3 min read

When to Embrace Crushing Boredom

While I fear this step, I trust it will help me achieve an important goal
A small rowboat with a solitary fisherman on a large, smooth lake surface
No distractions. He doesn’t mind | Image James Bellerjeau

Greetings friends!

What use is a professor who doesn’t teach, a researcher who doesn’t read, and a scholar who doesn’t publish? Not much, if I’m honest.

And that’s why I’m steeling myself to wallow in boredom. It’s the best way I can think of to kickstart something important to me.

We appear to fear boredom more than death

I know many people who live full lives. I am tempted to say frantic because their every waking moment seems filled to bursting. But it’s better to simply say they’re keeping themselves busy.

It’s easier than ever to ensure we are never bored, not even for a moment:

  • Is that traffic light burning red for longer than a few seconds? TikTok to the rescue.
  • Is your conversational partner falling short of scintillating? A quick scroll through your emails will sort out that problem.
  • Are you temporarily in between screens as you’re forced to walk a few steps? Your earbuds save you from the creeping horror that is unfilled time.

Although I was joking with the subtitle above, there’s a streak of truth to it. Why else would we so determinedly ensure we are never left unoccupied?

Boredom gives birth to creativity, both good and bad

You might have heard the phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” which comes from Proverbs 16:27 in The Living Bible.

Similarly, St. Jerome urged us to “engage in some occupation, so that the devil may always find you busy” (fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum).

Anyone who has had children understands this intuitively, as do all who’ve ever observed politicians in office.

But boredom not only leads us astray. Luxuriating in time, open-ended and unstructured time, can also lead us to profound insights.

  • Think of a young Albert Einstein dreaming away the hours in the Bern patent office. His years of quiet reflection in this “worldly cloister” led to the Annus Mirabilis of 1905 when he published four papers, including the one on special relativity.
  • Or, more recently, Andrew Wiles’ remarkable proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. This simple theorem resisted proof for over 350 years. Wiles spent seven years in solitary thought before announcing a proof to the world. After a critical error was found in his proof, he retreated for another year of intense effort to find the solution that had eluded mathematics longer than any other.
A lake at sunset with placid water under a gray cloudy sky
Storm above, serenity below | Image James Bellerjeau

What I wish boredom to bring me

I call myself a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University, which is true enough. I’ve got the faculty ID to prove it. But I want to live up to my profile description.

I have let countless small distractions sneak away my attention like coins dropping from an old money purse until it dangles light and empty.

I herewith restate the practical goal of my research project:

To develop simple and broadly applicable critical thinking tools to aid decision-making for experts and novices alike

And I commit to myself as follows: Whether it takes me a month, a year, or a decade, I shall persist.

You will know I am making progress when I start publishing stories about decision-making. I’ll certainly let you know because I want to enlist your help.

In the meantime, I take comfort from my old friend Seneca who says “I do not know whether I shall make progress; but I should prefer to lack success than to lack faith.”

I place my faith in boredom. In time kept free from distractions. In the anxiety aroused by nothing encroaching upon my day but those things that I put there deliberately in pursuit of this aim.

What does it all mean, James?

The Stoics tell us that to arrive at a well-ordered mind is the greatest accomplishment. When we understand the value of things according to reason, what others think and do is irrelevant if not downright harmful.

Although I’m not sequestering myself into the life of a hermit, I will be creating more space and time to think.

Do you have something important that’s been on your mind, but you find yourself putting off thinking about it?

Remember that great things require great effort. Feel free to join me in embracing boredom if it spurs you to creative genius in pursuit of your goals.

Be well.

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I originally published a version of this story on Medium.