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Why we’re so uncomfortable with boredom

Some of my earliest memories include being uncomfortable with boredom.

I would whine and complain to my mother than I had “nothing to do”. She would suggest things like drawing or playing outside, and I would resist these ideas without exception.

It’s like I felt the need to do something yet simultaneously didn’t want to do anything. Back then I found this dissonance baffling.

Nowadays, it makes total sense…

Many of my high-achiever type clients are beyond restless; they are literally incapable of doing “nothing” – of existing without creating, producing, or consuming. Their “rest” time is usually spent engaging in mindless activity, like doom-scrolling, watching shows they’re barely enjoying, or getting drunk. Many of them have no memories whatsoever of voluntarily doing nothing at all without any form of stimulation.

If you look at other mammals that feature high on the food chain, you’ll notice they do a lot of nothing. Your average lion spends a vast majority of its time lying in the shade, lazily flicking flies with its tail. For only a tiny percentage of its life it engages in furious action.

An average human being is about the only non-prey animal that engages in endless frantic activity, and cannot sit still without having at least its eyes stimulated by something.

Why?


 

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I remember reading an anthropological study that suggested ancient tribal humans only “worked” for about 20 hours per week. That’s all they needed to survive, e.g. hunt, build, forage, fight. The rest of the time they did whatever they felt like… probably a whole lot of nothing.

Nowadays, despite huge advances in time-saving technology, we’re somehow insanely busy compared to our primitive ancestors. But busy doing what, exactly?

Checking emails that we won’t respond to. Snacking for no reason. Cleaning something that’s already pretty clean. Getting into a raging battle with some stranger in the comments section. Trying to look productive at work. Watching Netflix or jerking to porn. Impulsively purchasing crap online.

None of these activities are valuable, and a great many of them are measurably harmful. So why do we prefer to engage in self-harm over doing nothing at all? 

Because we have immense shame around the sensation of boredom

Nearly everyone who’s been raised a certain way or gone through the “modern” schooling system has come out the other side feeling that it’s “bad” to do “nothing”. Boredom – the emotional state of low motivation and low curiosity – is met by most people with a fight or flight response, as if it’s a threat. Boredom agitates us. And it’s not hard to see why…

In school, you are punished for doing nothing; for goofing off, having fun, staring into the distance, or just fucking around doing something gloriously pointless. And for many of us, this was shamed in the home as well. God forbid Dad comes home from working to find you doing nothing – that’s sure to incite a tsunami of chores.

Or perhaps your parents – drowning in boredom-shame themselves – got anxious if you seemed to be feeling bored so they forced entertainment and stimulation on you, if for no other reason but to stop your whining. How many parents do you know allow their kids to be bored without trying to “fix” it? We were raised to stay active at all times.

And then we grew up.

We quickly discovered the hideous amount of free time that accumulates when you’re not pressured by others to keep busy. But rather than bathe in this freedom, we panicked. We immediately searched for something, anything, to fill the void.

We started to worship the grind. We think a 40+ hour work week is normal. We have no shame checking our phones in public.

Some people can’t even allow boredom to start, keeping themselves so busy that they don’t even begin to experience any sense of nothingness. They’re an endless flurry of activity and engagement from eyes opening in the morning to eyes wearily closing in the night.

We reach for our phones the minute other activity ends, sometimes even the minute we wake up. We reach for a beer as soon as the conversation hits a lull. We turn the TV on as soon as dinner is finished, maybe even during dinner.

And once we start, it’s normally not enough. We have to stack tasks to eliminate all risk of potential nothingness. We eat while we watch TV, drink while we socialize, scroll on our phones while we sip coffee, gossip while we work, and play with our balls as often as possible.

Has it ever struck you as odd that we are so repelled by the opportunity to do nothing? What is so scary about sitting down and staring at a wall, or mindlessly throwing rocks at slightly bigger rocks, or drowsily spying on sparrows at the park to observe their meaningless social interactions?

We have been conned into endless busyness.

I believe this reigns down as a kind of centuries-long conspiracy theory, where “idle hands are the Devil’s playthings” was used as propaganda to prevent the proletariat from thinking long enough to get restless and overthrow the Oligarchs.

But these days, billionaires and politicians are just as busy as everyone else, and just as likely to get into Twitter fights or impulse buy some slavery-made junk from Temu. Like the Pope genuinely believing, everyone is in the system now; there are no lazy upper classes left who secretly know the con.

If you’re smart and careful, it still only takes about 20 hours per week to take care of your survival needs. Sure, there are some exceptions, but I bet if I was to investigate your life I could come up with a budget and working plan that gave you bountiful amounts of free time compared to what you have now.

But you’ve been conditioned to eat everything on your plate; to consume all available hours being “productive”, or, failing that, at least busy as all fuck.

Without nothing time you miss out on a lot.

It’s doing nothing that gives you time to reflect and make realizations about your life. Nothing is the space where the best ideas happen. Nothing will rest and heal your body, not to mention your mind. 

Most of the mistakes and disasters you’ve gotten yourself into come from the self-sabotage patterns you’re unable to see due to being too damn busy. Imagine how much better your life would be if you caught and corrected them earlier.

Learning actually accelerates when you take breaks from new information or practicing your skills. When you do the right amount of nothing, the neural pathways have time to develop without the interference of more conditioning.

The best athletes and body builders know that less is more. High intensity difficult workouts followed by lengthy rest periods provide the best gains in the shortest amount of time.

Your ability to concentrate, focus, and thereby be effective depends on your ability to control your attention. If you’re unable to endure the “boredom” of nothing, your attention span will diminish to mere seconds, making it impossible for you to get anything done effectively.

Challenge: do nothing for 30 mins. Find a quiet space, like your living room when the house is empty, or a bench at the park (notice the old people doing nothing?), and just sit there. Don’t even try to meditate. Don’t try to do anything!

Just sit still for 30mins. See how it feels.

 


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Thanks for reading

Hope to speak to you soon

Dan Munro

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