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Focusing

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)
  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh, love the radical solution!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Oh good, I’m glad it’s not just us writers. πŸ™‚

  • Mark McGuinness

    My pleasure.

    “antsy” – that’s the word I was looking for!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Nice way to capture the distractions. As long as calling them ‘illegal’ doesn’t make them more tempting! πŸ˜‰

  • Mark McGuinness

    If a cluttered desk is the sign of genius, I guess a spotless kitchen could also be a sign of mediocrity. πŸ™‚

  • Mark McGuinness

    Then my work here is done!

  • Mark McGuinness

    I think, deep down, we know. So the best way is to pay attention to that gut feeling.

    Another way is to ask yourself: “Do I absolutely NEED to learn this new thing RIGHT NOW – or can I get on with my work for now and come back to learn this later?”

    I’m not sure if it’s a perfect analogy, but as a writer I can get a similar temptation when I realise I don’t have all the facts at my fingertips so I need to do some research… Resistance says I need to stop and do the research right now. But really, I know that I can leave a gap and fill it in later. Which means I’ve got no excuse for not ploughing on with that difficult next paragraph…

  • Mark McGuinness

    I can write in a cafe for a while, if (a) it’s not too busy, and (b) the coffee is really good…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Props for being honest! Hope it helped…

  • Roger Hoyt

    Boredom is a big deal for me. I’m one of the INTJ personality types. I get bored easily. But when my creative mind starts to work, watch out.

  • Nelson

    This was really inspiring and VERY true. I had never thought about this before. I want to keep on reading stuff like this πŸ˜€

  • Patrick Poculan

    This article just defined what I have been questioning about my habit. I usually go out, smoke or drive my bike when I’m about to start writing. Excellent article. It’s motivating!

  • Angela Booth

    Boredom’s the reason so many writers are addicted to stationery. Lovely new pens, smooth paper… possibilities open. Or maybe we just have a fetish. πŸ™‚

  • Sheena Dempsey

    Yes to all of it! It’s that initial boredom at the thought of knuckling down that causes me to procrastinate but it’s the procrastination that’s actually boring and I prolong it unnecessarily and then I hate myself for procrastinating. BUM IN SEAT is the key.

  • Hannah

    This was awesome. If you need something to distract you from your boredom go here http://flip.fm/#!/cmm/237 and sign up for the private beta for a new website focused on creating, sharing and enjoying music videos! A lot of the info is under wraps but all will be revealed about this awesome new site soon! Be in-the-know and be able to brag to your friends that you were one of the first users for a website that’s gonna be huge!

  • ellenk

    This is similar to a technique I learned for dealing with ADHD – when distractions pop into your head, write them down and deal with them later, then get on with what you need to do.

  • Ethervoid

    For so long i’ve been looking for an explanation about that feeling that comes to me every time i want to do some profitable activity. It’s really an insidious problem πŸ™‚

  • Brodo

    My moms told me only boring people get bored. So, like, burn on you.

  • Rendigites

    I found having a purely physical artistic project running simultaniously helped me get through the boredom as well as some writing blocks. Two big projects, a faux-slate cement floor and the latest series of poems for my book, proved to be a happy marraige.

  • Karuna

    I sat around in my studio for a couple of weeks wondering what I was going to do. It was a good place to go and just think, hang out and do nothing. Then i started taking out some unfinished canvases, built a quick burnable sculpture for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration and picked up the breadcrumbs from a lot of unfinished work. Now I can’t find enough time to be in my studio and have 3 different projects that keep me interested and excited. At times I miss the boredom and see it as a very fertile place of creative repose.

  • Kazi

    Bordom has always been a major distraction for me. I can really appreciate this ‘novel’ way of approaching it. Make boredom my warm up. Ok. ; )

  • Alkonost

    I definitely “write” and “draw” anywhere but at my desk. Every time I need to get on with writing something and I am stuck, I go out for a fast walk with my iPod turned up and it just all plays out like a movie in my head. So I hurry home and binge-write it down as fast as I can, and bam, momentum going. πŸ™‚

  • Amandah

    Interesting point-of-view.

    For the past few weeks, I’ve been saying, “I’m bored.” My boredom pushed me to revisit a middle grade short story I wrote a few years ago. Lo and behold, I outlined the chapters and developed the characters so I can turn the short story into a book. Yesterday, I set up my manuscript in Word. I guess boredom can work for you instead of against you.

  • atc483

    Also the reason I read the post

    However my biggest problem is the fact that I still haven’t saved up enough money to replace my dead art computer-so my source of primary output has been cut off for 3 months. I’ve tried going back to paper alone with some success but alas, the PC is always where I finish things.

    Being a starving artist sucks..especially when you’re unemployed-damnit. -_-

  • Catherine Rightsell

    Actually, I was just telling someone today, how I am able to completely detach from having to have the hardware anymore, because so many other places have it available, the library, the colleges, coffee shops, my clients, etc…. here’s why it doesn’t matter anymore: I used to buy the Adobe Creative Suite software… over a grand $$ a pop… a few hundred to upgrade, etc. Not anymore –now I subscribe to the Adobe Suite Cloud… for $32 a month – so if my PC crashes or I don’t feel like lugging my laptop… I find a computer… and can use Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash or whatever from anywhere or rent one if you can afford it… Rent a centers have them… no credit check. Subscribe to the Cloud software – build a quick website for someone for a few hundred bucks and voila! You’re back in business!

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Paul Ford