The Zen of Boredom

Boredom has its uses. For one, it can be the perfect way to wind down an uptight brain – if you know what to do with all the nothing stretching in front of you. Last week I mentioned how I used to come home after a long, dreary day brimming with ideas. This month I experienced the opposite: having so much time I couldn’t fill it.

I dedicated this month to writing, getting 25k done on the novel and more. I achieved that writing only 2 – 3 hours a day. Next month I might try to stretch it to four hours, but I’ve realized I can’t stretch it well beyond, into the 8 – 12 hour mark, because its burns out my brain. In all the time I didn’t spend writing I exercised, visited friends, and watched stuff on Netflix. But mostly I read articles, novels, and short stories. I filled my brain with prose.

It proved to be too much for me. I’d get to the end of the night and my brain would be so tired I’d zone out until I decided to say screw it and go to bed early. I spent so much time creating and consuming narrative I could barely daydream about what to write next. I was antsy. I was bored. So I decided I really need a hobby, a different pursuit – one where I can zone out for an hour or two.

I took up modding again – in extreme moderation. I started with the most tedious job sitting on my mod’s to do list. Sitting at the computer clicking on the same menu over and over to replace one object with another. Its particular tedium is similar to data entry. And it felt so good. It was the exact kind of zoning out my brain needed. One where attention is required but it only takes the slightest amount of thought.

I’ve identified a few kinds of boredom, some good and some bad.

Antsy boredom: the bad kind of boredom. You don’t know what to do with yourself. Maybe you just finished something and don’t feel like you have enough time to start something new. Maybe you’re just burnt out. Whatever it is, this kind of boredom is a gaping yawn across an abyss of ARRGH.

The solution is to do something. Plan the next thing, go for a walk, distract yourself with mindless entertainment. If you can’t muster that, maybe nap or go to bed. Do anything but sitting around feeling miserable. I find it easily cure by…

Mindless activity: many people think this kind of boredom is bad as well, but it’s actually rewarding. For one, you get stuff done. It gives your brain a break if you let yourself zone out and concentrate on the task. Even a useless mindless activity can sweep the cobwebs out of your brain.

A friend of mine used to blow up a blank page in MS Paint and color it in one pixel at a time, and while chatting we all used to watch. Does that sound like the most boring thing ever? Well, it is! It’s funny how interesting a boring task can be. Mindless activity also leads to the next effect of boredom…

Daydreaming: what happens when you’ve reached a moment of zen. Even the people who push “mindfulness” as the secret to fully living neglect simple daydreaming. “Stay in the moment,” they say. How about no. If I’m staring at the clear blue sky and a new scene for my novel bursts into my head in full color, I’m sure as hell not pushing it out of my mind. Half the time it’s the reason I let myself zone out.

I’ve fought all my life for the personal space necessary to nurture my inner self. The question, “What are you doing?” when it looks like I’m “doing nothing” infuriates me. I tell people, “I’m thinking,” and they look at me like I’ve grown a second head. Then they wonder why they have all their good ideas in the shower, and the daydreamers say, “Duh.”

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The Well Needs Time to Refill

Good ideas take time to form. I have to remind myself of this when they’re coming out in a slow trickle, and when they’re pouring out of me faster than I can write. My new habit, to plod ahead at a steady pace, means tightening the reins in both cases. Learning to harness the muse this way has helped me write more and better than I have before.

Sometimes you get burnt out. Even with a whole day to write, I can’t write all day. I’ve spent whole days doing nothing but reading and writing – I reach a point where I can’t read anymore, I can barely think, and I end up going to bed early because my energy is spent. Everyone has different limits, and I’ve been pushing mine a little to see how far I can stretch them day by day, but I have more energy if I spent time on other things. I forget I wrote my first novel around a dreary day job. I’d spend my day on mindless drudgery and run home brimming with ideas. Allowing yourself to be bored can help refuel the tank.

Sometimes you need to write anyway. Especially if you’re stuck. It’s too easy to turn being stuck into a plug in your brain that stops you from writing altogether. I’ve written before about priming the subconscious by engaging with your work even when the ideas don’t flow. The other day I was so stuck on a plot problem that outlining didn’t help. So I wrote a couple character interaction scenes to see if I could find a plot hiding among them. This primed my brain enough that the next day I was exploding with ideas, but I decided not to write it all at once because…

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A Scatterbrain’s Guide to Time Management

Some of us don’t work well with schedules. As time constraints go, setting up a block of hours as “work time” and trying to stick to it every day doesn’t happen, no matter how we try to drag ourselves to the desk every day. I used to punish myself for not doing what I was supposed to by not letting myself do what I’d rather be doing. I ended up doing nothing, which is lame and had to stop. So I came up with a few strategies to keep myself honest and help me get work done.

The first step is self-awareness. I figured out how I spent most of my day with retroactive day planning. I’d record everything I did in a day, color coded in a calendar app so I could see how much of what I was doing at a glance. I have different colors for working, house stuff, health stuff, and dicking around. At first “dicking around” time made up the bulk of my time, which was a little depressing.

Next I figured out what kind of dicking around I was doing, and if some of it was needed downtime for my brain. I separated productive relaxation, like reading novels or watching documentaries, into another color called “Filling the Well.” More wasteful dicking around isn’t forbidden, but removing some of that color from the calendar made me feel better.

I also started noticing patterns, such as when I’m most productive and when my focus sucks. This let me aim my productive hours for when I typically have the most energy. When I made my vow to write an hour a day, I added a repeat “writing” block to my best hour for writing. I frequently shift the time around, but having it sit there in my calendar, reminding me of the promise I made to myself, has helped keep me honest.

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The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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Mobile Apps Are Not a Web Solution

This came out of an email I typed to my local public library after they kindly informed me that their website doesn’t support iOS Safari and suggested I download their mobile app instead. This response is unacceptable, and here’s why:

A single-purpose mobile app is about as useful as a unicycle. Sure, you might be able to ride it down the street, but it was never designed to get you much further. Apps for every website has always been a dumb idea because it breaks up the interconnected nature of the web itself. The moment the user needs to click a link to another site, they get bumped out of your app entirely – creating friction that makes the experience awful for the user and detrimental to their impression of you.

Back in 2011, every clueless CEO wanted a mobile app (that does nothing a website can’t already do) because they heard it was the latest, hottest thing and wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It was a terrible fad that had its day because it was a terrible idea. Yet here you are, in 2015, telling people, “Please use our unicycle instead of the bicycle we can’t be bothered to fix. Unicycles are still hip, right? Pleeease try out our unicycle. We lost our bicycle building budget over this!”

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