Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Boredom Is Good for Your Creativity

Like most creatives, you probably have a low boredom threshold. You’re hardwired to pursue novelty and inspiration, and to run from admin and drudgery. Boredom is the enemy of creativity, to be avoided at all costs. Or is it?

Consider these remarks by comedy writer Graham Linehan, in a recent interview for the Guardian:

I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.

I know how he feels. I can be really excited when I dream up the idea for a new writing project, yet when it’s time to knuckle down and start the first draft, it’s amazing how suddenly I feel bored – and how many ‘interesting’ alternatives pop into my mind: Twitter, Behance (natch), Google Reader; rearranging the books on my shelf; the new Amazon package that arrived this morning; emailing a friend I haven’t spoken to for ages; doing some more “research”…

Of course, Steven Pressfield would have no hesitation in nailing this kind of boredom as Resistance – the invisible force that rises up within us, whenever we set our minds to a difficult creative challenge. Resistance knows how hard the task will be, and uses boredom to nudge us away from it, while offering us all kinds of easy ways out. No wonder Kingsley Amis said “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Like Linehan, I’ve come to expect the boredom and prepare myself to deal with it. Firstly, I know what time I’m supposed to start writing – after that point, I know I’m either writing or skiving off. Secondly, I go into airplane mode – switching off the phone and email, and using Freedom to lock me off the internet. That usually does the trick for writing prose, but poetry is much harder – and I know the boredom/resistance will be that much stronger. So when I’m working on a poem I leave the laptop at home and head for the British Library with just a pencil and paper. The British Library is a beautiful building, and purpose-designed to be one of the most boring environments on Earth – there are no enticing distractions, and the “wall of silence” peer pressure from your fellow readers makes it hard to do anything other than sit still and keep quiet.

Resistance knows how hard the task will be, and uses boredom to nudge us away from it, while offering us all kinds of easy ways out.

Whether it is poetry or prose, I experienced the same familiar pattern: once it’s just me and the blank screen/page, a wave of boredom rises up to meet me. I feel the urge to go somewhere – anywhere – to get away. And I let the wave wash over me. I accept I am bored, that boredom is part of the process – and I trust that if I sit here long enough, it will subside, and reveal a flicker of curiosity. That flicker is like the tiny flame a match sparks in kindling – easily snuffed out, but if you are patient, it will start to grow and burn brightly. Curiosity becomes interest, becomes fascination… and soon I’m lost in my writing, the words are flowing and I wouldn’t be anywhere or doing anything else in the whole world.

You see, the part that Resistance forgets to tell us is that on the other side of boredom is the most exciting experience you can have as a creator – the state of being fired up and discovering new possibilities beyond anything you could have imagined before you sat down to work.

So how can you remind yourself of that, long enough to break through the boredom and out the other side?

1. Make sure it’s the right kind of boredom!

The wrong kind of boredom is the kind you experience when you’re doing something tedious or pointless – something that doesn’t inspire you or help you achieve your ambitions. But the right kind of boredom is the kind you experience in spite of the fact that you know this is something you really, really want to do – i.e. work on a big creative challenge. That should alert you to the fact that it’s only a smokescreen for Resistance.

2. Decide beforehand when you’re going to start work.

If you wait until tomorrow to decide whether to start work in the morning or the afternoon, you give yourself an opportunity to procrastinate. But if you decide to start at 9am tomorrow, when 9am comes round you have a stark choice – do your work or break your promise.

3. Cut yourself off from distractions. Don’t rely on willpower.

Is it enough to use software to switch off the internet? Do you need to avoid the computer altogether? Or do you require a high-focus environment like a library or shared studio? You know yourself better than anyone.

4. Prepare to be bored. Don’t resist it.

Sit there and experience it – notice how your body feels, what thoughts and temptations parade through your mind, and what emotions you experience. (A regular meditation practice can be enormously helpful here.) Get to know your boredom – when you really study it, can actually be quite interesting!

5. Stay where you are until the boredom subsides.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with something amazing straight away. Just lay your paper/laptop/canvas/guitar/whatever in front of you, and look at it. If it’s a work in progress, look at what you did yesterday. When I do this, I usually find myself tempted to make a few light edits here and there, and before long the edits get bigger, I cross out fewer words and start adding more and more. So give yourself permission to do nothing or just tinker around – as long as stay focused on the work in front of you.

6. Make a habit of it.

The more times you see the pattern – first boredom, then curiosity, then interest, then absorption – the more easily you will recognize the boredom as just the first part of the process, and the easier it will be to persist.

Over To You

Is boredom an occupational hazard for you as a creative professional? If so, how do you deal with it?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Focus

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (79)
  • Catherine Rightsell

    I don’t know if I’m bored or burned out… definitely uninspired. But, I got away from the computer (into the woods) for a couple weeks, and I have made a small step of progress. I have a plan. Now it’s GO time! The ideas aren’t flowing like they have in the past. I’m so passionate as a person, but at the time, I’m not passionate about much. It’s very strange. Something is going to trigger it. But I’ve changed a lot and the old triggers (like going camping) aren’t working in a big way. I feel like I’m in a writers block… something’s got to give.

  • Neha

    This is exactly how I feel when I start working on a project. Thanks for the tips they are very helpful.

  • aoibhell

    I realised i wasn’t just bored or burned out, I was dying inside, as if the whole world had turned the other way and I was on wrong direction. When that happens I know I need a challenge, so I decided to moved countries, but then my dog can’t really do that, so Australia is a big place, I picked an isolated town 3500 miles from home, and got a place to live near a swimming hole, so I can swim and look at the water every day. Water is a huge source of inspiration to me. It is fearful, overwhelming at times, great, starting to feel the life force again. Wish me luck, I know it is going to be the challenge.

  • worped.com

    Really good article. I meet this resistance all the time; I’ve had an idea buzzing around my head for a long time now, but haven’t yet done anything useful about it. In future I won’t run away quite so fast.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh, we can only dream of that kind of remoteness in the UK! :-)

    Hope the move and creative challenges work out – good luck with it all.

  • Whitney-anne Baker

    an old journalist told me he used to sit at the typewriter and just type stream of conciousness to overcome fear of the blank page. Stream of conciousness was no big deal/ no pressure and once he was about a third of the page down the rest would come . . . .

  • Rem

    As a painter, I have a tendency to just get bored when I feel my concept is lacking something or that i couldn’t find the right mix of color. That’s when I really start to wander off to nothingness and just get too bored to continue. Sometimes I would go to a place where there are a lot of people or go to my favorite book store and marvel at the cover designs.

  • Chawlee

    How appropriate that your article is the first piece of distraction that consumed, but decidedly the last one for this evening as well (as much work lies ahead of me, and this was a nice remember of that). I especially appreciate your reference to airplane mode. As I travel frequently, I do find not having internet on the plane a great way for me to get work done. In fact, I’ve made the same realizations in the airplane as the message in this article conveys. Kudos!

  • leon-lv

    Скука помогает творить: довольно часто творишь, когда скучно, а потом что-то неожиданное появляется. Что-то новое, связанное с этой неожиданностью и появляется в уме.

  • Julieta

    This text is incredible, I feel very identified, every day I fight vs boredom in my creative process, thanks a lot!

  • Mélanie Généreux

    Fabulous tips! Thank you – it always helps to hear others and their struggle with “Resistance” <3

  • priscilla mak

    Mark, I’ve just been heartbroken and the tears cant stop welling up. So I’m hunkered down here and dont know when I’d be back to producing work some time soon. Thanks for article ( will read it all when eyes are less teary).

    One of your Second Creative Pathfinders..

  • yivviepants

    I think the reason I get bored when I sit in front of one of my paintings or drawings is that the space around me is uninspiring. My “studio” is really just a middle room in my apartment that doubles as the dining room, and has poor lighting (one lonely north facing window with brick walls on the left and right of it). Unless it’s an exceptionally sunny day, I think I hate sitting in that room. Especially during the summer, as we do not have central air conditioning.

  • Terri

    I never thought of it this way (and I’m a compulsive thinker). I’ve always thought of it as “distracted,” but perhaps one engenders the other. Love this: “(A regular meditation practice can be enormously helpful here.) Get to
    know your boredom – when you really study it, can actually be quite
    interesting!” So true. And, yes, I frequently turn of the internet connection (unplug it) while I’m writing just to avoid the temptation of clicking over to Weather.com or some other fairly banal venue … out of, yes, I guess it is … boredom with what I’m writing (or feeling stuck).

  • Marius Aglen

    Appreciate the article <3

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Priscilla, it means a lot to know it struck a chord for you.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Confession: I ‘borrowed’ the ‘airplane mode’ phrase from Jocelyn. ;-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Glad to hear you’re harnessing the power of boredom!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Plenty more in the pipeline… :-)

  • drdownundermum

    A big pile of laundry waiting to be ironed usually does for me. Should I ever actually do any of it, the repetitive movements soon drops me mind into alpha.

  • Manisha

    I am a freelance writer with a full time job. Occasionally, I get bored at my day job and my mind starts to wander. However, I have somehow learned that besides surfing the net and “researching”, letting go of the boredom and starting to write random thoughts, or blog post ideas does work wonderfully. It makes me get rid of the boredom, be productive enough to write an article and then when that’s done, I just get back to the tasks at hand for my job.

    With that said, distractions are hard to get rid off. But I’m in the process of trying harder! Thanks for the great tips.

    http://manishad.wordpress.com

  • Bogdan Andreias

    This post just made me curious about the new impressive National Library building, will check it out in my pursuit of boredom.

  • lnjl

    you are a cunt

  • j

    fat cunt

  • Maria Sol

    I hate to be bored, but this article gave me another view that I must explore.

  • Flavia

    I guess you could tell yours was the “wrong” type of boredom ;) The kind of boredom I’m experiencing right now.
    Wishing you good luck and great work!

  • Reem

    Having calm days at work is normal. But no day at work should be “taskless” and unproductive. Here are some tips that can help you stay motivated at work, especially on those calm days http://blog.bayt.com/2013/01/s

  • http://www.catchmecode.com/ Jonas Lundberg

    Thank you very much for this! I’ve been trying to fight boredom all along only to now find out its not a thing to fight but to actually embrace… if it seems boring, its probably going to be a really fulfilling task once the boredom resides

  • saud

    usually i get bored when i person accompany me whom i have been experienced as not of my nature, and most of the time, i get bored when i wish some person to be beside me, if that person, i doesn’t find beside me, i get bored….

  • Lynx Firenze

    boredom isn’t so much a problem to me as writers block (probably just another smokescreen for Resistance) but I find it best to go and do something really repetitive and actually boring that doesn’t need much thought power and then voila, i suddenly have a whole bunch of ideas for whatever it was I was writing right then :)

  • believein1

    This article is genius. A key to the door of creativity for those whose work relies on creativity most. Resistance with a capital “R”, it has a name!

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