The other side of boredom

I’ve been accused of being “endlessly agitated by bureaucratic nonsense….”

This from one of my favorite people on the planet. And he’s not wrong. Even as I write this thinking about bureaucratic nonsense, I can feel myself becoming endlessly agitated. But it’s not the bureaucracy that gets under my skin. It’s the nonsense.

I’ve glibly called this painting rocks, which I consider obstacles to progress (and meaning). But as James Clear explains better in Atomic Habits:

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom…. As soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy – even if the old one was working.

Yep. We’ll paint rocks over doing nothing.

But I’m no longer convinced that it’s boredom or even painting rocks that thwarts us. Clearly, we are excellent managing both tedium and chaos, at the same time. Clearly.

No, the problem feels more nuanced.

The real trap, I think, is hot boredom.¹

We know this feeling. And it’s not inert.

It’s the boredom that craves speed, stimulation and novelty (if not novel viruses). It’s when our skin crawls doing nothing – a combination of impatience and frustration, sprinkled with occasional hostility.

It has both a charge and an edge, relishing conflict over tedium. Can there be any doubt?

And the “hot” part isn’t a metaphor. There’s real, physical heat.

These claustrophobic feelings once ambushed me during a routine meeting with a program manager. My blood boiled for fifty-six minutes of a one-hour meeting as I sat trapped in a tiny conference room, listening to the earnest PM read my own words back to me on new slides from material I had supplied weeks earlier.

Not a paraphrase of what I had provided. Not a synthesis combining what I had done with what other people had done. My own content. Word for word.

And to my chagrin, and in apology to this very nice person, I made no effort to hide my annoyance.

That’s hot boredom.

But there is another side of boredom.

You’ve been there too, probably a lot recently. Because you had to be. Because the alternative is torture.

This is the space that once felt crowded, yet has somehow miraculously – made room for our busy lives and prickly people in very strange circumstances.

It’s space that allows us to handle mundane activities, fear and worry with focus and steadfastness. It’s a pace that reminds us time moves at different speeds, which are often out of our control.

If we look, we might still discover that we’re bored.

But it’s cool boredom.

And within that coolness, there’s a sliver of acceptance that sometimes we just can’t make things happen. At least not right now.

That’s a tough message for our minds (and egos) to handle. It’s so unsatisfying. And it doesn’t feel like enough.

But we’re doing it.

So consider this excellent practice.

To be clear, starting this article felt full of friction. Starting anything new is mostly hot boredom. Maintaining a writing practice? So boring I’ve had to start over five times in the past year.

That’s because the problem to solve feels small and way too slow. Get words out of my head and onto the page. Get more words onto the page.

But what if the problem to solve isn’t building a habit, digitally transforming, disrupting, or innovating? What if it’s more like hurling into space in a rocket, which is a turbulent ride, until you reach orbit in wide-open space?

The problem lies in getting to the getting to the other side.

Now that’s a juicy problem, full of energy and possibility. And to my luck, it’s one I’ve been bored enough to try to solve.

So, how long does it really take for me to muscle the resistance of my own mind? To move through the friction, heat and skin-crawling sensations of hot boredom?

Twelve minutes.

Twelve minutes to convince myself to sit at my laptop in front of a blank page or a bad draft, fume and just write.

OK, twelve minutes preceded by months spent negotiating with myself to sit at my laptop and write anything. Never mind that I’m online most of the day, every day – trying to make things happen.

Still, twelve minutes? Really?

It would be embarrassing, if it weren’t so reassuring.

No habits, no outcomes, no transformation – not yet. Just words on a page, followed by more words on a page, along with occasional cooling off. And yes, even painting a few decorative rocks.

But rest assured, on the other side of boredom we will pivot, launch, re-invent, innovate, connect, transform, publish, move and act. And embedded in all of these is restlessness, dissatisfaction and possibility.

First, however, we have to go through the heat.

¹hot boredom: a phrase I learned from a Pema Chödrön meditation recording while not meditating, of course.

carolyn solares
I help people navigate boredom and re-wire to do big new things.
(My brother calls me a workshrink.)
Work with me at murphymerton.