It’s about that time of year again — time for me to go on a short personal hiatus from blogging, even though I have worked far enough ahead and scheduled things out that you won’t even notice I am gone. It’s magic!
I very much enjoy the work that I do both here and on other personal and professional writing projects. But like just about every other writer on this planet, I get overwhelmed. My mind fills up with clutter, making it hard to think clearly — especially during moments I am trying to rely on my creativity to do my best work possible.
Additionally, after long periods of time in which I push myself to work almost nonstop to achieve a particular goal, I also find myself longing for moments of calm and boredom. Not because I would rather watch Disney+ than do my work — OK, maybe this is the case some of the time — but mostly because if there is one thing I have learned about creative expression, it’s that we are at our most imaginative, and at our boldest, when we are bored.
If you are anything like me, you still cringe at the thought of spending an entire day doing nothing even remotely important when you could be writing or some other creative activity. Why spend two hours watching videos on YouTube when I could get a few thousand words out of the way in the same amount of time?
But here is the thing far too many of us forget: Our brains and our bodies are not built for nonstop work. Believe me, not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could stay up for 24 hours straight without feeling like I’m dying just once so I could finally cross those two things on my to-do list that have been there for three months.
That’s not how creativity or productivity works, though — and even if you know this, a healthy reminder never hurts, now does it?
Humans are built to work, but also to play. Listen, I am happy for all the ultra-successful people out there who claim they can work fourteen hours a day seven days a week for a year straight and not feel like they want to die. If that is what they feel they need to do in order to achieve their goals, well, I suppose I won’t try to stop them from doing what they feel is right for them.
But just because people like this do things a certain way does not mean everyone should follow in their footsteps. Especially not writers who might be just starting out or who are already struggling with their work life balance in every area of their lives.
We are not meant to work all the time, because we will burn out. And we are not meant to only play all the time, because we need some sense of purpose in order to keep driving us forward. There needs to be a little bit of both — sometimes that might mean playing more than working for a week or so, and sometimes it might mean the exact opposite.
Work is our way of exercising our brains and reminding ourselves we have a purpose for being on this earth — that is super important, especially if the state of the world weighs heavily on your shoulders sometimes. You need something to keep you going. You need a light in your darkness.
But play, on the other hand, is our way of recovering from the stress and exhaustion of our work. And boredom, often the result of play, is sometimes a creator’s most important superpower of sorts — and you might not even realize how much you really need it.
Boredom frees up space in your mind for new ideas. I like to imagine the creator’s brain as a large space filled with aisles upon aisles of books, where each book represents even the tiniest fragment of an idea. Sometimes the shelves are filled to capacity with books. Sometimes many of the shelves seem empty, but are really so full that when you try to locate a specific idea or make space for a new one, you disappointingly find there is no more room.
This is nothing more than an abstract way to envision how our minds store and access ideas — the psychology of creativity is complicated and I am not going to dive too deeply into it now. But it does sort of help explain why sometimes you just feel stuck — almost as if your head is so full of old ideas and information that you couldn’t possibly come up with anything new.
This, or something like it, really does happen when we don’t give ourselves enough time and space to clear out the clutter. There isn’t necessarily some kind of magical formula for doing this — and for the love of all that is holy, there is no drink or food or supplement of any kind that can do this for you.
Clearing your mind requires not actively using it, at least in the sense that you actually stop working long enough for your brain to do a hard reset. Sometimes this takes a few minutes to an hour. Sometimes it takes a day or two or even more.
The amazing thing about boredom is that it does not necessarily mean you have to sit in an empty room wearing noise canceling headphones with your eyes closed for 20 minutes in order to “get your creative juices flowing.” My favorite thing to do when I am bored is some creative activity other than writing, like messing around on my piano keyboard or sketching something in a notebook.
Whatever gets you away from “thinking” long enough for your brain to put some of those old books into deep storage. Sort of.
You will do better work after taking time away from it. I suppose I could classify myself as a recovering over-committer. I like doing things, I like schedules and deadlines and having responsibilities to keep me on my toes. This is not a bad thing — unless, like me, you take it too far and fill your days up with so many “things” that there is no room left for boredom fueled rest.
What I have learned so far in my journey toward saying “yes to less” is that sometimes when you are headed straight for burnout after doing too much, you reach a point where you do not even realize how much the quality of your work is suffering. In the last few weeks, I have noticed more than I ever have before how disappointed I am in some of the work I have been putting out there. It’s not “bad.” But it could be so much better.
And it WOULD be so much better, if I wasn’t constantly pulling myself in a thousand different creative directions and instead committed to focusing on only one or two things at a time.
What I started to notice, as I started taking some more time each day to force myself into boredom, was that if I spent two hours in the evening forcing myself to relax, the work I did in the first few hours of the next morning was a thousand times better — and easier to accomplish — than it would have been if I had not taken the time to let my mind wander.
You may not think boredom can make such a big difference, and I don’t blame you. I resisted the truth for a long time, too. But the same way our brains “clear out” excess clutter when we sleep to prepare us for the next full day of usage, when we essentially stop thinking or focusing on work, our ideas finally have room to organize themselves, and we start to feel less overwhelmed by so many thoughts.
When was the last time you just sat still for even five minutes and let your mind wander in whatever direction it wanted to? The more I engage in this practice, the more I love it. When I stop working for a while, I am so much more productive and creative and happy when I do eventually get back to work.
So if you have some kind of aversion to allowing yourself to become bored, as I have for so many years, I want to challenge you to take the first steps into finally doing something about that. Don’t worry about what you “could” be doing. Don’t worry about filling your schedule or always having something to do.
The more you take the time out of your day to let new ideas in and explore the deep depths of your mind, the more wonderful things you will be able to create.
I know you still might not believe me. But give it a try. I can’t guarantee it will change your whole life, especially not instantly. But really, at this point, what do you really have to lose?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.