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 coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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