Wednesday 15 May 2024

Self-Help For Cynics #33: Boredom, Boredom, B'dum, B'dum

Buzzcocks - Boredom

Imagine you’re standing in line in a coffee shop, waiting to be served. It’s a long line and all the people in front of you are ordering those silly drinks that involve whipped cream, caramel syrup and heart attacks. What might you do to entertain yourself?

Iggy Pop - I'm Bored

Now imagine you’re sitting at a bus stop and the bus is late. These days, lots of city centre bus stops have those little clocks fitted which tell you how long you have to wait till the next bus arrives. Only instead of counting down, that number just seems to be stuck… or even getting bigger. How might you pass the time?

The Soundtrack Of Our Lives - Wheels Of Boredom

Finally, imagine you’ve arranged to meet friends in the pub, at the cinema, or somewhere in the centre of town. Only they’re running late and you’ve got nothing to do but wait. Or… is there something else you could be doing?

Edwyn Collins - Bored

If your answer to any of those questions involves checking your phone, then you’re suffering one of the major symptoms of the modern malaise. And hey, maybe you’re not going on Tiktok or Snapchat or the book of faces… maybe you’re doing some online banking, trying to crack today’s Wordle or reading a fascinating blog post about how many different bands there are called The Jerks (quite a few, in case you’re wondering: I’m sure I’ll get to them in due course). Whatever it is, I can pretty much guarantee you’re not doing what you would have done in this same situation 30 or 40 years ago. You’re not allowing yourself to be bored.

And your brain is suffering because of that.

We’ve talked a fair bit about the mental health dangers of internet and social media addiction during this series. Part of the problem is ease of access. When the internet arrived on the scene about 30 years ago, you had to sit down at a computer, dial it up (which could take up to 5 minutes in my house) and then crawl around a clunky, always crashing cyberspace with limited options and plenty of built-in frustration. 

Bis - Dial Up Internet Is The Purest Internet

Remember watching slowly while every image on the page downloaded like one of those novelty pens you turn upside down to watch the lady slowly lose her clothing? (I don’t know why that particular simile popped into my mind. It’s not as though anybody ever used the internet to look at naked pictures.)

The Divine Comedy - Anthem for Bored Youth

That’s all changed. Today, we carry the internet with us wherever we go, so every possible distraction is available instantly, any time we want it. Queueing up in a coffee shop, waiting for the bus, killing time in response to ever-delayed friends… we need never be bored again! You see it everywhere you look. Whenever people are alone with nothing to do, out comes their phone. They don’t even have to be standing or sitting still. They’re even using it as a distraction from the interminable emptiness of walking down the street (watch out for that lamp post!).

And our brains are suffering because of this.

Paul Armfield - Why Should It Be That a Man Gets Bored?

In a 2018 article in the Grauniad, Psychotherapist Hilda Burke explains...

“It’s good to be bored sometimes, to have that dead time. That’s when ideas come. If we’re on our phone checking Facebook, we lose some precious time that previously we used for daydreaming: gazing out of the window and having ideas blossom.”

Manic Street Preachers - Happy Bored Alone

Once you start reading up on this, you'll find hundreds of articles dedicated to the benefits of boredom. Scientists, business leaders and new age hippies all agree - being bored is good for your brain. We all know we get eyestrain if we stare at screens too long. Turns out we also get brain strain. 

Chris Spedding - Bored Bored

Scientist Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone runs digital detox sessions for chronic screen addicts to help them repair their brains. Tech writer Kevin Roose of the New York Times consulted her when he became aware of his own addiction...

My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube rabbit holes) weren’t helping. 

Procol Harum - Boredom

In his article, Roose explains how he went about a full digital detox...

If I was going to repair my brain, I needed to practice doing nothing. So during my morning walk to the office, I looked up at the buildings around me, spotting architectural details I’d never noticed before. On the subway, I kept my phone in my pocket and people-watched — noticing the nattily dressed man in the yellow hat, the teens eating hot tacos and laughing, the kid with Velcro shoes. When a friend ran late for our lunch, I sat still and stared out the window instead of checking Twitter.

Chris Difford - On My Own, I'm Never Bored

Since starting my new job, I finally find myself in a privileged position of being able to do nothing at certain times of the day. I mostly teach students 1:1 or in small groups, and in English that will often involve setting a lengthy task (creative writing is best) and then letting students get on with it. In my old job, I would have used that time to circulate the room, answer questions, help people who were stuck... and if time permitted, maybe catch up on a bit of marking or paperwork. In my current job, I get to stare out the window. How wonderful is that? I realise, I'm very fortunate. Most teachers would kill for the same opportunity. I wish I could give them all the gift of boredom... the profession would be in a much healthier state if it was full of bored teachers rather than teachers on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The Walkmen - I'm Never Bored

Although, to be honest, I'm not really sure boredom is what we're talking about here. If you asked me if I was ever bored, my first response would probably be: never. I always have a million and one things I want to do... or think about. The only time I do feel bored is when I'm stuck doing something I don't want to... like a lengthy meeting or an interminable online training session about something I already know. When I talk about giving the gift of boredom, that's not what I want to offer. What I really want is to give you all the chance to get busy... doing nothing.  

Bing Crosby - Busy Doing Nothing

Richard M. Sherman - Busy Doing Nothing

Allowing our minds to wander can be hugely beneficial to our wellbeing, our imagination and our creativity. Surely this is great news for everyone - doing nothing is good for us! 



  1. Sitting on the bus
    Using my phone!

  2. Lovely post and I agree wholeheartedly; I adore staring out of the window doing nothing, only it isn't nothing because my mind is taking the most enjoyable little excursions, maybe coming up with ideas, taking things in, daydreaming or simply just observing, and is so free. I always just thought I was a weirdo and but now I feel vindicated and very glad to know you have the chance to do that yourself now too. Bring on the boredom (it's never boring!)

  3. "I'm not really sure boredom is what we're talking about here" - agreed. It's more like dead air space, and giving your brain the opportunity to fill that space. This resonates.

  4. Apologies for not commenting sooner. Was distracted by something I saw out of the window.


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