Boredom brings clarity

Last Friday afternoon I was bored for the first time in weeks.

A slow, sticky afternoon working from home after a long morning workshop at the university near my house. Hot black coffee in thick-lipped mug by my side and searching for my laptop charger and am I hungry or not quite yet microwaved food on the kitchen bench. I’m finally copying into a long draft document the notes I took during an interview last month with two forestry workers about their experience working with sandalwood, in a notebook long since filled and abandoned, and leafing through the lined pages has seen me stumble upon sketchy notes I took weeks and weeks ago, the last time I was bored.

Then, I was reading idly the website Extraordinary Routines, an interview project dedicated to discovering the daily routines of artists, writers, designers, creatives, entrepreneurs and innovators. I’d copied down from a couple of interviews I’d read:

“In a culture that romanticises busy-ness, it was a relief to hear an established musician speak so candidly of their fondness for exactly the opposite”, from Lisa Mitchell’s.

I need to hear permission to not be busy, I thought.

“In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many … rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not going what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects,” from this no-social-life experiment post, quoting researcher and philosophy professor Andreas Elpidorou.

I cram things full and then get surprised when nothing more fits, I thought.

I’ve been thinking lately about stress, work, achievement, busy-ness and boredom, trailing thoughts floating lazy in my mind as I turn my mind to an uncomfortable idea. I’m just now beginning to realise my decades-long conflation of worth and achievement; hazy morning eyes blurred surfacing from sleep; only recently as I’ve become less and less competent against the standards I’ve always known am I beginning to see how strictly I’ve held myself against them, how I’ve not been good enough, a good enough person, if I haven’t met my goals.

Now, I feel like I’m failing in everything, and it’s revealing permission to be less.

In that no-social-life post, Extraordinary Routines writer Madeleine Dore quoted author David Sedaris talking in his book Laugh, Kookaburra with a friend about managing family, friends, health and work. Picturing a four-burner stove, Sedaris’ friend said, with each area represented by a burner, you must turn off one of the burners to be successful in the other areas, and cut two completely for those remaining to burn even brighter.

Lately, I’ve cut the gas to my whole stove. I feel like I’m not present for my friends and family, and when I’m there I’m selfish, defensive, self-absorbed, distracted. I’ve neglected my health, sleeping less snoozing more drinking more eating deep-fried battered banana skipping yoga scrolling my phone late at night biting fingernails being cruel to myself about the way that I look. I’ve had success in work to the extent that I’ve had commissioned the articles I want to write in the publications I want to write for, but over-work prevents me from doing a job I feel is good and I’m tired and strained trying to balance writing with my other work here.

I feel ok, but I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job. And because for twenty years I’ve told myself that they’re the same thing, that sits sadly in my self-critical, high-achieving mind.

But it’s a relief, too; a wave crashing down and spraying fresh parched skin, I don’t need to be doing any of it well to still be enough.

Madeleine Dore, again, writing on how we glorify busy-ness for WePresent. She quotes an artist called Mr Bingo:

“I decided that busy meant that you had lost control of your time and freedom, which is not something I want. Being busy sounds like you are beholden to other people’s demands, people that you’re working with or for.”

Be free, be happy. That, more than particular bylines or clients or work roles or salary scales, is a marker of success. Artists and writer Mari Andrews told Dore the same thing, talking about a changing measure of success: “Now my metric of success is all about feeling: How alive do I feel? How much newness am I infusing into my daily life? What adventure will I take next? Is this fun?”.

I am constantly seeking new ways to learn and delight myself, Andrews told Dore. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Dore points out in her article that we lack universal indicators for success and thus commonly rely on observing our peers to judge our own performance. But my bitter jealousy trips me up here; I find myself constantly lacking in those comparisons, which is demotivating and despair-inducing. And I think I’m a failure.

But being bored. For me, boredom is freeing; boredom brings clarity.

In a blog post I wrote a couple of months after arriving in Timor-Leste I mused on whether my decision to live abroad was brave, as a friend had suggested in an email.

“Ok I have changed my mind, Sophie Raynor,” the friend wrote in reply to my eventual discordance. “You are not brave.”

The email continued.

“But I admire what you’re doing all the same because stepping into a new environment and moving away from everybody for over a year is the kind of thing I couldn’t imagine myself doing. What I’m really trying to get at is that boredom is a kind of challenge, and I think it takes a weird kind of courage to put yourself in a situation where you are bored when the alternative is BEING BUSY AND DOING EXCITING PROJECTS IN THE METROPOLIS. For super smart high achievers like us, that’s often the default as opposed to sitting around feeling mildly useful in the middle of nowhere.”

In my post I described this as a neat articulation of the idea that boredom, far from nothing-ness, is challenging; it’s far easier to distract yourself with tasks and errands and arbitrary goals and fluster and busy-ness than it is to sit in stillness. In that post, just a couple of months in my life in Timor-Leste and full of cowing self-deprecation, anxious to show my awareness of how tough the Timorese people have had it, I wrote that to confront my own tendency to busy-ness doesn’t come close to the strength required by the Timorese–now I think of course it doesn’t, but no one was trying to put them in the same ballpark anyway–but that for me it was a big step to square up to the feeling of boredom for perhaps the first time in my frenetic, overstimulated, exciting life.

The space for reflection boredom affords is unsettling and uncomfortable. But it also provides quiet time to read and learn and switch and chase and potter around new things and exhale, exhale, lean into space and stillness and trust what happens when the volume’s turned down low.

What could I do if I wasn’t so busy?



4 responses to “Boredom brings clarity”

  1. […] nor is it entirely capitalism’s fault for my own inability to know my limits and to set solid boundaries for myself. But to have an afternoon nap, to take a two-hour-long lunch break, or to spend the weekend at home […]


  2. […] I’m beginning to understand, which I mentioned in this post, is that Timor-Leste is teaching me to expect less of myself. To shed the stories I’ve […]


  3. […] I began to realise how much I’d let my life be dominated by busy-ness and stress. My time wasn’t my own and I felt useless and down — a continuation, I realised, of a story I’ve told myself […]


  4. […] Being bored for the first time in 10 years […]


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