June 20, 2021
In the past several weeks, I've written quite a bit about purpose and productivity.
In the article “Soul,” you learned how to stop and smell the roses. Enjoy the smaller things in life. Don't let the simple pleasures pass you by. God loves for us to be joyful as we enjoy his Creation. You also learned that the grass is always going to be greener. Consider the fact that you may have already “made it” and now your job is to simply do the very best you can each day and savor God's blessings. Finally, I talked about how to find your spark. Your spark doesn't have to be your life's purpose or something that is part of your career. It can simply involve engaging in activities that feed your soul and make you happy, even if they seem trite or don't “advance your career” in some way. Don't worry about doing so much: God will take care of you.
In “Beauty,” you learned that you must “ingest beauty to create beauty,” and that the sensory fuel you consume on a daily basis—meaning specifically that which is in front of your eyes, filling your ears, touching your skin, and saturating your olfactory receptors and taste buds—is what you will then turn around with and subsequently be able to use as inspirational fodder for creating a work of art, an essay, an invention, a musical composition, or any other form of unique human creation.
In “Create,” you discovered how to engage in acts of creation and spontaneous, free and flowing singing, dancing, and dreaming that actually feels different, non-rhythmic, embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even dangerous. These are the kind of acts that engage entirely different neural pathways than those you are triggering with activities that have become subconscious, hypnotically rhythmic components of your routine day-to-day activity. For the watercolor artist, this may very well be woodworking; for the violinist, reading science; for the writer, gardening; or for the Crossfitter, learning to play the piano. You learned that most of the time, you'll know when you're breaking the rhythm, or just making an excuse to yourself that you're being creative or creating art and beauty, or singing, or dancing, or dreaming, when you're really not.
In “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” the lesson was to work hard, to the best of your ability, and in full excellence to the glory of God, chopping wood and carrying water every day and doing the very best job with whatever God has put on your plate for the day. Understand that the seemingly “random” so-called serendipitous opportunities, meetings, and networked introductions that may arise are not random, but planned by God, and manifested by your actions, words, and thoughts. So pay attention to each with wisdom and discernment. Regarding those random opportunities, only say yes to the hell yesses, but remember that you do need to set boundaries and rules and that the yes or no doesn't need to be an immediate gut response. Sometimes a hell yes or hell no may take a bit of praying, walking, and sleeping on it to materialize.
In “Seatbelts And Sentries,” you learned to trust God, but also to put on your seatbelt. To pray to God, but—as Nehemiah did—to plant sentries on your walls and keep your sword at your side. Understand that God does indeed help those who help themselves, provided their self-helping is pursued in a spirit of trust and faith in Him, and not in their own works and power. Furthermore, you have free will and if you continually embark upon a path towards enriching your life with wisdom from Scripture and seeking discernment and direction from God, you'll make the right choices, which will be in full alignment with what God has already planned for you and already knows you are going to choose.
In “Flow,” you learned about the concept of effortlessness. When faced with a seemingly difficult task, instead of asking, “Why is this so hard?,” invert the question by asking, “What if this could be effortless or easy?” Next, challenge the assumption that the “right” way is, inevitably, the harder one. Make the impossible possible by finding a more indirect approach. When faced with work that feels overwhelming, ask, “How am I making this harder than it needs to be?” Have fun. Try to pair your most essential activities with the most enjoyable ones. Accept that work and play can co-exist. Turn tedious tasks into meaningful rituals. Allow laughter and fun to lighten more of your moments. Finally, release, surrender, and let go of emotional burdens or added stress that you don’t need to keep carrying. Focus on what you can control, and accept with joy and gratitude that which you cannot control, relaxing and accepting a situation, rather than trying to alter or control it.
In “Analog,” you learned that you can choose to live analog in an increasingly digital world. You can develop a deeper connection to nature in your own backyard and beyond. You can create real stuff that is more tangible and meaningful than 0s and 1s, like cartoons, drawings, carvings, paintings, musical compositions, and handcrafted gifts. You can look people in the eye and see them as real human beings. You can play tennis and golf and volleyball and badminton on a real lawn with real friends, no devices required. After all, God made us His divine image-bearers, and as tiny creators who are inspired by our Creator, we humans have learned to forge earth's elements to fashion technology and computers and phones and circuit boards and all other manners of other digital magic, and it is all a gift from God. But any gift from God can become a sin, an idol, and a curse, particularly when we grow so attached to that gift that it becomes a god from which we are incapable of detaching ourselves. So know how to detach from digital, and embrace analog. Your life will be more full as a human because of it.
In “Honey,” I taught you how to analyze anything in your life that is a habit, enjoyment, staple, pleasure, pastime, or even necessity—any of those “honeys” of life, even non-food items like cars, homes, money, golf, exercising, or even other people—all those things you may be convincing yourself that you're actually enduring and working hard for. If you cannot look at that object and say, as Anthony DeMello so eloquently describes in his book Awareness, “I really do not need you to be happy. I’m only deluding myself in the belief that without you I will not be happy. But I really don’t need you for my happiness; I can be happy without you. You are not my happiness, you are not my joy.”, then you risk that your blessing from God has become your God.
In “Marshmallows,” you discovered a process to assess what pleasures you are foregoing, or at least moderating now, in exchange for eternal glory later, and perhaps more importantly, to spread more widely the blessings you've been blessed with. Just remember: When you die or when you lay on your deathbed, your cellar of wine, steak locker full of meat, garage full of cars, three extra fancy bicycles, and oodles of fancy extra shoes won't be impressive to God in the least—and are certainly unlikely to be redistributed to the poor, needy, and homeless. So, take care of that now instead.
Finally, in “Temperate,” I talked to you about the value of self-control, self-mastery, self-denial, and temperancy, and warned you to indeed be temperate, but to also check yourself regularly to ensure that you're not being intemperate with your temperancy. At the same time, enjoy God's creation and don't live a life saturated with glum self-denial. Finally, understand that willpower is not going to grant you temperancy. Instead, a temperate life is achieved through the removal of temptations that you know you're drawn towards, combined with reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit to provide you with restraint of desires and mastery of passions.
If you've incorporated the advice and principles in those articles and/or have read helpful books that I have recommended in the past about “hard work,” such as Chop Wood, Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf or Deep Work by Cal Newport or Ploductivity by Doug Wilson, then you have likely got your head wrapped around the impactful concept of identifying your unique purpose in life, then proceeding to put your nose to the grindstone while applying scientifically proven tactics for getting into the flow and enhancing focus so that you can love God and love others fully with your unique skill set in life.
You understand the value of deferred gratification, the hard-won fruits of perseverance and endurance, and the satisfaction of laying your head onto your pillow each night knowing you gave it your all and gave it your best.
But if you're programmed anything like me, you also struggle with something.
You struggle with hustle.
You struggle with placing so much pride upon a job well done that you often risk becoming mildly obsessed with hard work, with sweeping your foot up to the next rung of the ladder, with laying yet another giant stone onto the rock wall of your achievements. As a result, enduring becoming obsessing, persistence becomes selfishness, tenacity dissolves trust that God will provide for you, and your life threatens to become an existence of—as I find myself repeating quite often it seems—doing, doing, doing instead of being, being, being. Hustling, working, and striving instead of dancing, singing, and dreaming.
So how do you strike a balance between enduring, deep, hard work that takes healthy pride in your ability to provide for the planet and to create as a divine image-bearer of the great Creator with doing less?
I have some tips for you, but first, let's establish why sometimes just sitting around doing nothing at all—or at least what your conscious working brain may perceive to be nothing at all—can actually be a good thing.
The Value Of Boredom
My wife is weird.
Well, to me, at least.
See, at the end of the day, near dinnertime, or sometimes even in the middle of a sunny afternoon, I'll occasionally find her lounging in the hammock chair on our back patio, sometimes with a glass of red wine in hand, always staring off into the horizon or out over the prairie that stretches for dozens of miles beyond the edge of our forested land.
Several times, I've asked her, “Watcha doing, honey?”
And her response (this is, of course, why I suggested she is weird), which has always somewhat baffled me, is “Oh…nothing.”
The mind-blowing concept that my lover and best friend who I am so physically, mentally, and spiritually intertwined with on a daily basis is such a different creature compared to me that she can lounge on our back patio and do absolutely nothing is, well, baffling to me.
Me? With even the slightest amount of downtime, I fidget, sometimes uncontrollably. The anxiety and fear of looming destitution pushes me to spring back with even more crazed productivity should I sit on my hands for more than just a couple of minutes.
I drum my fingers.
I get bored.
My mind wanders quickly. The world needs me, somewhere, I'm sure of it. I need to go fix something. To build something. To create something. I need to go make myself better somehow. Learn something. Lift something heavy. Even, as the spiritual side of my rational brain suggests, go help or serve somebody.
Anything, but sit still.
Man, oh, man, I have always struggled with activities like boat trips or cruises, long beach parties, many cocktail gatherings, and sporting events, most concerts, and just about any places where people just stand around or sit around and, do, well, not a whole lot of productive things, if you really think about it.
I'll say it again. Unless I alter my state of consciousness with an extra cocktail or a hit on a vape pen (which I'm not endorsing as the right thing to do but which I'll admit I've sometimes used as a desperate “escape” from my go-go-go brain in such situations), I get especially bored in just about every one of these seemingly idle situations.
But, despite my holier-than-thou, must-go-conquer-the-world tendencies, boredom might not be a bad thing, after all.
Sure, boredom is generally viewed as an unpleasant emotional state, characterized by feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness, and mental fatigue.
In a state of boredom, mental fatigue creeps in and becomes worse with the perception of a slower passage of time. You stare at the clock on the wall. It's only 4:45 in the afternoon and we have to sit on this boat yapping, drinking beer, and staring off into the water for another three hours while we wait for the painfully long sunset to begin?
As a result, boredom can be a significant source of unhappiness and meaning. I'm sure I'm not the only person on this planet who has desired to escape from boredom, to seek outside stimulations for distraction from boredom, to chemically numb my senses to paralyze myself into being able to sit through the boredom. Please, don't let me be one of those people, I think. The continual entertainment-seekers. The addicted. The gamblers. The binge-eaters. The unproductive laze. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, right?
But boredom also has benefits—scientifically proven benefits, as a matter of a fact. When I discovered this, I sat up just a bit straighter and paid attention to what I learned about boredom. For example, did you know boredom can improve your mental health? In an age of information, of brains are overloaded with information and distractions, the constant barrage and wealth of information produces a scarcity of attention, and this attention is often required to devote available cognitive resources to productive or learning activities. But taking a break and slipping into a state of daydreamy “boredom” can be a valuable opportunity to help an overloaded brain relax and serve to alleviate stress. Research has shown that when it comes to maintaining adequate attention in the mental gas tank for more productive tasks later on, it can actually beneficial to simply step away from distractions such as social media, along with work stress and bombardment of information long enough to feel bored (I suppose this also means that an idle activity which qualifies as beneficial should actually not involve staring at a movie screen or scrolling through an Instagram feed but instead, quite literally, just staring off into space).
By providing an opportunity to turn inward and use the time for thought and reflection, boredom can also enable creativity and problem-solving by allowing one's mind to wander and daydream. In one interesting study, people were assigned traditionally boring tasks, such as reading reports or attending tedious meetings. It turned out that the boring tasks encouraged their minds to wander, which ultimately led to more creative ways of thinking, demonstrating that when immersed in mundane activities we humans can often discover useful ideas. In the absence of sensory bombardment and external stimulation, we become enabled to use our imagination and think in different or more creative ways.
Boredom seems to also motivate us to search for novelty. This kind of makes sense when you take any possibly boring activity, such as laying on your back staring at the sky or waiting in a really, really long line at the grocery store, and compare it to, say, riding a motorcycle or skydiving. Without boredom, studies suggest we would perhaps not have the taste or appreciation for adventure and novelty-seeking that can make us more intelligent, curious, and motivated to seek out the next big thing, or perhaps we wouldn't have woven into our lives the necessary boredom-fueled “recharge” to prime our bodies for the next big adventure. Since novelty-seeking can imply a state of mild to strong dissatisfaction with the status quo, it can carry with it a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices. For example, in The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, author Elkhonon Goldberg notes that the globe-trotting Christopher Columbus would probably have never embarked on his great voyage had he not been in some state of profound unease or dissatisfaction, or perhaps wired up on Prozac as many so-called “adventurous souls” are these days after being labeled not as a bored adventurer, but rather as that annoying kid or adult with ADD or ADHD. By serving as an emotional signal that we may not be doing in life what we want to be doing, boredom can also motivate us in the pursuit of new goals, causing us to shift our focus towards more purpose-filled activities that may be more impactful, meaningful or fulfilling than the ones we're currently pursuing.
The ability to focus and self-regulate is actually correlated with one's ability to handle long periods of boredom. This means that learning to endure boredom, especially when one is at a young age, can serve as great preparation for developing self-control skills of temperancy, such as regulating one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions—or even passing the famous marshmallow test—later in life. Two recent studies demonstrated that during these times of boredom—also referred to as “daydreaming”—creativity can be significantly boosted.
For example, in one of these most recent studies, researchers had 40 people copy numbers out of a telephone directory for 15 minutes, then asked them to come up with different uses for a pair of polystyrene cups. Meanwhile, a control group was only tasked with the cup exercise, but not the boring telephone directory exercise. Interestingly, the people who performed the boring task came up with significantly more creative uses for the cups than the other group. In the second study, 30 people also copied numbers, but there was also a second group that read numbers from the directory rather than copy them. It turns out this reading group was more creative than the writing group, and the researchers suggested it is because reading is an even more passive boring activity compared to copying down names (writing). The researchers suggested that although boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, perhaps we should instead be embracing periods of boredom or daydreaming in order to enhance creativity and problem-solving.
Turns out, the researchers may be on to something, because a 2017 study from the Georgia Institute of Technology also looked at the benefits of daydreaming, this time using an MRI to measure the brain patterns of more than 100 people who were instructed to focus on a stationary point for five minutes. The research team compared these patterns with tests that measured the participants’ intellectual and creative ability, along with the results of a questionnaire focused upon how much participants’ minds wander in daily life. The test subjects who reported frequently daydreaming scored higher on intellectual and creative ability and had more efficient brain activity as measured by the MRI. What's interesting is that those who didn't cope so well with boredom or didn't allow themselves to daydream as much demonstrated more activity in the right frontal area of their brains, which is an area that increases in activity when people feel more negative emotions. In contrast, when people think about other things—i.e. daydreaming—activity tends to increase in the left frontal area. This means that people who are good at coping with boredom in everyday life have literally trained their brains during periods of daydreaming to cope with boredom and to respond to boredom with a greater amount of brain activity associated with creativity and problem-solving.
Perhaps this is, despite seeming somewhat paradoxical to us hard-charging, high-achievers who associate boredom and daydreaming with idle laziness, why Google's “20% time policy,” in which employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time daydreaming and working on what they think will most benefit Google, why educational systems that allow ample time for plenty of creative, free play, and why groups of people who adopt regular meditation, breathing and napping breaks throughout the day can all result in significantly higher amounts of productivity and creativity. Indeed, research on naps, meditation, nature walks, and other habits of everyone from exceptional artists to professional athletes reveal that these types of mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity. As author Andrew Smart writes in Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, when regions of the brain do nothing, they’re actually organizing themselves for later use.
How To Do Less
So now that you understand that it's OK to occasionally and perhaps even habitually be bored, daydream, and sit around doing just about nothing at all, the question then becomes…
…how the heck do you actually enable or give yourself permission to “check out”?
Here are a few tips:
- Calendar “nothing time.” Based on the benefits of boredom described above, it turns out that inventor Thomas Edison and his employees would often spend hours doing nothing but pondering, and this led to some of the team’s greatest insights and inventions. Successful entrepreneur and technologist Bill Gates has long adopted a habit he calls a “think week,” during which he goes alone to a remote area to simply read and think (which I think is a brilliant idea based upon the foreboding piles upon piles of books in my office I simply don't have the time to read). Gates claims that these trips inspired many Microsoft breakthroughs. Austrian graphic designer, storyteller, and typographer Stefan Sagmeister takes an entire year off once every seven years and claims this is a key habit that has made his New York-based design firm one of the most sought-after in the world because, as he reports in the TED Talk “The Power Of Time Off,” each of these sabbaticals provide hefty doses of insight and enthusiasm for future projects. So whether it's a thirty to sixty minute fully unplugged daily walk or meditation session, a solid week of full downtime a year, or a year every seven years of doing nothing, sit down with your calendar and plan when it actually is that you're going to have your own “nothing time.”
- Learn to be mindful. Your planned downtime and bouts of boredom will be far more meaningful if you are a mindful person. As I wrote when was waxing poetic about my thoughts on Pixar's film “Soul”, “…it can become quite easy to become so immersed in your work and in tackling your life's purpose, that you occasionally forget to slow down and mindfully enjoy the smaller things in life. For example, I can personally become completely immersed in and nearly obsessed with reading, writing, learning, and teaching—via activities such as working on articles, having podcast discussions with interesting people, consulting with clients, or reading and researching materials I'm fascinated with—that I fail to notice the majestic mountains just outside my office window, the flavor of the peppermint gum in my mouth, the aromas diffusing from the essential oil diffuser on my desktop, or the singsong of birds in my backyard. But in the movie, we see the character “22,” a new soul on planet Earth, experience a deep sense of joy and wonder from seemingly mundane activities such as eating a pepperoni pizza, listening to a musician in the subway, or seeing a child. We also see souls who are so obsessed with their work and so immersed in “The Zone” while caught up in their passion become transported to an entirely new dimension that puts them into an out-of-body experience, which seems great, but also largely disconnects them from the wonders of their day-to-day physical existence. So yes, have a passion in life. But don't become so passionate and so caught up in an activity you enjoy that you forget to enjoy the small things in life. In other words, practice mindfulness. The little things are important too. We live on a magical planet chock-full of the wonders of God's creation, and it'd be a shame to let them slip by because you're so focused on and obsessed with creating maximum impact with your life. As I wrote about recently, living life to the fullest and experiencing what it truly means to be a human requires elegantly combining the doing with the being.”
So what's the best way to learn mindfulness? Frankly, options abound, and while I could certainly Google “how to be more mindful” for you, I've personally found that I've dramatically grown in mindfulness by habitual adherence to my daily meditation practice and also by ensuring that I'm aware of having all my senses —sight, feel, taste, touch, smell, and heart—”turned on” when I'm engaged in both uptime and downtime, including emailing, eating, conversing, competing, relaxing, and reading. In other words, possess situational sensory awareness and identify when you may be so distracted you are numb to the world or distracted from self.
- “Check out on the daily.” Related to my tip above about mindfulness, you should absolutely carve out time each and every day to simply turn off your rational, logical, hyperactive brain (not your senses though!) and “check out.” This doesn't need to be a long period of time. For example, as I describe in the article and video here, my own daily check-outs involve seven minutes of meditation-esque activity in the morning and another two to four minutes in the evening, primarily using the tactics within the Spiritual Disciplines Journal and described in detail here. If you have a slightly longer chunk of time or times available, I also recommend occasionally throwing in the 21-minute Ecomeditation audio by Dawson Church, which you can download for free here. Long family dinners, walks without audiobooks or podcasts, or simply staring off into nature are also just fine for checking out, but regardless of which form of relaxation, programmed boredom, or downtime you choose, try to avoid turning your practice into a focused self-improvement session, such as taking that downtime to do twenty minutes of intense breathwork, or weaving push-ups and air squats into your “boredom” time, or chewing the insides of your cheeks as you fret over a business problem.
- Understand that idleness is not laziness. Don't—as I am so often tempted to do myself—guilt trip yourself about doing nothing. As you've already learned, idleness is not necessarily synonymous with laziness. A car idling at a stoplight is fully prepared, as soon as the light turns green, to blast down the road full speed ahead. The car isn't idling because it's broken. It's idling because A) it's of course illegal to run the red, but more importantly; B) the engine is receiving a much-needed break. The mere fact that you now, based on the information I've provided already, know the benefits of giving yourself permission to sit around and do nothing sometimes, has now empowered you to be more likely to do it, and to not feel bad about standing in your kitchen as the morning coffee is brewing and staring out the window into the trees, rather than using that time to eliminate just a few more of those annoying red notification alerts on your smartphone.
- Trust God. Ultimately, a big part of this does indeed come down to trusting God. In the Bible, Matthew 6:25-34 says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
In fact, the single biggest obstacle to me feeling as though there actually will be enough time to get done what needs to get done, even if I allow myself breaks for boredom, is the temptation that I must constantly impact, produce, create, and take action in order to provide for myself and my family and to fulfill Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. But to experience a sense of peace that there will be enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to accomplish and still have time left over for downtime, you must exist with an abundance of trust that God will provide. Trust that God will care for you. Trust that the time will be there. Trust that abundance will outpace scarcity. You can, as Carrie Underwood sings, let Jesus “take the wheel” while you slip into the passenger seat for a much-needed nap (yes, I fully realize that Jesus should always be at the wheel of your life, but this analogy seems to fit for me despite me not endorsing the idea that sometimes I'm in charge and sometimes God is in charge). As I write here, I’ve observed that the most fruit seems to pour into my life when I steep myself in prayer, Scripture reading, devotions, meditation, and all the other spiritual disciplines I discuss here—while simultaneously planning, preparing, saving, investing, producing, organizing and pursuing excellence in my quest to love God and love others as fully as impact-fully as possible with the unique skill set and purpose I've been blessed with in life.
So be purposeful. Be productive. Make impact.
But sometimes don't.
Calendar nothing time, learn to be mindful, check out daily, understand that idleness is not necessarily laziness, and, most importantly, trust God…
…because boredom has benefits.
How about you? Do you struggle with letting yourself be bored? With taking the occasional moment to daydream? With weaving periods of downtime and doing nothing into your day, week, month, or year? How do you deal with it? How do you plan to deal with it in the future? Leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below. I read them all.