Useful occupation is good. Boredom is bad.
Organised learning is good. Lack of structure is bad.
But who says?
When I was 5, I ran up to the field at the end of our road with my 8 year-old brother. We had two favourite spots up there; the first was a lively stream with its potential for dams, tricky crossing places and generally getting wet; the other was an old rusty lorry, abandoned in a corner by the hedge. That day, we scrambled over the lorry, and as usual had an absorbing inventive time … until I fell, and gashed a deep wound in my cheek.
With blood streaming down my face, I rushed home to Mum. Okay, maybe the wound should have had stitches, but medical services were an infrequent bus ride away, and faced with the prospect of a long expedition with my 2 year-old younger sister in tow as well as my irrepressible older brother, in the end Mum – a qualified nurse – strapped the wound tightly herself. The scar remained very visible through my childhood and well into my twenties. I can just locate its traces now.
But that was only one of many bumps and bruises in childhood. Knees were always grazed, shins bruised – it was the way things were. I used to be almost proud of my hockey and lacrosse bruises before new ideas of the feminine crept in. I was certainly proud that I could climb the tall elm by the tennis courts, from which, satisfyingly invisible up in the branches, I had a splendid bird-eye view of everything happening below.
The other side of this freedom coin was boredom. If you have never known the dusty smell of privet hedges on a baking dry August afternoon with nowhere to go and nothing to do, you might not know what I’m talking about. “I’m bored”, I’d complain. I’ve got plenty for you to do if you’re bored,” came the reply. “You could clean the bath.” No help there then. I’d drift into the garden, and brush my fingers in desultory fashion along clumps of overgrown mint and lemon balm, and idly pick a few sprigs and sniff the scent.
The smell maybe awoke my senses a little, and I’d suddenly think it might be vaguely interesting to make a smell mixture. That would need water … and a container. I’d potter into the garage and find an empty jam pot (ah, the advantages for a child of a house where nothing is ever thrown away!). Then it would seem more satisfying to have a container with a handle, so I’d search among all the brown tools, nails, screws and hard metal contraptions to find the string in its rusty old baby-milk-powder tin.
If you’re old enough ever to have fished for minnows with minimal equipment, you’ll know there’s a skill to tying string around a glass jam pot so that it’s tight enough to keep the pot secure. You also have to prepare the string handle before you tie the string too tight around the pot, otherwise you can’t thread the string through for the handle. A crash onto a concrete path together with your glass pot on a string clearly represents a serious disaster if you’re only five. It has to be done right. So this procedure took quite a while. Then into the kitchen for water from the tap: “What are you doing?” “I need some water for my smell mixture.” “Oh, okay.” And my mother would move across from washing pots or nappies, pants or carrots.
Now, the activity was well underway; the garden proved full of lots of other pleasingly smelly things, and in this way I became familiar with every single plant in our small plot. Boredom? By this time I couldn’t anymore remember ever having been bored in my whole life.
What triggers these stories now? The other day I was complaining to my diary about me (I know, that’s just mean!) – about how I was struggling to complete a particular project without the structure of firm deadlines. I wanted to bully myself into getting more organised. And I reflected crossly how my brain is becoming more scattered and my attention span shorter as I use the internet more. You know how it happens. Perhaps you’re having a conversation about a song, and want to remember who wrote it, and someone always interrupts, “Oh, I’ll Google it,” and – da, da! – there’s the answer. Your brain has just started on a bit of brain stretching to remember the name and then – chop! – it’s unceremoniously cut off before being able to reach a satisfactory outcome on its own; and you’re immediately onto the next thing, an email maybe which contains an enticing link, which leads you to an article, that refers to a book with a riveting title, whose author, you discover, is part of a network you hadn’t heard of, which … maybe you recognise how one ends up lost and scattered in a forest without a compass?
It makes me smile that our precision technology can lead to such butterfly flitting. Busy here, busy there, busy, busy, busy …
So, coming back to my inner complaining? What if “Get, organised, get organised” is just the butterfly brain talking? What if the solution’s the complete opposite – allowing myself the freedom to be bored – going back to five years old, in other words?
Freedom TO be bored
When I think further, it’s on the occasions where the problem is open-ended that I suffer from this frantic “get organised!” inner urging. It doesn’t happen if I’m doing the equivalent of playing with a toy where you post shapes through holes and the problem is to get the right shape in the right hole (lots of work problems come in this category); it happens when I’m not even sure if I’m playing the right game.
In those cases, the “get organised” response, however instinctive, is not a useful one. So what then?
I’ve thought of three immediate aspects of my five-year-old self I’d find useful. Maybe you might discover similar?
- Abandon all necessities and be suspicious of every single timesaving device.
E.g. “I’ve got to look at Facebook before I go to bed or I’ll be out of touch.” I don’t think so!
“I need to keep up to date with everything at all times.” Maybe true in your job, but just how much did things actually fall apart last time you went away on holiday?
“I must make another better-ordered list in Excel, even though I already have a rough handwritten one.” Rubbish!
“I have to lie awake worrying – it’s how I remember everything.” What if you slept, how would that be?
- Either think very big (big picture) or very small (close focus on one thing). Don’t think busy, urgent or rushed.
Thinking big allows you to take a lovely big breath and survey your terrain from a calm distance. Imagine you’re on the moon looking at you on earth for instance. From such a perspective, priorities fall into place, some urgent activities become unimportant, and you know better what to do next. Left and right hemispheres of the brain enjoy the balance of such a view.
Thinking small – being totally absorbed with single focus on one thing – is wonderfully good for the brain. Time ceases to exist; your cogs work efficiently and well; decision-making becomes easier, and challenges become enjoyable.
- Definitely this: allow boredom – it’s the soil that nurtures creativity
Creativity arises in the freedom of a house with doors and windows open. If we plug every gap with constant activity, nothing new emerges. Let in the air! What is boredom but space? Praise for the grace of empty space!
Especially when we’re grown-up.
Which makes me think of Pooh:
“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.”
from Winnie the Pooh by A.A.Milne
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