Learning The Art of Being Bored

By Robert Kennedy III

I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and it is really causing me to re-evaluate how I choose to spend my time. I’ve been in a process of seriously looking at the minutes I spend each day. We each have 24 hours and when you finally decide to take a look at how you spend each minute, you’ll be surprised at some of the decisions you make daily.

I was surprised at the amount of time I spent on sites like Facebook and ESPN. My work was getting done but in my breaks, I would dive in to these “getaways”. Then, my breaks became a bit longer. Soon, I noticed I was cycling between just a few sites to see if anything had changed. Not only was this silly, it was also very unproductive. When I talk about being productive, many mistake this to mean work. Productivity doesn’t necessarily mean work for me. I define it as an activity, or an “inactivity” done in order to produce a desirable result. So, sitting quietly to relax my mind can be very productive.

This was the problem. My breaks were being filled with “stuff” that wasn’t actually allowing me to take a break. I had given myself the excuse that these harmless vices were “deserved” because I did my work. Then, it became “research”. Then it became “staying visible because my business needed it.”

But, truthfully, I was slipping. My level of completion had slipped and I was not getting out of my day what I truly wanted. I’m not actually blaming Facebook or ESPN here. I was taking my day for granted and floating in without a clear plan. Sure, I had my to do lists and stuff on the calendar. But, I’d gotten away from my big picture. And so, I’d succumbed to distractions. But I had also gotten so used to being distracted that I no longer recognized it as distraction.

In Deep Work, Newport refers to this aversion to boredom. When we have a minute, we immediately put our heads down into our phones or some stimulating activity. We have forgotten what it means to stand or sit quietly. We have trained ourselves to be distracted. When we have to wait in a line at the store or anywhere, we immediately seek to fill up that space. And for me, it was true. I found myself reaching for my phone if I had to wait at a stoplight.

We stopped allowing our minds to wander and wonder. And we stopped reining them in to focus on the work that really matters. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that multi-tasking is a talent and people who focus on one thing at a time are somehow less skilled or weak. The opposite is true. It takes much more strength and focus to train your mind and body in one direction. This is why getting up in the morning to write whether I want to or not is challenging. It’s also why we attempt to numb our senses the moment we feel like might have some open space in our lives.

So, I refused to allow the unchecked distraction to continue. I made a few commitments.

First, I recommitted to reading more and setting aside specific time to read. I got a Kindle for Christmas and while some talk about returning to a physical book, I’m still fine with electronic books simply because they don’t take up space in my bookcase. Goodness, that’s a bear when you have to move. I committed via Goodreads to reading 30 books this year. Not skimming, actually reading them in their entirety. I’m 4 books in and I’m sure I will blow away that goal because I didn’t consider the size of the books. But, who knows. Maybe I’ll adjust once I hit the mark.

Second, I have gotten back to scheduling some NOTHING time. Yes, nothing time. Nothing time is not necessarily meditation. It’s just time where you are alone with you and your thoughts for a certain amount of time. There is no right or wrong. There is no goal. It’s simply a time, like free writing, where you intentionally allow your mind to run free without the guilt of feeling like you should be doing something else. That free, creative time is important.

Third, I’ve committed to FOCUSED NOTHING time. In this period, I’m doing nothing with my hands but I’m intentionally focusing on a problem. I may be walking but instead of allowing my mind to wander, I’m intentionally processing an idea. (This is another takeaway from Deep Work) If my mind begins to wander, I acknowledge it and bring it back to the mental focus at hand. This might be working through the outline for an upcoming speech/talk. It may be organizing the next series of articles I’d like to write. Or, it may be putting together a program I’d like to launch. What I’m doing is inserting a deeper, intentional layer into my strategic time.

I’m not sure if you’ve recognized it, but I’m actually recommending that you take a read or a listen to Deep Work. Then, figure out how you may need to re-organize your life to minimize distractions and regain the focus that is important for work that matters.

Right now, I’m re-learning the art of being bored.