Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-right LineCreated with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Creative Blocks

Why Boredom Is Good for Your Creativity

Why does boredom always emerge just as you're about to get in gear on a creative project?


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?

Comments (80)
  • Evgenia Grinblo

    Brilliant article, one of the best I’ve read in months and I’m a giant fan of 99 Percent. What I love about your approach is allowing boredom and any other natural emotions to happen, instead of suggesting we must tame it else something terrible occurs. This is a liberating and comforting approach and I am excited to apply these tips and mentality in my work going forth. No other productivity article has spoken to me as much as this one. Thank you!

  • Lindsey

    You’ve just articulated everything I feel when I sit down to write – somehow everything else becomes far more urgent and appealing and distracts me from what I really should be doing. As you say, because it’s challenging (and I’d add it’s also because we’re afraid that we won’t immediately produce something that meets our personal standards) we succumb to the distractions. Yours is the first approach I’ve ready and said YES! Thank you for that!

  • Cristian gonzalez R

    a really good article, awesome i just saw myself trying to start some creative work.

  • Kait

    This is absolutely brilliant, thank you so much for putting it into words.

    I loathe domestic chores, though when I sit down to work on a difficult area of a painting I find myself thinking about how it has been a while since I vacuumed. I’ve come to realise that I’m procrastinating because I’m worried I might make a mistake, so it’s easier to let myself off the hook and do something else instead.

    I’ve started banning myself from social media except the mornings and the end of the day which helps. I also use the ‘pomodoro technique’ to try and break difficult tasks down into small chunks. I’ll be using your tips as well – thank you!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks for the great feedback. Yes, the more you resist the boredom, the more intense it gets – but if you don’t resist, it goes away after a while. (Honest!)

  • Mark McGuinness

    “immediately” – Yes! It’s the immediate gratification thing. Creativity generally takes longer. It’s more fulfilling in the end, but you usually have to put in the hours first.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Seeing is believing. 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    “I find myself thinking about how it has been a while since I vacuumed.” – I feel your pain! 🙂

    Yes I also have times when I’m ‘allowed’ on Twitter, Facebook etc. Otherwise it’s too much of a distraction. And having an end in sight – whether it’s via Pomodoro or just a ‘finish time’ is another good way to get yourself to start work sooner rather than later.

  • James

    This was pure awesomeness!

    I was literally thinking about this since the middle of last week. Lately I’ve had a bunch to do that isn’t really related to what I want to be doing, still required though in my current situation. You beautifully articulated what has been on my mind. Time for me to make some more room for some useful boredom and transition from that other junk!

    I’ve been setting up social media times as well. I feel like I accomplish more in the set amount of time.

  • Matthew

    On point again Mark! You continue to write incredible wisdom for the restless creative.

    As you say, boredom is essential for great work to emerge. I have become aware that my creative endeavors exist to fill the void of boredom, to prevent it from occurring by always having a project to move along. And I have myself convinced it’s not just for my own amusement- but others as well, who will one day benefit from my exchange of boredom for productivity (if I can actually produce a product!).

    …which brings me here, to fuel up on wisdom to keep the project moving along. Thanks.

  • David Welch

    This is really good!

    I didn’t realize until recently how much I enjoy writing. I always saw it as a chore because I was usually writing about something that I didn’t like. Now, that I’ve been trying to write more because I know that I enjoy it I’ve still found it difficult to sit down and do it.

    I was definitely going through boredom, but I never thought to accept it and wait for it to subside. Thanks for writing such an insightful article!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, ‘useful boredom’ is definitely a concept we should try to get into circulation…

  • Mark McGuinness

    That’s another good point – try to focus on the fact that, ultimately, you’re doing this because you want to, that there’s something enjoyable here, if you just stick with it long enough…

  • Mark McGuinness

    My pleasure Matthew, hope it helps to oil the wheels…

  • Christopher Hunter

    This describes how I compose music, almost verbatim. I work on little bits at a time and revise until I feel like it’s done (often when I can’t think of anything else to correct, though I’ll often have a time limit that is either literal or self-imposed.)

  • Ainsley Knott

    Very inspiring read, thank you! I’ll take a lot away from this.

  • Chris Kelly

    this is easier when you are in control of your time (freelance, self employed etc) when a whole office is run by the resistance it can be much much harder to work through it using these tips: solution? Work for yourself, not someone else’s resistance

  • Saya

    Mark, I realized libraries are great place to get bored and then focused too just recently. First I tried coffee shops (Starbucks) but the problem is these places are not boring and I get distracted easily. Specially for me I need to have every connection to internet being cut off.

    Nice article like always!!

  • Courtney Steen Turner

    Brilliant! I feel exactly the same when I sit down to write. I get all these amazing ideas in the shower, on walks, while doing dishes, while working out, at work, and right before I fall asleep, but when I am home at night and I open my laptop, I often just stare at the screen. I generally get really antsy and just get up again, but those times when I produce really great prose are always the times I just force myself to sit there and scowl at the screen for a while until it starts flowing. A teacher of mine in college used to tell me, “Just be with the work.” Your article is a more articulate version of that advice, and spot on for creatives. Thank you!

  • mattks

    My secret is a piece of paper in front of me. On the left side I list the legal activities for the next 8 hours. On the right, I write the down the illegal activities. Bathroom/email/drink/twitter/etc are allowed in the last 10 minutes of the hour only. When a new distraction pops up, it goes down on the right side.

  • Abby Kerstetter

    I’ve had “BUTT IN SEAT” written on the whiteboard next to my desk for some time now. Definitely keeps me chugging through that initial wave of boredom on a Saturday morning when I’m thinking I really should relieve my husband of those dirty dishes left over from the week…or the single bowl from breakfast that morning that is equally more appealing than being at my desk 😀

  • Matt Lossau

    I love posts, articles, or stories that make it hard for me to stay in my seat, because I want to jump up and act on them. This is a beautiful description of the creative process, and it inspires me to want to create, boredom and all!

  • Susan

    This is the reason I just read this post

  • JAPrice

    Great article. The big creative thing I’m working on is a computer game. Requires the computer, of course. Requires the internet because I’m still learning the software and I’m constantly looking for tutorials. So distraction comes easy when I come across a link to a tutorial with something new I want to try. Definitely need to learn how to recognize the pattern and stay focused on the objective. But how does one recognize when it’s the right or wrong kind of boredom we’re experiencing?

  • 99U

    Reply

1 2
blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Creative Blocks