Boredom can be useful to creatives but the wrong kind stifles creativity, says Gary Marshall.
Could the internet's endless amusements be keeping you from your best ideas?
I spent most of last night glued to a screen watching a Twitter stream, refreshing my RSS feeds, clicking on various interesting links and using recommendation engines to find writing worth reading. After a while, I'd read the entire internet, so I kept on refreshing Twitter and the RSS feeds, and the interesting-link websites, and the recommendation engines. I was bored. Unfortunately, I wasn't bored enough to go and do something more worthwhile.
If you're a creative type, boredom can be useful, but it needs to be the right kind of boredom. The wrong kind can be deadly.
Are you a trained rat?
Boredom comes in all kinds of guises. There is bad film boredom and bad job boredom, conference boredom and bad gig boredom, clock-watching boredom and dull dinner party boredom, the boredom you get rocking a baby to sleep and the boredom you get when the project you're working on doesn't excite or delight you. And then there's internet boredom, where there's always something to look at, even if it doesn't particularly enthuse you.
Internet boredom is our equivalent of a Skinner box (the device that trained rats to associate pressing levers with getting rewards. The possibility of a reward was enough to keep the rats clicking forever, hoping that this time the button would bring a bounty).
My levers are the pull-to-refresh of news apps, the live updating of Twitter and hitting F5 on Fark.com. "I have read the entire internet, again!", I tell myself every evening. "This next refresh will surely bring something new and interesting!"
What's different now is that our Skinner boxes used to have exits. When the internet was something you did at a desk, you could escape it by going where the desk wasn't. Now, though, the internet is everywhere I go. It's a constant companion, a fellow traveller and sofa sidekick. It's turned me into a 24-hour pointy person. I'm someone who can't go ten seconds without going online to try and amuse myself.
The right kind of boredom
That's a problem because internet boredom has an opportunity cost. Real boredom - proper boredom, the kind of boredom you can only experience when there's absolutely nothing to do and your only company is what's inside your own head - can be a powerful ally. It's what often causes your brain to do all the amazing things that business jargon describes so awfully: thinking outside boxes, running things up flagpoles to see who salutes and throwing stuff at walls just to see what sticks.
Real boredom can inspire the design, create the characters, help write the riff. Internet boredom can't.
The next time you're near people in a public place, look for the screens and check out the owners' expressions. Are they excited and enthused, or internet bored? Chances are many of them will be the latter, and I think that's a terrible shame. There are so many designs that we'll never see, songs that we'll never hear, stories that we'll never read. All because people were bored, but not bored enough.
Words: Gary Marshall
This article first appeared in issue 243 of net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.