On being bored

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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Recently, a friend on Twitter noted that some days she feels like 90% of her time is spent on the business of being a writer and only 10% is spent on the actual writing.  

And it got me thinking about time as a writer — what we spend our time and emotional energy doing.  It seems like there’s never enough time to get it all done.  Someone once said that being an author is like being in school — there’s always homework. It’s true — there’s always more you can be doing.  For example, today has been about catching up on the business side of things since I had a deadline on Friday and while I’ve been on hold with various companies, I’ve been flicking through Twitter or making to-do lists or cleaning up my desktop because what else are you going to do? 

You finish one task and head straight into the next and if you can do two at once all the better.  Rinse, repeat and this is how most of our time is spent. But this isn’t a post about preserving time for writing because I think we all know how important that is.  This is a post about preserving time for being bored.

Seriously, when was the last time you were bored?  When was the last time you stood in line at the bank or sat waiting in a doctor’s office and didn’t pull out your cell phone to check email/Twitter/Instagam/News?  We never have to be bored anymore which means we’re never forced to entertain ourselves.  There’s always something external to do it for us.

For me, imagination comes from boredom.  Growing up, it comes from sitting in your parents car as they drag you around on errands and you have nothing to do but think.  Or lying in bed at night unable to go to sleep.  It comes from having no other choice but to make up stories in your head.

You know why I think so many writers come up with ideas in the shower?  Because there’s not much else to do but think.  There’s nothing to turn to to distract you and occupy your imagination.  It’s just you and your mind, hanging out.

Recently, I’ve actually been taking active steps to be bored.  When it looks like I’ll be waiting for something and I feel myself reaching for my phone, I purposefully put it down.  To me this is important because it opens up space for imagination to come in, even if it’s in small ways.  

So many of us juggle a lot of responsibilities and there’s always a huge demand on our time.  Finding these small periods of time to be bored can keep the creative energy humming which means that when you do get a chance to sit down and write, hopefully calling on that energy will feel a little easier.

Next time you’re forced to pause for something, put down the cell phone and think, daydream, imagine.

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9 comments to On being bored

  • I totally agree, Carrie! I’ve had the best writing / brainstorming sessions when stuck in places without Internet. I was actually frustrated when it turned out that this remote locale I visit a few times a year now has Internet. But I’m curious, do you have any recommendations for when we’ve already begun engaging with the needless things? My biggest pitfall is checking “just one thing” and suddenly hours have gone by. And I get frustrated by this non-constructive boredom. Aside from blocking the Internet, which isn’t always an option, I’m not sure what to do.

  • Yes! I’ve recently run into a related problem with lack of boredom. I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and in the past I amused myself by making up stories. Pretty much every idea I’ve ever had came from lying awake in bed when I should have been sleeping. For the last year or so, though, I’ve been trying to get my sleep more regulated since I’m not as young as I used to be and apparently need to sleep more regular hours. First thing all the insomnia books advise is to get up and do something when you can’t sleep. At first I thought, great, I’ll get up and write. But it’s not the same, and I finally realized that just lying in the bed, bored, was providing my brain with the opportunity to make stuff up. If I get up to write, the brain kicks into work mode. So I’m back to lying awake at night, but I feel more creative once again! Sleepy, but creative. (And yes, I have the notebook by the bed so I can jot down ideas!)

  • This is why I love long drives. Because aside from the actual driving, there really is nothing else to do but think and create. I have written entire stories in my head while driving home from cons. I have worked out plot points and created characters and solved narrative problems that might have lingered for weeks if not for a road trip. So, yeah. This.

  • Carrie, boredom for me is when I am pulling weeds. And yes, stuff happens in that state that lets my brain free to plot-point-solve or book / story plan.

    I am actively *mind-at-rest* when I paddle Class II / III rivers. I turn off and tune in and let my brain just float along. It is freeing. I don’t ask my brain to be doing anything, not even solving plot points or planning a proposal. I just let the water carry me. And that results in very active writing for me. Even better than weed-pulling!

  • Razziecat

    This is one reason why I’ve never jumped on the cellphone bandwagon. I don’t own a so-called smart phone, just a run-of-the-mill, pay-as-you-go phone, and while it can connect to the internet, I don’t find that tiny screen to be very conducive to ‘net-surfing. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open and experience the real world :) I find long walks and subway rides to be great for working out writing problems.

  • Laura – I know exactly what you mean! I know that if I check the web in the morning I’ll get sucked in for a couple of hours. And still, almost every morning I think “Oh, I can handle just reading a few news articles and then I’ll get to work,” and almost every time I’m sucked in for a while (my downfall is often reading articles that can count as work so I still feel like I’m working when I’m not actually accomplishing what I need to do). I’ve also learned that writing/working for me is kinda like exercise — the hardest part is getting going (for me it’s deciding to exercise, getting dressed, walking out the door — once I’ve done all of that, I’m totally in). So with exercise, I had to find a way to solve that problem (now I dress for the gym first thing when I get up and make an appt to go).

    With writing, if I just get started, I’m pretty much hyper-focused for the rest of the day. Sometimes I can just say, “Carrie, it’s time to switch to work, you know if you focus on work for 20 min straight, you’ll be fine the rest of the day” and I do that. Often I use Mac Freedom which is a program that shuts off the internet. I set it for 37 minutes and that’s enough for me to get sucked in to work. Usually, I only need to use it once in a workday and I like it because it calms the background chatter in my mind (the “I’m not checking email, but what if I still received an email?”).

    I also used a program called Rescue Time which tracks how you spend your time during the day (what programs you’re actively using, if you’re online, where you’re going). There’s nothing like a stark black and white report laying out how much time you’re wasting to kick you into gear!

  • SiSi, I know exactly what you mean! I actually started taking half a Benadryl at night to help me get to sleep and it works great, but it’s cut down on the amount of lying awake I do (and the reading). But if I don’t take it, I’ll wake up at 3 or 4 and not be able to get back to sleep which ruins me for writing the next day. It’s one reason I’ve tried to find other times in my life to be bored. For me, a lot of it was me just becoming more aware of those moments when I reach for my phone or carry my computer around the house with me.

    David — totally agree with you! So often I have a book on tape all ready to go but then I find that I love letting my mind wander instead. I especially love driving after a con because my brain is teeming with all sorts of new ideas and thoughts to play with. I once drove from NOLA to SC after my first RWA conference and I wrote almost an entire book in my head along the way!

    Faith — you’re so right! I tend to think of my brain as having two main “channels” and if neither are occupied, they get in each other’s way. So if I occupy one of them, it leaves the other free to daydream/create. It doesn’t take much to occupy one — walking, showering, eating, doing something like weeding where there’s not much focus needed (for a lot of people, listening to music works).

    Razziecat — good for you! I found myself becoming phone addicted (if I got an email or text, even if I was having a conversation with someone I’d check it). One of my New Years resolutions in 2012 was to cut back on that. So if I’m at lunch or talking to someone else, I focus on them and let the phone wait. At the end of the day, I put the phone/email down and enjoy the evening. That’s definitely more conducive to finding time to think!

  • I’m with David, my hour long commute to work is what started me writing. I also find mowing the yard and doing dishes extremely beneficial for my writing.

  • Megan B.

    I’m about a week late to this post, but I just wanted to say… YES YES YES. I agree with you so much. I don’t have a smart-phone, and have been resisting getting one. I don’t want to be playing games or checking Facebook while I wait for the bus. I like to be alone with my thoughts sometimes.

    Maybe that’s why I sort of enjoy washing dishes. You really can’t do anything else (except maybe put the radio on, but I don’t) while you wash dishes. (I see that someone above mention washing dishes too!)