The Beauty in Boredom

By Tim Duggan - Meta Guest Essay

This month on Meta, we are introducing essays by guest authors. Tim Duggan is the Co-founder of Junkee Media and author of ‘Cult Status: How To Build A Business People Adore’. Tim and I were introduced a few months back where we talked about a new book he is working on that are all about creativity. You can sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Twitter and check out Cult Status here.

Bonus round: I’ve got some copies of Cult Status to give away! To be in the running, share this story and tag the Blackbird Foundation on Twitter or me on Linkedin.

Tim talks about boredom and how important it is to the creative process. TLDR Tim sent himself off to an island with nothing but some water and a tent. Dive in and if you’d like to contribute a story to Meta, or you have any feedback on these essays, hit me in the comments.

The Beauty in Boredom
By Tim Duggan

Call me weird, but I love being bored.

I often go out of my way to try to make myself as bored as I possibly can. When I was in my late 20s I even spent a few weeks alone on a deserted island just to see what would happen.

For years I’d fantasised about taking time out to climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs until I reached the peak and could self-actualise all day without any distractions. I wanted to see what would happen if I got genuinely, totally, hopelessly bored.

I packed a backpack with food, a tent, clothes and not much else. There were no books to read. No music to listen to. Nothing to distract me from myself. What would happen when my mind began wandering off with nothing left to tether it to? Would I go mad? Would I have a breakthrough or a breakdown? Could I get bored of boredom?

The only item I allowed myself as a creative outlet was a notepad and a pen so I could record some of my thoughts (it’s a story for another time that I somehow managed to lose both the notepad and my camera on the journey home).

To help pass the time on the island I counted, then re-counted, the number of zips on my jacket (answer: 44), I begin singing to myself just to check that my voice box still worked (spoiler: it did), I built fires then extinguished them, and I spent entire afternoons just lying in my tent staring up at the shadows dancing on the walls creating stories about them inside my head.

In short, I got really, really bored.

I also got creative. Instead of the usual distractions of everyday life where thoughts collide over the top of each other in quick succession I had long stretches of time to just mull over ideas. They were the seeds of the thoughts that would help me launch, grow and sell my business over the next decade.

I also realised that you don’t need to desert yourself on an island to get bored. You just need to turn off some of the inputs into your brain by consciously switching off and slowing down: going for a long walk without switching on a podcast, driving without radio, or swimming where technology can’t follow you into the water. That’s the soft space we need to percolate our ideas. Without it, our jumbled messy thinking has no room to process itself.

How many thoughts do you reckon we have a day? For decades scientists have tried to track how many thoughts and ideas we have each day, and they’ve failed miserably. They often relied on volunteers to describe their own thoughts, which is a self-defeating exercise.

Researchers at Queen’s University in Canada made a breakthrough recently when they decided to stop trying to follow what someone was thinking about, and instead measure when the brain activity showed they had moved on to a new thought⁠. Dr Jordan Poppenk and a masters student, Julie Tseng, named each of these a “thought worm” and published their results in Nature Communications in July 2020.  “What we call thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain,” said Dr. Poppenk, who is the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience. “When a person moves onto a new thought, they create a new thought worm that we can detect with our methods.”

The most fascinating finding of the research is that based on the number of ‘thought worms’ they tracked, they estimate that the average person has around 6,200 thoughts per day. That is a lot of ways to distract ourselves from being bored.

The Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor called boredom “the cloud of unknowing” and willingly spends time chasing down dead ends to create his sculptures⁠. “It is precisely in those moments when I don’t know what to do and boredom drives one to try.”

So give yourself permission to wallow in the unknowing. Consciously plan ahead to do nothing; add some boredom time into your calendar and see where your mind takes you. It’s in those quiet, unassuming moments that we fight so hard to avoid that the real magic happens. 

Tim Duggan is the Co-Founder of Junkee Media and the author of ‘Cult Status: How To Build A Business People Adore’. He is currently working on his second book about creativity in the workplace, to be published in 2022.