Recently I’ve been actively working on making sure my children and I are bored on a regular basis. Yep, that’s right. I’m trying to be bored and to make sure the rest of my family is too. It all started a few months ago when I heard an episode of the RobCast called “The Importance of Boredom.” The episode is well worth your time, and it’s a reflection on what it means to be busy all the time, filling up every single spare second with something to do. Bell talks a lot about the time we spend doing things that don’t nurture our souls — aimlessly scrolling through social media, for example. The episode reminded me of a sermon I heard John Ortberg preach one time. (tangental side note: Why you gotta leave the PCUSA, John Ortberg?!) Anyway, I can’t remember the exact topic of the sermon now, but I do remember he was talking about TV watching. At some point he addressed the congregation and said “Who here, after watching a few hours of TV leaps up from the couch and says ‘Man, I feel great! That was really energizing!’?” The answer, of course, is nobody, because TV isn’t energizing; it’s draining. Boredom, as defined by Rob Bell and by me in this post is the exact opposite of TV watching. Boredom done right can be very energizing. When we are bored our mind has a chance to rest and think, and we’re able to actually be creative and fresh. Sometimes it is in the stillness and silence of boredom where the best ideas are born.
Choosing to be Bored
What does it mean to try to be bored? In my experience, there are many times where boredom might creep in, but a persistent voice urging me to “be productive!” or “Get something done!” stops it cold in its tracks. I have a tendency to do anything required to shut that voice up. So instead of just sitting in silence while I ride the elevator up to the eighth floor, or mindlessly browsing the silly headlines on the tabloids in line, I feel obligated to read emails, respond to text messages and flip through my to-do list. Filling up the cracks of the day with stuff to do seems productive on the surface, (see how many things I get done, even while I’m in the elevator!) In reality, though, it just wears me down. After a full day of “productivity” the only thing I want to do is collapse in a heap and watch Netflix. Intentional boredom is a remedy for this way of living. The phrase”Not every second needs to be scheduled” has been my new mantra. Paradoxically, doing nothing is the thing to do. Here are times when I’ve been choosing boredom recently:
- In the car — I’ve not even been listening to music or podcasts recently — just silence (there’s a version of this in Faithful Families called “Silent Car Rides.”)
- In line at the grocery store. No flipping through the phone or texting, or working on the meal plan, just looking at the extra large sized candy bars and thinking “why aren’t they called ‘King Sized’ anymore?” or pondering the crazy tabloid headings
- While waiting for a meeting to start, or when getting somewhere early — Instead of sitting in the car and flipping through email or Facebook, I take a walk
- In between tasks – I get up and walk around for a little while instead of scrolling social media or trying to squeeze in one more thing.
- In the shower – Extra long shower for the win!
Making Room For Children to be Bored
There’s some fairly compelling evidence that boredom is great for children, too. Providing space for boredom in my home is not easy for me. Its easy to feel like I’m being lazy if I don’t have a structured activity for my children to do to do, especially since I don’t have a lot of time with them during the week. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m tempted, not by structure, but by formless screen time. Sometimes it’s easier to just say “why don’t we turn on Paw Patrol” so I don’t have to think about it. The middle way is, what I’ve been calling “space for boredom.” We turn off the TV, don’t plan anything to do, and see what happens. It’s not usually the first hour or two that are a problem. They happily play. It’s what happens after the playtime gets, well… boring. When I’m most tempted to say “Ok, let’s go to the museum now!” or “Ok, let’s turn on Paw Patrol” is precisely the time to say, “I know it’s hard to find something to do sometimes” and to go back to making muffins. I’ve been doing this for awhile now, and the results have been even more powerful than I originally anticipated.
Crayons have come out, on their own. Kleenex boxes have been sloppily taped onto Amazon boxes with proud declarations of “It’s an ambulance.” Comic books have been created. It’s magical, but certainly not easy. In order to get there, we’ve had to suffer through many rounds of “Pleeeeeeeeeease can we go to incredible pizza” and “This is SO BORING.” Well, when you’re bored you can think. When you can think you can be creative. Boredom is a gift. Not all the time, but some of the time. Too much boredom isn’t good, of course, but this not the danger for our family and a lot of families like us.
It seems to me that previous generations of parents understood this intuitively (plus there were no iPads or TV on demand to compete with.) Boredom wasn’t really something you needed to “make room” for in those days. It just happened. Now, if we want our children to be bored, we have to make sure it happens by intentionally blocking out the time and saying no to extra lessons and classes and enrichment opportunities and parties. We have to make space.
Here are some times when I’ve been making room for my children to be bored:
- In the car
- On Saturdays (all day, not just for an hour or two)
- Sunday afternoons
- Days off of school
- At the dinner table — Example: “May I be excused?” answer “In a few more minutes….”
Boredom Apps? Say what?
It seems counterintuitive to think about using technology to find rest and create boredom, but there are actually some tools I’ve found that work remarkably well for this.
Forest App: I’ve mentioned this one before, but the forest app helps plant virtual trees to keep you off of your phone. The more time you’re away from your phone, the more trees are planted. Plant enough virtual trees and forest will plant real trees in your honor. Pretty great. I go through seasons where I use this app a lot.
Do Not Disturb Mode: I’ve not had to use this in awhile, but there have been times when I’m so fried and so overloaded by texts and emails that I need to not know that they exist. In order to get in to true do not disturb mode, I need to adjust my phone settings to turn off all notifications for email (I turned them off for social media a long time ago) and also put the phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode (this works well for iPhone. I’m not sure how to make it work for Android, but I’m sure Google will help!) iPhone will kick out of Do Not Disturb mode if someone calls back immediately.
News Feed Eradicator for Facebook: This extension for Chrome has been a huge game changer for me. I love using Facebook for a lot of things, including keeping up with folks in my congregation, keeping connected in clergy communities, and connecting with friend who don’t live in the same city as me. At the same time, it can be a huge way to fill up empty time that should be used for boredom or true rest. The Newsfeed Eradicator removes the newsfeed. You can still get notifications, still check on groups, still update status, etc. It eliminates the phenomenon whereby I log in to Facebook to check on something and 20 minutes later I’m clicking through photos of people I don’t even know because they’re there. HERE’s a link for Chrome. Also available for phones, I believe.
Boredom has been a gift recently. It’s been the difference between exhaustion and a little room. It’s not been easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Give it a try and let me know what you think!