The Gift of Boredom

The Fourth Rule of Engagement

We’ve all been there.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an essay for school, a “Dear John” letter to your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/roommate from Hell, a letter of resignation, a last will and testament, or a manuscript that will someday outsell Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the Bible combined.

At some point in the writing process, you find yourself a little bit stuck and unsure of what to write next.  You find that you need a bit of a break – just a short one – to give your brain a chance to catch its breath from all the mental calisthenics it’s been performing.  And so you click open your web browser, intent on just a quick peek at what’s been happening on the Web while you were busy spinning words into gold.

And then…

And then….

Email.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Google+.  Any and every other social network you belong to, and maybe even a few you don’t.  Yet.  YouTube to watch videos of dancing cats.  Amazon to read reviews of books that are nowhere near as good as yours will someday be.

Blogs.  Blogs about writing.  Celebrity gossip blogs.  Blogs with links to videos of dancing cats.  Food porn blogs.  House renovation porn blogs.  Photo blogs.  Your own blog.  Blogs about how to improve your blog.  News articles.  Op-ed articles.  People’s comments on op-ed articles….

This list, as I’m sure we can all attest, goes on and on.  Some much so, that what was supposed to be a ten-minute break quickly turns into two hours.  Next thing you know, it’s time to go to bed or else you’ll be wrecked for work tomorrow, you still don’t know what to write next, you didn’t make your daily word quota, and your index finger is feeling a bit twitchy from its mouse-clicking half-marathon.

As I said, we’ve all been there.

Here’s a little something you might want to consider before going there yet again.

The myth(?) of multitasking

A few months ago, my boss attended a conference on integrating modern technology into the education system, and was informed, during one of the workshops, that he should disable the desktop notification pop-ups on his email client.

The reason given for this was the myth of multitasking.

That is to say, the presenter believed that multitasking doesn’t really exist – that while one may believe s/he is performing two or more tasks at once, every time s/he switches from one activity to another (and another and back to the first, and so on), it takes the brain a bit of time to refocus on the new task.  All this, the presenter said, has the net effect of making every task take longer to complete than if each had been tackled in turn, one after the other.

My boss was quick to recommend everyone on our team disable their email notifications, but I refused, citing gender bias as my rationale.  After all, my boss is male, the presenter was also male, and at least one study suggests that women are better multitaskers than men (although other studies presenting contrary results also exist).  Plus, I personally manage with my email pop-ups just fine, preferring to either deal with immediately or (immediately) flag for follow-up rather than check my inbox an hour later to discover 20 messages have come in while I was uni-tasking.

But there is one area in which I agree with my boss and the workshop he attended in that trying to multitask is a bad idea:

Trying to get unstuck in while writing and surfing the internet.

Your brain on boredom

The reason we divert towards the internet and away from our writing when we’re stuck is because being stuck is boring.  Yet according to Irish TV writer Graham Linehan, boredom is an essential component of creativity.

Linehan was interviewed on CBC Radio’s Day 6 (August 18 – Episode 91) as part of its summer “Recharge Series” in a segment entitled Boredom as a Creativity Kick Starter (listen here: advance to 42:45; concludes at 48:56).  In this interview, Linehan had the following to say:

I often find that there’s a period of being stuck when I’m working on something, and that’s a kind of grinding, unpleasant aspect of writing.  You have to go through it to come out on the other side…. But you can’t be stuck if you’re surfing the net….  If you stop your brain from amusing itself, it will desperately try and do anything to have a good time, so boredom is kind of a useful tool….

And that kind of frustration – if you’re looking at the empty page – eventually your brain says “Well I’ve gotta do something, so I might as well start filling this page up”, even if it’s just listing funny shows you’ve seen in the past. So essentially, what the brain is doing is it’s trying to escape its current state of inactivity and boredom.  It’s trying to find an escape route.  And you want to escape route to be on the page.  You don’t want the escape route to be on a web browser.

Linehan believes that in order to get past a state of stuckness, we first have to feel the boredom and stuckness – to really feel it rather than using the internet (or any other distracting activity) to medicate the pain of not having touched the pencil/keyboard for the last ten minutes.  We then have to wait for the brain to cure us of that boredom on its own.

From my own personal experience with Empty Page Syndrome, Linehan’s prescription is sound.  Hence The Fourth Rule of Engagement:

Unplug the modem when at work on my novel-in-progress.

A drastic measure, isn’t it?  Or perhaps just a desperate one.

Back in February of this year, when I first started writing again after a six-year hiatus, I found that my “writing” regularly comprised far more web-surfing than new words appearing on the screen.

Luckily, it wasn’t as difficult a stretch for me (both physically and conceptually) to be disconnected as it might be for others, for I was already in the habit of leaving the modem unplugged during the day while at work and at night while asleep, to save on both energy consumption and wear and tear on the unit.  Unplugging it prior to writing sessions as well may have begun in a fit of self-disciplinarian tough love, but it’s since become my saving grace.

Of course, as Linehan said, the brain will do anything to alleviate boredom.  Old newspapers/magazines, CD jackets, even Visa bills on my table, or the very messiness of the table itself have all, at one time or another, suddenly because very interesting while stuck at writing.

I have thus created the most un-stimulating writing environment know to man: essentially, a computer, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a table.  It’s not even a nice table.

But in my goal of entertaining myself with what’s inside my head rather than with distractions on the outside, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

(Image source)

5 thoughts on “The Gift of Boredom

  1. These are all really good points. I remember when I was still going to school sometimes I’d have to physically turn off my wireless just to avoid temptation and get something done!


  2. There’s some great info here. My laptop is running so slowly at the moment I have to multi-task to stop myself from falling asleep. I open a page, go put the washing on, come back and the page is almost loaded. It’ a pain, but I’m getting a lot of housework done 😀


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