On Being Bored

On my way home from my latest modeling tour, I ended up stuck in LAX for hours.  There I sat, staring at the bottom of a newly empty coffee cup, waiting out a layover longer than the flight I’d just finished.

What was so bad about free time that I was determined to avoid it?

I’d brought along a pile of productive things in my carry-on to guard against free time.  I had several books from my To Read list, two different writing projects, and two weeks’ worth of email that had accumulated during my trip.  But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of it.  Looking at that huge to-do stack made me wonder: what was so bad about free time that I was determined to avoid it?  What was I so afraid of? 

I figured I would try a little experiment to find out.  For the next four hours I would not do anything productive at all.  No to-do lists, no projects, certainly no email.  I would only do something if it was entirely useless, or if I normally wouldn’t try it.  After all, it was only four hours—what’s the worst that could happen?  I’d be miserable?  

Sitting there, doing nothing, I became bored.  There’s nothing terribly extraordinary about that. But what was weird was that I kind of liked it.  I don’t recall the last time I was properly bored.  I’m not sure I would describe the feeling as pleasant, but it was certainly novel.  

It took me an hour or two of just sitting with myself to get bored of being bored.  I went through another cup of coffee, chatted online with some friends, and just generally stared off into space.

As much as the workaholic in me hates to admit it, I think I needed it.  I’ve heard countless times that we live in a go-go-go society, and that we don’t spend enough time on ourselves.  I’ve heard it, but sort of discounted it; I figured it didn’t apply to me. I didn’t need more me-time; I needed to get more things done!  To put it shortly: I was wrong.

After that long stretch of doing nothing, I noticed I was getting restless.  I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to so much so that I was even willing to do email.

But I was determined to stick to my experiment, so I found a math book on my kindle that had been collecting dust for years.  That sounded interesting.  Instead of working on my to-do list, I spent the next few hours teaching myself the basics of Bayesian statistics.

This is particularly noteworthy because previously, I avoided math at all costs.  My major was in Liberal Arts; I like art and words and shades of grey.  It definitely fulfilled the “normally wouldn’t try it” requirement.  But I found myself so intrigued that I was scribbling equations on the back of my boarding pass because I didn’t have any other paper.   I was having more fun than I could have ever expected—I was actually disappointed that I had to stop when my plane arrived.

This little experiment taught me far more than I expected.  First, it reminded me that I can’t always be doing something.  Sometimes I need to stare at a wall for a while and recharge. Sometimes it’s okay to do nothing and be bored.  It resets your brain in an interesting and useful way. 

But it also reminded me of something about motivating myself.  If I’m too comfortable, it’s hard to try new things.  But if I make myself a bit restless, and give myself some time, I’m much more willing to give them a chance.  And when I do, I’ll feel excited about work and new opportunities, instead of feeling obligated out of guilt.  Because I don’t feel guilty, I’ll enjoy what I’m doing even more.