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The Case for Boredom and a Four-Hour Work Day

Posted October 18, 2018 By Jonas Altman

In the U.S., we often view boredom with a critical eye. We love to glorify “busy,” and those with excessive time on their hands must not have enough to do.

But allowing yourself to be bored every so often may be just exactly what you need in today’s knowledge driven economy. The virtues of boredom include fueling your creativity. From Darwin to Dickens, many famed creatives were keenly aware of the benefits of navel gazing.

Deliberate boredom is no longer a ploy reserved for artists; it’s just as important for knowledge workers. In an economy where the currency is your attention — you need to systematically revive yourself in order to stay creative. And slacking off, it turns out, is a pretty good way for getting that job done.

We’ve become so enamored with productivity, that we have forgotten how to slow down. We make busyness a bragging right — and boredom, well, that’s just for loafers. Yet is filling every lull with another dopamine hit from our smartphones wise?

Here are five ideas on how you might slow down in order to boost your creativity. Because if problem-solving is the skill of the future — idleness may be your only saving grace.


Steal Back Those Stolen Moments

Downtime can be rewarding in and of itself. There is no need for guilt in failing to optimize productivity. It may run antithesis to the ‘time is money injunction’ but it’s here — in being idle — that philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell says we can find virtue.

Creativity is a messy affair that often demands heaps of hard work as well as time and space for not working at all. It does not live on tap and is precisely why Russell—in a 1935 essay for Harper’s—advocated for working a four hour day. He knew that our creative bandwidth has limits.

Today we have room for much more leisure yet often fail to unplug out of nasty habits. Some simply cannot detach out of dependence. Digital addicts wear their ‘always-on’ badge with honor.

The first step to reclaiming stolen moments (by your smartphone or some other stimuli) is identifying opportunities for staring into the abyss. When you’re in a cashier line — refrain from reaching for your phone. When you’re driving—drive. When you’re walking — enjoy your surroundings. When you’re early for a meeting — just sit there and enjoy the view. These are quick ways to let a little nothingness seep into your life.


Channel Your Subliminal Self

One day Henri Poincaré, the 19th century French mathematician, was stepping onto a bus and like a lightning bolt, he was struck with a discovery (the Theta-Fuchsian functions in case you’re curious).

To advance your thinking you need to let go of the problems you’re focussing on.  Creative breakthroughs come easier when you scramble and re-scramble seemingly divergent ideas.

Poincaré was interested in how he came to his epiphanies. He postulated that it was his ‘subliminal self’ — he looked at a very large set of problems and let the interesting ones enter his consciousness. The subliminal self then selects the solutions on the bases of beauty (mathematical or otherwise).

Isaac Newton was presumably bored out of his skull sitting there under that tree. When he did see the apple fall, in a flash of insight he discovered that all things fall at exactly the same speed. In this most famous of Eureka moments! we witness spontaneous and cognitive creativity at play.


Prime for a Four Hour Workday

Poincaré worked from 10 a.m. to noon and then again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. These two bursts were just enough time to wrap his head around a problem and then let his subconscious take over and go to work during the remainder of the day.

Social media management company Buffer understands Poincaré’s strategy. Staff divide their days into a string of 60 or 90 minute distraction-free chunks in order to get their top priorities done and dusted. They know that there is a limit to the amount of creative work that one can accomplish in a day. Buffer’s unofficial motto is ‘working more is never the answer’ — the aim is to manage your energy, not time.

Working  60-hour plus weeks is rarely the answer to increasing our productivity. And staring at screens all day is not just bad for our brains, it’s detrimental to our creativity. “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing,” confessed novelist Gertrude Stein. Don’t confuse shallow work with meaningful work. Deliberate deep work, for most, is capped at four hours a day.

Schedule in safeguarded time every day (or if it suits better, unplugging a day a week) to meet with yourself.This 100% safeguarded time allows your subconscious to really go to town, wind down new avenues, restore your mind, and connect ideas. Take a long walk or sit on a park bench . Remember that busyness is not something to boast about, it’s often an obstacle to get on with what matters.

The more grandiose excuses for mind-wandering could admittedly be classified as activities since they involve moving meditations. “Meditation is by far the most straightforward way to improve your concentration: a few minutes a day with your eyes closes, paying attention to sensations of the breath in the nostrils, is the attentional equivalent of a decent workout at the gym” explains time management myth-buster Oliver Burkeman.

The perks of popular mind-numbing activities: running, dozing, bathing, meandering, and generally mucking about — are now well known. Walking, the ultimate activity for divergent thinking and creative jumpstarts, was championed by Aristotle, Beethoven, and Hemingway.


Do Less, Only Better

Boredom is bad we say. With bottomless internet rabbit holes and Netflix marathons to tempt you — it’s easy to fend off idleness. Finding space and time to do absolutely nothing has, rather ironically, become a seriously difficult business. “You ought not to be ashamed of being bored. What you ought to be ashamed of is being boring,” declared British politician Lord Hailsham.

When we‘re trying to optimize our creativity we need to avoid incessant hours of toil instead of burning the midnight oil. Consider bathing in boredom as an alternative.


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