. Rub your fingers across a surface. Sip or eat something. And yes, it’s not a bad idea to take some deep breaths while you’re at it.
- Negate Novelty: You’ve finished a project, an item on the to-do list, another page/chapter/novel. Don’t just rush on to the next one. Take a palate cleansing pause to do NOTHING (with your mind, at least). Take a little stroll around the block, the office complex, or just step outside if weather permits.
- Smartphones Dumb us Down: I have a love-hate relationship with my iphone. It keeps me connected via text and email in ways I so appreciate; but ever since its introduction into my life I am aware at all times of its presence or lack thereof; I feel the need to check its face constantly and I feel bereft if I should accidentally misplace it or leave it behind. With its ever-present source of information, I could never be bored again—which is wonderful for the DMV but not so great for creativity. Creativity thrives on downtime. New ideas arise from the “nothing” of lack of mental activity. Take a smartphone break. Set yourself a time limit—and work on increasing it as you go. One week take a 10 minute daily break and then work up to it so that you don’t check it for an hour, several hours…whatever is feasible for you.
- Nature’s Way: My favorite way to pause from mental activity is to step out into nature. Now I don’t mean you have to get far out into the wild woods or up a mountain—if there are trees in your yard or neighborhood, they will do. Gardening is one of my favorite ways to let my mind rest. I have spent as much as an hour watching fat carpenter bees pollinate my flowers. My birdfeeder offers another distraction as the local finches vie for a tasty morsel. If you can get to a natural spot that’s also away from the sounds and scents of civilization, even the better. Wind through trees, birdsong, and the gentle whap of wave on wave, are some of the most cleansing and restorative sounds.
Just as you wouldn’t leave all the lights on in your home all the time, let your brain power down from time to time and be amazed at what rises in its place.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter (in the sidebar). Also check out my books: Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and the suspense novel, Forged in Grace. And check out my Plot & Scene Writing Retreat with Martha Alderson at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center in May.