I stood outside Jeni’s ice cream with an old friend and her two elementary-aged children earlier this week. We were at the ice cream shop 8 minutes before it opened and were chatting on the sidewalk. The younger of the two children looked at her mom and said, “What can I do?”
The question was a short-hand for “I’m bored. What can I do right now to entertain myself?” I remember being a child and finding the idea that adults’ primary pass-time was sitting around just talking about things baffling. Their conversations were so boring, and I just wanted to do something. Working with teenagers for years, whenever we were waiting at a service site or outside a restaurant, it was considered a job requirement to be able to invent no-supplies, no-set-up 15-minute games to be played in the parking lot because if you didn’t give the teenagers something to do, they would find something to do that had a much higher chance of being dangerous and/or destructive.
I was thinking about this the other day as I watched my husband stack and unstack colorful fisher-price baby rings (not with our infants, just on his own). I realized something: we only had to invent those parking lot games and create something for my friend’s child to do because they didn’t have phones. I took up phones on mission trips, and my friend’s child was too young. My husband’s phone was just out of reach of the playpen, so while our twins happily banged on a plastic piano, he, without conscious thought, began playing with their toys himself.
I’m not one to bemoan “kids these days,” but I wonder, for us adults as much as kids, if we lose something when we lose the opportunity to be aimlessly bored. I am as guilty as anyone of scrolling my phone while I wait to board a plane or for my coffee.
According to developmental psychologists, “What can I do?” boredom is really good for children’s brains – it makes them study their environment, problem solve, and can help them develop passions and interests as they try out a huge variety of activities. Leaving children to invent their own games leads to a much broader range of possibilities for play than just having an adult come up with a distraction. The boredom is the crucial prerequisite for the kind of play children need to grow into themselves.
But what if that never stops being true? What if the need to let ourselves get bored, to allow our brains to stretch to fill up empty space, never goes away?
We tend to think of children as more imaginative than adults, more capable of creating fun games to occupy themselves than we are. But I wonder if it’s just because we don’t have to try nearly as often. I lived and worked in Southeast Asia in my early twenties and never got the hang of the language. I would frequently be out on work trips, and as my local co-workers talked to clients or partner organizations, I would be left just standing around, sometimes for hours on end, unable to understand any of the conversations, read any of the documents (or even posters on the wall) and unable to scroll my phone, all while needing to not draw attention to myself or bother anyone. I once wandered around a client’s house and came up with names for all the plants. I once spent almost two hours trying to lure a kitten from under a car.
That time of my life, I wrote more and thought more deeply and transformatively about God, my community, my faith, and my life than I ever had before. I always thought it was because of my work and the phase of my life, and it probably was to an extent. But I wonder if part of it was the boredom.
What if we as adults also need a bit of boredom to give our brains the space to creatively problem solve, explore our passions, and grow into ourselves? During the early months of the pandemic, more of my friends picked up creative and generative hobbies (sourdough, crocheting, gardening) than I can count, and a considerable part of it was the boredom.
How can we create that space for boredom in our own lives? How can we create it as leaders for our organization? How can we offer margin and no easy answer to fill it? How can we invite people into the mild discomfort of boredom to get to the creative playfulness on the other side?
Here are some ideas to start with:
Put away the phones. A smartphone in your pocket is a surefire way to make sure you are never bored for a second, ever. Whether in your day-to-day life or during an event you lead, just putting the phones away is a crucial first step to rediscovering boredom.
Hang out with kids. Little kids are truly our teachers at this, as they’ve had much more practice recently. Invite children to help shape your activities, and give them the space to play ‘the floor is lava’ in the bank or make a bridge over a stream of orange soda for ants to use.
Cultivate silence. No tv on in the background, no busy coffee shop, and no music. Just quiet. It may feel uncomfortable, but maybe that’s the boredom creeping in.
Carry a journal. Pull out a blank journal when you feel the urge to pull out your phone. You can use it to jot down the lists of things you just thought of that you need to do later, the weird ideas you had, the funny thing you saw. You can doodle, sketch, make an etching of a leaf you found. Not only will the journal allow your creativity to keep flowing, it will eventually become a treasured little museum of your own weird and wonderful brain.
Try out some boredom this week, and let us know what wonderful new world it leads you to.