Functional Noise Regularize Your Mind

Unnecessary Boredom Bias

Boredom has felt like an enemy to me for a long time. When I am bored it seems like I am wasting my time, being useless and inefficient and meaningless. I hate being bored and I've tried fighting boredom, avoiding boredom and ignoring boredom. But in recent years I've come to appreciate boredom more and more. It's a potential source of ideas. So I'm updating my beliefs on the uselessness of boredom and beginning to accept it as an ally. (If you can't beat them, then join them.)

When I'm bored and I don't pay attention, here is what happens. I go through roughly these phases:

  • Take my phone

  • Read my email

  • Read social media

  • Read blogs

  • Find a book to read

  • Or find some other passive activity; watch Netflix, gaming, etc.

This approach keeps you busy and keeps boredom away, but it also keeps ideas away. The easy access to entertainment might be destroying our collective creativity. How many of us are constantly being distracted by today's well designed entertainment? Trillions of dollars and euros of value might be lost, because we are systematically glued to our screens. What if Edison and Einstein and others were born today, would they be gaming addicts?

Once I ignore the desire to avoid boredom, I can reach a place of creativity, where my mind starts to wander and think of other things to do:

  • Reflect on life/work

  • Think of something meaningful to do

  • Write a short post

  • Write a (part of a) longer blog post

  • Work on a side project

  • Find a new idea

These activities are a much better form of entertainment, since they focus on - thinking about - creation, rather than on consumption of information. After having creative thoughts I am more likely to actually go out and create something valuable.

On pressure

There is another way to get ideas. That is to apply temporary pressure to yourself or others. See if you can come up with a solution under the stress of the situation. This is more often used at work. It definitely helps to get creative under pressure, but I'm having diminishing returns from it, since we overuse it. Work harder! Think harder! Solve this problem by tomorrow! It can help to find solutions in the heat of the moment, find new ways to automate or delegate your work. But be careful to apply it all the time. You need slack.

What also doesn't work is creating a very safe space for people. It puts you in a calm, busy mode. It's the typical way now in the corporate software development office. Everyone is kept going at a stable pace. It's great for managers. Just look around, is everyone happy and busy? Good, business must be doing great. When everyone is predictably delivering stuff this will also reflect well on the management metrics. You are nicely burning down those points in your scrum teams.

But boredom is undervalued.

Imagine they tried to bore you at work. I don't mean to keep you busy with boring work, like filling in bureaucratic forms or something. No, I mean actual boredom. Put you in a room with nothing to do. Maybe with a few others. Give you some pen and paper to scribble on. What would happen?

It's how I write this article.

In corporations it's never going to happen ofcourse. The incentives are against every manager. They could never sell it to their boss and their boss's boss. "Hey, I am going to let a bunch of my employees sit around doing nothing all day, is that OK?" Yeah, right.

Individual Experiments

If you can't try it at work, maybe you can apply boredom in personal projects to experiment if it works. Or to your own business if you are an entrepreneur. One method for maximum results could be to cycle between boredom and frantic high stress work. That may be the antifragile way of working. It also feels much more natural to me personally. My energy levels are not constant either, they fluctuate tremendously. Yet I am forced into somekind of steady rithm.

Let's identify these two approaches:

  • The constant pace. Smooth out any boredom and energy. Try to output a continuous stream of results.

  • High variation strategy. Cycle between rest and activity, with high degrees of accepted boredom in the one period and big boosts of energy in another.

For several years I believed in the importance to find a constant, focussed flow-like approach to work. I'm updating on that belief now to see how the alternative works out. I still believe focus is very important to high productivity, I am just not sure if the constant pace is important. Ofcourse, I may enjoy disorder more than you, so you'll have to experiment for yourself.

Perhaps others have already tried the variation strategy and we can look for data points outside our own lives? I could argue that it's with the method above how Yuval Noah Harari writes his books. Meditating 2 hours every day and taking 2 month retreats every year. Then frantically writing popular non-fiction books in between. Someone wrote a short article on Harari's alleged way of working. What if this is a special side effect of meditation? Not just to help you be more mindful, but forcing yourself into a special state of boredom for creative purposes. Something to consider.

John Cleese - you know, the actor and producer - talks a lot about creativity. I remember one video where he explains a method he uses. You sit in a room, make sure no one can interrupt you, then write down everything that comes to mind. The first 15 minutes you remember all the small tasks you still have to do. Just get them out of your system. After a while you'll find some mental space where new, creative thoughts come to you. In essence, he forces himself into a quiet, boring place and state.

I'll add my own recent data point. It started with my wife getting a burnout. This led me to drop some side projects to help her out. Later the COVID crisis started, locking us up at home, we dropped even more side activities, such as many social calls. During these times I spend more and more time just meditating, playing simple games, watching Netflix and growing bored out of my mind. One day my wife announced she was recovered enough, I decided I had enough of the boredom and we both started new side projects. For me it led to a frantic 2 month activity culminating in this technical achievement and a big boost in my personal network with many cool engineers and entrepreneurs as new connections. I admit it left me tired and looking for new ideas, so I'm now trying to bore myself again.

Granted, these are only 3 anecdotal data points. I'm going to have to collect some more. But my conclusion: you may be doing yourself a great disservice by fighting your boredom.