In Praise of Boredom

Children in my family learned very early in life to never, EVER imply, mention, intimate, or hint to my mother that we were bored. Her response would be to assign some chore or other, as if an admission of boredom merited punishment instead of an application of imagination.

And yet, we were bored a lot. My father believed television was a tool of Satan, and resisted allowing one into the house until some neighbors gave us one (I was was in middle school by then, or close to it). We were never allowed to  watch TV on school nights, not even if all the homework was done and a foot of snow was predicted overnight. There were no girls my age in my neighborhood by the time I was seven–not a one–and by the time I turned eight, my next-up sister wasn’t so keen on being my playmate anymore.

I was bored, hence I developed a passion for reading–and we know where that led. At age ten I started piano lessons, and that was a fine way to sop up free time. I ended up with a degree in music history because of that desperation hobby, and paid my way through college by accompanying ballet classes too.

For all of my childhood I lived on the edge of a woods, and “going for a walk,” was permitted pretty much without limits, even alone after dark. I rambled a fair amount on my own, especially when the wildflowers were in bloom. Just went out for some fresh air, because, well, what else was there to do?

And now, I am so very, very grateful that I came of age before screens–smartphones, tablets, computers, game stations–were around to whisk away our boredom. When our attention, focus, and privacy are the most valuable commodities in the marketplace, very shrewd people have made it their life’s work to winkle those treasures from our grasp. Young people who’ve never faced boredom without a screen to slap over it, are proving to be less creative, less motivated to solve communal problems, less socially skilled, and less able to focus on anything for extended periods than their elders.

It turns out that when we’re bored–just idling between tasks, ignoring the to-dos–that’s when our subconscious goes to work crafting our personal narrative (“Who am I really?”), deciding what our priorities should be, and figuring out how to achieve them. Take away the down time, the I-don’t-really-feel-like-doing-anything time, and you take away a significant resource for building a person who does know what they want and who they are.

So I’m really careful about the screen time as I figure out how to be a full-time writer. Netflix is waiting to suck me in like that intergalactic garbage scow from Startrek, with “the next episode” always queued up before I’ve even finished the credits on the segment I’ve just watched.

I’m not falling for that. Yesterday I got so bored I played the piano for the first time in years. Pretty soon the weather will be nice enough to inspire some gardening. I might even–don’t quote me–take up regular housework, but I am not surrendering my boredom to the greed, manipulation, and invasion of privacy that wears the face of the typical screen “engagement.”

Can you go a day without using your phone for anything but phone calls? Have screen distractions eliminated boredom from your life, or are there hobbies you no longer pursue because social media, games, and apps have invaded that space? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Love by the Letters AND a $50 Amazon gift card.

 

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41 comments on “In Praise of Boredom

  1. 1
    Susan Gorman says:

    I could take a weekend off from Facebook and Instagram.

    It’s texting that I need to keep.
    I don’t have cell reception but, I can text with family because we have the same type of phone.

    My brother, sister and I text to keep each other aware of my Mom’s health. My daughter tells me that she’s stuck on a train track in Hingham ( a 20 minute adventure) so I don’t worry when she’s commuting home late at night.

    When I turn off the apps- more gets done & I have a sense of accomplishment. Closets get cleaned, ALL of the laundry gets done & put away! And the corgis sparkle from their grooming.And my husband gets dinner with a salad!

    With work, dog class and my house- I am not bored. I would like to work on a small gardening project the Spring & read a few books that I have tucked away for a rainy day.

    • 1.1

      Apps… I try not to have them because so many are just an excuse to raid our privacy and sell the metadata to advertisers. That said, yes, I use the step-counter on my phone, and I’m probably healthier because of it.

  2. 2
    Mary T says:

    When I was a kid, if we told our mother we were bored, she would tell us that we were the only ones who could do anything about that. She was not going to entertain us. She was right of course. I usually found the answer within my own imagination. We lived in a “neighborhood” and in those days all the kids in the neighborhood played together. No need for play dates. I could usually find someone to hang out with, if that was what I wanted.

    Now things in my life are much different. I have physical ailments that keep me pretty much housebound. I’m grateful for my phone (simple cell not smartphone) kindle, computer, TV, books and music. But I own my devices, THEY DO NOT OWN ME.

    I too am grateful for the time I was raised in. I worry for the young. I have said this before – I am often amazed and appalled at the personal information people are willing to share with the world. A world that seems increasing negative.

    • 2.1

      It flummoxes me that when we’re told those genetic tracking companies–23 and Me,for example–are SELLING OUR GENETIC DATA, the usual reaction is a shrug. A shrug?! When something that personal and serious is simply tossed into the marketing hopper for coin?
      I don’t get it. I simply do not get how that is OK, or ever will be OK.

  3. 3
    Margaret says:

    Oh Grace, I can relate so well to what you wrote! I started piano lessons just a bit earlier (and also worked in college playing for ballet classes, as well as TYPING (!) papers for people who couldn’t type), and my mother was one who looked suspiciously at anyone claiming boredom. I learned quickly not to make that mistake since she could always find a chore for me to do. She left me alone, however, once my practicing was done, as long as I held a book in my hand. And so my hands ALWAYS (lovingly) embraced a book.

    I read all the time, including when I was in school and supposed to be doing something different. To this day, I use my phone for its Kindle app and to listen to audio books, and I don’t understand why everyone else wastes their time doing anything else with them! And as a teacher, I sometimes have to take a breath before I grab a phone out of someone’s hand, knowing that years ago, I had a book tucked on my lap when I was supposed to be paying attention to whatever boring topic the teacher thought important.

    • 3.1

      The issue for me with tech is that it’s designed to be addictive. Every handy app possible is tucked into your phone, every color of button carefully chosen, every screen layout endlessly tested to keep your nose glued to a screen. From the little “bong!” when our FB page gets a comment to the Amazon one-click button… there’s a war on, and our ability to focus and attend is the prize.
      All in the name of “improving your user experience.”
      Sure.

  4. 4
    Marianne says:

    Last winter we rented a camper van in Las Vegas (rvshare.com) and drove through Death Valley, Mohave & Joshua Tree parks with a couple of nights of unlimited hot water, cell service & wi-fi in Palm Springs in the middle. I can do it.

    I could still read and play cards on the device. Books and cards existed before electronics, but the electronic versions are much easier on my joints.

    However, I am a compulsive sort of person so my screens can be a problem. That said, I have trouble watching TV, movies or even YouTube videos of any length or intensity, but oh, the rabbit holes available with a half decent web browser!

  5. 5
    Carol Wagner says:

    Boredom has never been a problem for me. I grew up on an Iowa farm-the first of my four brothers was born in my first birthday followed 15 months later by the second. The three of us spent as much time as possible outdoors with dogs and horses and livestock. Immersing myself in books once my assigned chores were done is a habit of a lifetime. Time to read is a treasure. I appreciate the convenience of my Kindle, enjoy the ease of keeping up with grandchildren and greatgrands on FB, but realize those screens can absorb much more time than I am comfortable with. My solution has been to start my day with coffee, crosswords, and clearing overnight email and texts (my iPhone “sleeps“ in the family room, not the bedroom) before ckeckng in on FB for no more than half an hour. The rest of my day goes to “real“ life – laundry, meals and well-made beds as well as walks through the neighborhood, errands, working in my cactus garden, clearing out the occasional closet or door and best of all reading, reading, reading.

    • 5.1

      I loved the time I spent on a farm as kid, in part because there was ALWAYS something to do. Went for many moonlit horseback rides, built fences, stacked hay… Everybody, no matter how small or aged, could make a contribution to the operation, and was valued for that contribution. When it came time to raise my daughter, I headed for the country, and I have never regretted that.
      I like your half-hour rule for social. FB is the devil’s rabbit hole. I’m convinced of that.

  6. 6
    Teenie Marie says:

    Your Mom sounds A LOT like my Mom–we learned never to say we were bored during the summer because she’d give us a bucket to put pulled weeds in or to wash the kitchen floor, take your pick. With six kids, there was always something to do in the Big House with the Big Yard in the city! 🙂

    I must admit this; I look at my phone too much every day to check emails or do work for my professional society or texts from my kids and husband. I don’t do games on my phone–one of my kids asked if I wanted him to put a couple on and I said NO because I know I would be distracted. I check the weather regularly–Chicago’s winter has been HORRENDOUS this year so I have reason–but it’s not obsessive. I don’t put some apps on my phone because I know I’ll be distracted and I don’t have time for that!

    My husband downloads books on his phone to read while he’s waiting for something instead of lugging books around. Both he and I feel real books are best read in bed or a reading nook at home but in a pinch, our Kindles and his phone are fine. My phone is smaller (better to fit in my purse) and I don’t think I’d like to squint to read.

    I think some boredom is healthy. Problems get solved when we’re just hanging around, doin’ nothin’ and thinkin’! Our minds have the freedom to roam when we’re bored.

    • 6.1

      Some boredom is not only healthy, it’s neurologically necessary to our identities–which surprised me. I’ve made it hard to check email on my phone but not impossible, to I’m at least not compulsive about that… yet.

  7. 7
    Brenda says:

    Two christmas,s ago my daughter gave me a smart mobile phone for my gift.The thing drove me nuts I found it very busy and frustrating.I did not need all the stuff I just wanted a phone that I could talk to and listen to.The smart phone did not hold its charge for long.I missed a lot of calls and spent ages finding my way back to the phone.So I got on a local bus to the local shopping park straight into the phone shop and purchased a cheap basic phone only.Love it.Life can be as simple as you want it to be.I am a retired young at heart person but somethings in today’s world seem to clog up and complicate.Leave me be and I am happy.I know what I want__peace.

  8. 8
    Diane Sallans says:

    I don’t have a smartphone – I do have a cell phone I carry for emergencies – I rarely turn it on unless I need to make a call.

    I don’t remember being bored as a child – probably because I could always read. Now there are so many projects I want to do (besides reading) – genealogy, organizing pictures, sewing, sorting thru things to get rid of …

    • 8.1

      I have my projects too, especially in warmer weather, but because I’m on screens all day to write, the temptation to “just pop in” on social media, or give the emails a quick peek can be distracting. C’mon gardening weather…

  9. 9
    Melanie says:

    I don’t use my cell phone for calling anyone. I call for carry out if my husband requests it and I call the doctor once or twice a year on the phone that hangs on the wall. I do use my cell to look up fascinating facts and ebooks that might be on sale on ereader iq. Books are pretty much my life. That and old tv shows on hulu. Did your mother tell you how much she hated you in vulgar language whenever she got drunk. I could go on but count your extremely intelligent and proud of it self lucky!!!!

    • 9.1

      A cell phone just for carry out sounds very sensible. And no, Mom wasn’t a mean drunk. She did once when in her cups tell some guy she met at a party that she was the world renowned modern dancer Tanya MacBride (there is no such person) and went on and on about all the places she’d danced and the famous choreographers she’d worked with. This became family folklore, and a running joke.
      I found that more sad than funny, and a comment on a society that didn’t allow women of her generation to even dream beyond the picket fence and endless procession of babies.

  10. 10
    Carol Luciano says:

    For me it’s simple, I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. I’d rather read either book or my ebooks. It’s really sad that wherever I go everyone has their eyes on their phones, even while walking. There doesn’t seem to be any social interactions among the young people unless they’re on Social Media sites. There are many children on our block but you never see or hear them.

    • 10.1

      Most people in my family are not on social media, even the young folks. My author contracts, though, REQUIRE me to have a social media presence, which strikes me as silly. Nobody has yet proven that foghorning on Instagram, Twitter, or FB ever sells books, generates reviews, or otherwise improves an author’s brand or earnings.
      I like interacting with my readers, but this space right here is my favorite place to do that!

  11. 11
    Make Kay says:

    I can’t imagine a day where I’m not using my phone constantly. Even if I’m someplace with no reception, I’m still using it to read books, take photos, make lists of things to do.

    • 11.1

      My eyesight isn’t good enough that I can read on my phone (and I have the bigger phone). If I could see text easily on my phone, I’d probably be reading on it all day too.

  12. 12
    Tish says:

    I grew up in a household with a lot of art supplies, puzzles, and other entertaining ways to pass the time. (Mom and her sisters were teachers!) But my favorite was always shutting the door to my room and reading—and rereading—my vast collection of books. As an adult, it is still my favorite pastime—harder to find the uninterrupted time though. The phone and Kindle are my modern accommodation to carve out reading time: whenever I have an unplanned quiet moment, I can open a “book” and indulge. I do NOT use the book recordings though because I like to hear the characters’ voices as I imagine them. I use my electronics in other ways too, but the accessibility of my library is definitely one of the most important pluses for me!

    • 12.1

      At every national writers’ conference, the Apple Books crew puts on their presentation, and their main selling point is: If somebody has a phone in their hand–and millions of somebodies do–they have a whole bookstore in their hand too.
      And yet, iBooks (or Apple Books as they call themselves now), has a long way to go before they come anywhere close to what that other outfit does in terms of units sold.

  13. 13
    Karen H near Tampa says:

    Being a little bit older than you, I also grew up without modern technology. We did have a TV but we were allowed only to watch it a little. I primarily use my phone, even though it is smart, as a phone and to play Sudoku if I’m waiting in line. I don’t use Facebook except to drop in on a few favorite authors (obviously your page is one of the few). I don’t have other social media accounts and I don’t have any desire to share my life with the entire world, nor to view everything that’s shared by every body else. I’m a pretty strong introvert and rarely bored.

    • 13.1

      I can’t recall the last time I was honestly, truly bored. When I drive to the horse barn (an hour each way), I don’t even play the radio because I have too much thinking to do.

  14. 14
    Kassia Pereira says:

    I think the best thing I can do with my phone is to read! I can go a day without a phone as long as my books are around me…
    I am not a social media person – its too much – but lately I joined My Peak Challenge and I check things… but still very limited…
    TV is noise on the background.. can’t just watch TV … always doing something else while watching it… crochet or knitting or doing my nails…
    But reading is my single most favorite thing… I am trying to move more so now I read while on the treadmill… so I can’t say that really invaded my space… nah I just have more places to read!

  15. 15
    Glenda M says:

    I use my phone less for phone calls than I do for: email – both work and personal; texting – both work and personal – since texting is an easy and efficient method for letting everyone know what is going on; using google maps for directions and fastest routes; visiting the internet for news, blogs, etc; and reading the occasional book – though I’ll be honest I prefer my tablet for reading. I don’t play a lot of games, have been avoiding Facebook for the most part, and have been mostly retweeting animal pictures and videos. I do sit in front of the TV with my hubby most nights, but I’m going thru emails and stuff more than watching what’s on.

    Reading has always been my favorite hobby. Well, it has been since I was young and learned not to let my mother think I was bored. I read and reread all my books and my sister and brother’s books.

    • 15.1

      I can recall reading Readers Digest Condensed Books by the dozens, one right after another. They were just the right length to keep me up late, but not all night. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing novellas… hmm.

  16. 16
    elainec says:

    My spouse bought us both smart phones without asking if I wanted one. It was a disaster for me. I couldn’t turn it on. If I asked someone I saw with a smart phone if they could help me turn it on, then I couldn’t turn it off. After three months, I called Consumer Cellular and told them I wasn’t smart enough to use a “smart” phone. They sent me a “card” to reactivate my flip phone. My husband put the card in as I’m really technically challenged. The flip phone is all I need for emergencies and it doesn’t take over my life. I read or listen to 3-4 books a week which I love doing. Other than “Pride and Prejudice”, I never read a romance until I retired. Now they are my favorites – especially historical romances. I love your books and have read over thirty of them.

  17. 17
    Anne Egger says:

    I got sick on February 11th, I thought it was a cold, but turned into the flu. I still can’t hear because of fluid in both ears. Romance novels saved me from losing my mind. I love the new Lisa Kleypas. I love the shaving scene. I love that the cat is named Galoshes. I read one about a model with an eating disorder. Her honey is a chef, who feeds her and throws out the scale. Oh I also read one about a modern day cupid which was quite cute. Reading continues to keep me sane.

    • 17.1

      Oh, lordy… who needs the flu? Nobody, that’s who. I’ve had chronic ear infections and they are a nuisance and a half. I hope they clear up soon, but you picked the BEST month to do some serious romance reading. Valentine’s Day always sees some great releases, and sounds like you found them all!

  18. 18
    Kathleen B. says:

    I recently began embroidering again — most of my projects have been sitting idle while I spent time at work or on the phone (Facebook, Twitter, playing games, what have you). I’m trying diligently to limit my time because there are too many other things to do that fall by the wayside. So, to answer your question, I believe I could go a day without checking social media, games, etc. Besides, there are only so many hours in a day and I have many, many books to read and projects to embroider!

    • 18.1

      I sat down at the piano a couple days last week. Haven’t done that for years but I found I could still enjoy the process. I sounded like crap, but we crawl before we walk, right?

  19. 19
    Sarah says:

    I don’t know why, but I have just stopped watching tv and even movies. Something about the limited length of the story I find unsatisfying, I like subplots and complications and 100s of pages of character and plot development. My screen time is generally reading the news and then either reading or listening on my library app. I like being able to use the map and weather apps when I am out and about, and texting if I am late or checking in to see if I need to stop at the grocery store, but I rarely use my phone for anything else. When I was a kid, I would’ve been glued to a smartphone had I had one, so I am glad I didn’t have the option but I did watch way too much tv growing up. I find myself just taking in a beautiful view and breathing deeply and enjoying a slow lifestyle as much as I can, so I am less plugged in than I used to be and I love the luxury of boredom when I have the chance and see it now as freedom.

    • 19.1

      I am just so particular about what I will spend time watching. It has to be GOOD storytelling, and well acted, and well-set, and, and, and… and no unhappy endings. Not a lot of that to be found. I’m very curious to see how the Bridgertons series works out, because if romance takes to the screen like murder mysteries have, could be interesting.

  20. 20
    Polly N Cassady says:

    Between reading, bike riding and exploring new towns (we moved a lot) to find the library and the things for kids to do, I was seldom bored. I am of an age where ‘go out an play’ was an expectation, and being gone most of the day was fine. Lots to do, never time to get bored.

    • 20.1

      I read somewhere this week that the average American kid is spending less than an hour A WEEK outside. Maybe some of that is weather related (we’re supposed to get more single digit temperatures this week), but I’ve also wondered if part if the reason I like horseback riding isn’t simply because it gets me OUTSIDE. Gardening gets me OUTSIDE. Walking gets me OUTSIDE… I don’t think we can turn our backs on the fact that for all but about the last five minutes of evolution, we’re a creature who has been designed to be outside, in nature, almost all the time.

  21. 21
    Amy says:

    I wonder if the screen obsession is more a reflection on how isolated modern Life has become. I’m a mommy of two and being a mommy is hard, lonely, and isolating. Sometimes my screen is the only lifeline I have. It’s my only window to the outside world. It’s the only source of comfort (in the form of a stray email or text from family or friends) some days. It’s my only connection to the adult world and even though I am a mommy, I am still an adult. That my screen is also my tether to my side hustles and is never more than 2 feet from me, is cause for concern and reevaluation. And no doubt some or my screen fix is because I am often bored to tears in my no-man-is-an-island-but-we-didn’t-say-anything-about-women parenting sojourn.

    I experienced parenting with my first in the dark ages without a screen and without a texting plan. I survived on piles of library books, and checking my email twice a day. I wouldn’t wish that kind of isolation on anyone.