The Stimulation of Boredom

Boredom is good for generating ideas (including the idea that boredom is good for generating ideas). If I don’t have something to occupy my attention, my brain looks desperately for something to do. Give me a book or a project to work on, and I will appear to be a very quiet and calm, if intensely focused individual. Give me nothing to do, and I’m a raving lunatic on the inside, though I’ve cultivated enough self control over the years to not let my normal hyperactive impatience show.

When you’re proctoring tests, you can’t do much of anything else. I recently had to spend three sessions — representing a combined total of about 2.5 to 3 hours — proctoring tests. The only way I made it through the day with my sanity (mostly) intact was to occasionally write in a notebook.

I ended up with about 5 pages of compressed handwritten notes in my Moleskine that I later transcribed, slightly expanded, loosely organized, and titled Diary of a Madman. It only represents ideas that I thought were worth jotting down to remember later, during a time when I was also attempting to keep at least half my attention on the students. Just imagine what I excluded.

It contains:

  • 1 idea for a story or novel
  • 20 topics I have one or multiple questions about
  • 12 ideas I think I could turn into a decent blog post or article with a little research
  • 2 ideas for psychology/sociology experiments
  • 4 random thoughts

That volume of ideas is excessive even for me. You may be a more normal person, who doesn’t necessarily need an outlet like this to keep from going batshit, or bouncing off the walls like some kind of practical joke, but I think there’s a valuable concept here for anyone.

While ideas are most often stimulated by interaction with other people, we also need unstructured playtime to nurture our creativity. Lately, however, we’re constantly stimulated. I’d venture a guess that for the majority of those reading this, the prospect of being alone with your thoughts is only a button push and a swipe away from being banished.

Do yourself a favor; set aside 15–20 minutes for yourself every day. Turn off your phone. Don’t read a book. Don’t turn on the TV. Get out some paper and a pencil. Do some old-fashioned daydreaming. Doodle. Practice stream-of-consciousness writing. Or just be you, alone, with no narrative running in your head other than what you create.

During that time, tell yourself that you can do anything you want, as long as you’re isolated from outside stimulation. You’ll be surprised how many questions you have, how many ideas you’ve got bumping around inside that would have been lost in the noise of the information firehose you’ve connected yourself to.

Or, you could end up with a list of scribblings that look like the wall-writing of Charles Manson off his meds during a month in the hole.