The Value of Boredom

The Value of Boredom

How often are you bored? How often do you actually experience boredom without instantaneously having something to do that will keep your mind at least somewhat occupied, even if not occupied by anything important? You have probably had a boring work training that you had to sit through without nodding off, but outside of that, there probably are not too many pure moments of boredom in your life.

 

Instead of having to live with boredom, we live with distraction. In line at the grocery store, on an airplane, and in a doctor’s waiting room we have an easy distraction available. We might not be thoroughly entertained and might not enjoy our wasted time, but we are not exactly bored. Because of our phones, our minds are trained to expect that that any moment of potential boredom is a moment of distraction instead.

 

Cal Newport thinks this is a problem. In his book Deep Work he writes about the value of boredom, “to simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”

 

The value of boredom doesn’t come from any particular insight you might have when it is only your thoughts that keep you occupied and entertained. The value of boredom is instead in what it doesn’t let slip into your brain: bad habits of distraction seeking expectations. Newport continues, “to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.” This is where boredom comes in.

 

Being bored allows us to get used to an absence of distracting stimuli. It helps our brain accept that at some times we are not going to have new news articles to scroll through, we are not going to have red notifications telling us that someone has acknowledged our existence, and we are not going to have something flashing on a screen to keep our brain engaged. If the brain becomes comfortable with boredom, it will be better at deep work, and we will be more productive.

Setting an Agenda, and Killing “Being Busy”

In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier talks about being busy, and how we sometimes use business as a way to show that we are important, hardworking, and have lots of meaningful things we are tasked with. He argues that being busy is really just a form of laziness stemming from a failure to prioritize the world in a way that makes the important work stand-out and shifts the busy-work to the background. Being busy is really about being over-committed and spread too thin to be effective.

 

Instead of being busy all the time, we can focus on what matters most and think through the key items that we can work on to make a difference. There are a million things we all could do each day at work, and we usually know, at least enough to make a useful estimate, which items are the most important and which items on our to-do list will make the biggest difference. Indiscriminately trying to do everything creates a sense of overwhelming busyness that we carry with us and complain about throughout  the day. It sounds good, like we are ambitiously taking on big important topics or as if we are being asked to complete an unreasonable set of demands by someone higher-up, but often times, it is just us not setting an agenda and working on the things that matter most.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “George Bernard Shaw was on to something years ago when one of his maxims for revolutionaries states, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” The people who use busyness as a way to look important are really just failing to adapt. Learning to adjust ones schedule, build a routine, and prioritize will help in becoming more effective and getting the key things done. We don’t have to run around from project to project trying to adjust things to what we want, instead we can build ourselves and our days in a way that manages the busy work for us and allows us to be effective.

A Great Start to a Coaching Conversation

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is not just a book with a few good theories about coaching. Bungay Stanier includes a lot of specific words, phrases, and conversation examples to help you see concrete ways to improve your coaching. One example that Bungay Stanier includes is a quick way to get a coaching conversation moving in a clear path to help you discuss the issues that are driving the challenges for the individual you are working with. His quick start question is as follows:

 

“So there are three different facets of that [the problem the individual said they are having] we could look at … the project side — any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issue with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

 

What I love about this question is that from the start, it disentangles different parts of a problem that anyone may be facing. In my own life, and in listening to others, I have noticed how frequently all of these different issues seem to meld together and become overwhelming. By disaggregating each piece of the problem, you can begin to look at individual items in a manageable way. It is a lot easier to begin to look for things that one can change or adjust, when you take the pieces one by one and fit them back together.

 

This question also helps to steer coaching conversations away from becoming venting conversations. I really struggle in my relationship with my wife with handling conversations about the challenges she faces. One of the reasons is because I don’t handle venting well. When my wife wants to vent and tell me about the issues and challenges she faces my natural reaction is to simply tell her what she should do as if I was some sort of magic profit who could solve all her problems. Of course, my views of her challenges are not actually accurate and my advice giving does not work in these venting conversations. By steering questions away from venting using the approach that Bungay Stanier suggests in the quote above, we can heave more productive conversations focused on what really matters. A coaching session will be useless if it becomes a venting session. The other person may feel better temporarily about having a chance to vent, but nothing will actually be solved and their possibly mistaken perceptions will in a sense be validated by being heard.

 

The questions that Bungay Stanier presents in the quote above keeps us focused on specific issues in a solutions oriented direction. The questions also show that there are different aspects of our problems that need to handled in different ways. By working with the individual to acknowledge the self originating aspects of their problem, you get them to refocus on themselves and their growth without blaming other people for their challenges. The other pieces of the issue can be also worked on in a more objective manner when we are not looking at the whole.