Why it pays to be bored

Rather than getting bored in downtime, use it to come up with new ideas or devise a brilliant invention.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Eric Olthwaite is arguably the most boring man ever to have lived. His life story, told in Michael Palin and Terry Jones's Ripping Yarns from 1977, The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, is a saga of rain gauges, shovels and black pudding. His father pretends to speak only French to avoid having to talk to him. His supposed girlfriend, Enid, disappears upstairs with another man while Eric is mid-anecdote. His sister, Ruth, is more direct. 'Oh shut up, you boring little tit!' she tells him at the dinner table.

Desperate to introduce a bit more excitement into his life, Eric tries to get a job in a bank. But the bank manager turns him down: he's simply too boring to employ. Salvation comes when a bank robber bursts in and kidnaps Eric, leading to the formation of the West Riding's unlikeliest criminal gang. Later in life, Eric, now a hero in all Yorkshire and mayor of his home town of Denley Moor, is delivering a talk about his adventures. A fidgeting schoolboy in the audience complains to his mother. 'This is boring!' he says. 'It's not boring,' his mother corrects him. 'It's interesting!'

This comical tale of Eric and his obsession with precipitation captures an essential, paradoxical truth. Tedium, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Boredom can sap the spirits and lead to paralysis and despair. Or it can lure you into extended periods of reverie and languor, maybe leading on to a later burst of creativity, or maybe not. There are as many different kinds of boredom as there are people. And our thresholds or tolerance for boredom vary too. We respond differently to the lulls and hiatuses in our existence. The key question is what we do next.

Boredom is part of life – unavoidable, character-forming and healthy. Childhood inevitably involves hours of seemingly endless waiting around, whether in pub car parks, outside school gates or in airports. So the next important point about boredom is clearly this: it is related directly to time. We could probably even devise a mathematical formula or ratio:

T/A = boredom ratio (where T = time and A = activity)

The more time there is to endure, with limited (mental or physical) activity, the higher the boredom ratio.

But 'boredom' could also mean liberation. The lack of an agenda or programme of activity frees the mind. What do busy executives complain about more than almost anything else? The lack of downtime or a moment to think. How do you feel when you open up the diary for the day and see a list of back-to-back meetings? Sure, you will be so busy that you may not have time to get bored. But the chances are such a schedule will not lead to new insights and brilliant ideas. More likely, the relentless drudgery of 'busyness' will prove crushing. Boring, in fact.

There are cultural variances to bear in mind here. What German sociologist Max Weber characterised as the 'Protestant work ethic' reflects that northern European (and American) appetite for productivity. Even on holiday, German tourists like a rigorous Programm for the day. They get twitchy if they don't have one.

But further south in Europe, where the weather is hotter and physical activity more draining, rushing about is not such a good idea. The siesta or riposo makes sense. Is it boring to have to stop and rest or is it simply clever? You don't have to be a Zen Buddhist to appreciate moments of quiet inactivity and stillness.

Technological change has made boredom ever more elusive and harder to experience. The analogue world of spectrum scarcity is an increasingly distant memory. If you were not bookish, school summer holidays must have seemed boring 30 or 40 years ago – especially if you didn't like cricket – as the two or three TV channels available had nothing on during the daytime. No matter how long you stared at the old testcard, that game of noughts and crosses was never going to be brought to a conclusion.

Now the internet offers infinite riches or trash. Multichannel telly never sleeps, even when it probably should. Video games have proliferated into dazzling and dizzy-making levels of complexity. There is even a website, www.bored.com, offering loads of free computer games for the truly desperate. But if this is excitement, then boredom may suddenly seem a lot more attractive.

A generational effect is at work here. The workforce of the future may turn out to have less staying power and a shorter attention span. Boredom has been almost completely eradicated for many young people (those with some cash in their pockets, that is; the young unemployed do get bored, sometimes, and with troubling results). But the prosperous young don't really know what boredom means. With their laptop/smartphone/TV/MP3 player all running simultaneously, they never know silence or stillness.

At its worst, this can lead to a 'permanent partial attention' syndrome, where no one is ever quite listening, even if no one is ever quite bored either. The managers and leaders of the future are going to need some of the skills of the gameshow host, as well as business acumen, to keep their employees productive.

What are the other implications for business in all this? Entrepreneurs fight off boredom with new ideas and new ventures. Sir Richard Branson is clearly someone who would rather start a new business or place a big bet on a venture than get bored. As he once told Fortune magazine: 'I don't think of work as work and play as play. It's all living. I'm living and learning every day – it's like being at a university, studying a course you're really fascinated by.'

Being bored by inefficiency or lack of choice can be a spur to creativity and innovation. Fed up with not having a handy bag of salad leaves at the ready? New product idea. Bored and want music to listen to on the train? New product. Pissed off at vacuum cleaners that lose suction? New product, and so on. In this way, boredom can be seen as the necessary precursor to productive activity, a natural bit of downtime before the next triumph.

But we need to get bored every now and then. Work is an addiction that sometimes has to be broken. When Maggie Darling, wife of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently asked him why he had such a miserable look on his face while doing the gardening, he replied simply: 'I'm bored.' But, after working through the night to prop up the UK banking system and then the rest of the financial world at the G20 conference, pruning the roses in your elegant Edinburgh residence must seem a little bit banal. The man has earned a break, surely? And the right to be a bit bored, for a time at least.

In fact, boredom itself offers a significant business opportunity. The unspoken message behind a lot of holiday advertising – for those travelling without children anyway – is that you need time away from the hassle of ordinary life. But what if a business could create that sort of escape without you having to leave home? The service provider could come round to your house, disable all your devices and gadgets and force you either to pick up a book or have an uninterrupted conversation with your partner. It could be called a Boredom Break.

You could go further: a Witness Weekend, in which you no longer have access to any aspects of modernity whatsoever and have to live like a member of the Pennsylvania Amish community. Boring, for a while? Perhaps. But stimulating too.

The mother at the back of the hall, listening to Mayor Eric Olthwaite, was right. Eric isn't boring. He's interesting. Precipitation is extremely interesting. It's highly varied, for one thing, especially in this country. And haven't we been having a lot of weather lately?

Bring back boredom. Like rationing, it was good for us. It helps us to appreciate the good times, and to understand what luxury really means. We don't know we're born today, most of us.

And, anyway, who wants excitement the whole time? After all, they do say that the Chinese wish 'May you live in interesting times' is really a curse.

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