Busy doing nothing


Before the internet, boredom was something to be feared. Today, experts are wondering whether it is good for us. Wanstead resident Steve Wilks examines why this may be the case.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard thought it was the root of all evil. Writer Mary Renault considered it intellectual defeat. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard declared it the world’s second-worst crime. But where boredom might once have been something to fear, today we are never truly bored. In our era of non-stop notifications, how can we be?

According to a survey, the average Brit checks their smartphone 28 times a day – at least once per hour. That’s more that 10,000 times a year. “Those little spaces of ‘no work’, like walking through a park, are disappearing,” says Tom Hodgkinson, founder of cult journal The Idler, which advocates a slower-paced approach to life. “You can now work while walking to work. By contrast, you have to make a special effort to create situations for idleness.”

Psychology writer Oliver Burkeman states: “The reason patience and stillness are so important right now is that the whole direction of culture is the opposite. You’d think we should be able to relax – we’ve got technology to do things and do them faster. But that is exactly nobody’s experience. The faster that technology drives, the more impatient we are.”

Scientific understandings of what happens in our brains during periods when nothing is happening has proved elusive so far. However, a recent study by Dr Deniz Vatansever from Cambridge University has discovered the default mode network, which represents a collection of brain regions used to determine brain activity. It concludes the brain is operating at a high level even when we don’t give it anything to do. The extra activity when we give it a task is actually a much smaller increase than the process carried out during idle states. In other words, boredom – a state of inactivity – seems to take as much effort as actively doing nothing. In fact, it might help to drive creativity in the background, so boredom might actually be good for you.

Hodgkinson goes on to argue that idling is not not doing anything. It is thinking, reading and talking. The Romans called it vita contemplative and there was much debate about which was better, the life of contemplation or the life of activity. Then later on, Protestant thinking was that contemplation was sinful.

The original ‘Protestant work ethic’, much like our modern ‘always working’ culture, scorned the appearance of indolence. However, an upside may be found: the idea that periods of idleness enhance productivity during periods of activity. So, next time you find yourself reaching for your phone, stop. Let the scratchy feeling of boredom invade your brain. It could be the most rewarding thing you do and help you be more productive in the future.

For more advice on becoming idle, visit idler.co.uk