Boredom is a virtue. Its absence directly limits entrepreneurial growth and success.
When last did you embrace feeling bored for an extended period, say, at least 10 minutes?
Chances are, you haven’t felt bored recently and, when you did, you most likely killed it by grabbing your cell phone. These anti-boredom devices are ubiquitous, whether we’re in a shop queue, traffic, or even the toilet.
Almost everyone has experienced boredom as a negative state, even distressing and tiring. Workplace outcomes are often negative: anger, absenteeism, errors, risk-taking.
Avoiding boredom is reinforced by social conditioning: the devil makes work for idle hands. Militaries love to make “busy work” to keep soldiers from vandalism and sabotage.
In moments of low stimulation and underwhelm, most people would rather fill slow time with an activity, even an unpleasant one. Researchers wrote in ScienceMag (2014): “[We] found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think…many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.”
But boredom has a bad rap that’s just not merited.
As with all emotions, boredom has a message and drives specific behaviour in response. Occasionally, boredom is a coping response to information overload or complexity that “goes over our head”. But most commonly, boredom tells us that we lack presence, that our current options are not meaningful or novel enough. This is different from “having nothing to do” or feeling ennui—it’s rare for anyone to literally have no options to do anything. Boredom is when the available options are not compelling.
Hence, boredom drives us to change our activity, to increase stimulation or meaning. But if we can’t change our task, we’ll find stimulation in our thoughts.
Sometimes we’ll get stuck in negative thought patterns, like ruminating on our shortcomings or fixating on unsolved problems. Conversely, people “with high working memory capacity are more likely to engage in prospective mind-wandering, and…autobiographical planning.” (Consciousness and Cognition, 2011) In other words, we’ll plan and anticipate future goals.
When our thoughts turn to shortcomings, problems or goals, we’ll probably want to do something about them. In this way, boredom can enhance creativity and problem-solving.
Some research shows that an acute sense of aimlessness when bored could prompt us to ponder existential questions, meaning-of-life stuff, down to our very identity and who we want to be.
But if we’re always preoccupied with day-to-day trivia, we’ll rarely lift our heads to ponder the bigger picture and a meaningful life. (A surge in recent years of depression and anxiety disorders correlates with increased access to anti-boredom devices.)
For entrepreneurs, this can profoundly affect our relationship with our business and its raison d’etre.
Paradoxically, if boredom is an emotional trigger to daydream a healthier life and better business, then the act of envisioning the future instantly stops boredom. And implementing the plans to achieve that vision further reduces the opportunities for boredom.
So how do we exploit boredom, especially as a business owner? After all, entrepreneurs can’t ever be bored when there’s always more on the to-do list than time available to do it.
I’m obviously not suggesting boredom as the goal; rather, make time for uninterrupted thinking. Carve out small chunks in your day to meditate. Anything from 5 to 15 minutes once or twice daily can help us re-connect with our purpose. Longer chunks done weekly or monthly are good for designed reflection or a thinking framework to revise strategies and tactics.
This is the essence of strategic tasks: where the sense of pressure or urgency is low, but meaning and impact are high. It may look like we’re doing nothing, but just thinking is probably the most important activity an entrepreneur can do.
When last did you think? I mean, when last did you really stop doing to just think?
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1. “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind”, ScienceMag, 4 Jul 2014.
2. “Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering”, Consciousness and Cognition, Dec 2011.
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