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Learning to Love Boredom

·4 mins

I’m learning to get better at being bored. In the past, I wouldn’t say I liked boredom. And I still tend to fill my free time more than I should with “activities” when bored. Most of the time, the activities I choose to fill my free time include: reading, writing, taking walks, watching TV or movies (as much as I hate to admit), and occasionally a video game (which is not a passive activity, unlike TV).

But now, I’m learning to get better at being bored. Being bored is somewhat the opposite of being busy: busyness is filling your time with something-or-other, as if the sky will fall if you decide to take time for yourself and forget about everything other than what’s here now in the moment. I would say the opposite of being busy is being idle, but boredom is another step past being idle (perhaps, I suppose, this post is about being bored and idle).

I usually get annoyed by people who claim to be “busy”, mainly because busyness is often used as an excuse not to do something when in reality, that person is likely only busy in that they’re busy avoiding the activity they don’t want to do. Busyness is deployed as an easy generic excuse to avoid something, anything, or everything.

My brain runs at full speed at all times, especially when I’m bored. This is handy because I’ve noticed I tend to have my best ideas when bored, so I need to maximize my time spent bored. I do my best thinking when I’m doing some sort of boring activity, such as:

Calling these activities “boring” is unfair because these are rich and vibrant activities with very low costs. You can do them with friends, too. Riding the subway isn’t free, but it’s much less expensive and far more entertaining than your typical Broadway show. I’ve always loved riding the subway, there’s something about the mix of people (“the great equalizer”) you find on the subway, and there’s always poetry to read.

I’ve learned not to automatically reach for anti-boredom consumption: podcasts, audiobooks, Reddit (thankfully, the Apollo app is gone, so I no longer use Reddit on my mobile phone), random news websites, etc. These days I try not to constantly reach into my pocket, pull my phone out, and get stuck in the dopamine loop of continuously refreshing all the things for no reason other than just executing the program in the grooves of my brain from having being programmed into performing these actions to earn a blue or red or green dot on my phone which feeds that dopamine addiction feedback loop endlessly.

If you’re out for a walk in New York City and keep your phone in your pocket, you experience much more of the world. You can look around, see things you might not otherwise notice, engage with people, have conversations with strangers, think about all sorts of things, and discover great ideas. It’s calming and soothing, like the best anti-anxiety medication but without the side effects.

My two dogs (one of which hates going on walks, if you can believe it) also make it incredibly difficult to play with my phone while taking them on a walk, so I rarely bring my phone when I go outside. They constantly require my full attention, so I can’t play on my phone even if I want to. I generally only take my phone along if I’m going to be gone for a long while or actually_ need it for some reason (like to pay for things). Still, I prefer to leave it behind because it forces me to engage with reality instead of escaping to the metaverse. It helps me break free from the attention economy, and I don’t fear missing out.

Sometimes I think I should_ bring my phone to make notes when a good idea pops into my head because I often get great ideas and think I should write them down immediately (perhaps for my next blog post and what-have-you). Alas, that feeling fades as I remind myself that if the idea is good, it’ll return to me again, and when I feel inspired in the company of my MacBook, I can write it down using a proper keyboard.

Ah, boredom. Like a breath of fresh air. Breaking that dopamine loop is hard, but it’s easier to break out once you recognize the patterns.

We should strive to be bored more often. Put the phone away, and try looking at the clouds or the buildings and trees around wherever you happen to be enjoying a pleasant stroll on a cool summer evening, or maybe engage with your friends or family in a non-digital way and try to remember what it’s like to be a human who’s not addicted to the machine if you happened to grow up in a time when that was a thing.