My favorite phrase in Chinese is also one I used to live in terror of: wuliao, which translates to ‘the absence of conversation,’ and generally means ’too bored.’ It’s not just bored — the ‘too’ is key, describing the kind of extreme restless energy born from an overabundance of time and a scarcity of substance. In French, enfiler des perles — to string pearls — gets at this same idea. In Spanish, it’s comerse un cable (to chew on a cable); in boricua Spanish, pajareando (sitting around like a bird). Russians have duraka valyat and duryu mayatsya. But as far as I know, there’s no English word that adequately describes boredom as an art form, the specific mindset in which spectacularly chaotic, meaningless bullshit springs to life.
I grew up with wuliao used as a criticism, as something to avoid. In between strict, planned activities like competitive classical piano, dance classes, after-school sports, and home-homework (not to be confused with school-homework), my sister and I were expected to use our free time in mind-expanding, academically beneficial ways — like teaching ourselves geometry or French, or maybe writing book reports, you know, just for fun. But we were kids, not robots. And so we went the opposite direction.
Every time an American Girl catalog would arrive at the house, I’d spend a week making lists of every item by type for absolutely no reason other than to spend more time with images of expensive things I could never own; I would feverishly tally up $20 calico hair-bows by flashlight, after my bedtime, like some kind of child spy whose fieldwork consisted only of accounting. When I got caught, that would earn me a wuliao, or what?! Once, I convinced my next-door neighbor that we should give ourselves mud masks like the ladies we saw on TV. We were both too chicken to put the pond scum we dug up on our faces, so we lay out on her driveway, our legs caked in gray grime, as my mom drove by on her way to pick up groceries. Wuliao! Her voice echoed down the street after me, as I ran home to scrub my legs clean, so by the time she came back, I’d be sitting in front of the piano, diligently practicing a scherzo.
That was when I began to deeply resent productivity and self-improvement in the buzzword way we understand it now. I hated it so much that I got really good at it, finishing my homework on the bus-ride home and developing shortcuts and systems for studying that would help me ace a test without retaining a single iota of information. But being productive was a means to an end, a way to frolic in the hinterlands of wuliao for as long as possible.
Boredom has always been a privilege: It is especially so now, when nine out of ten Americans are told to stay inside. Many are tending to the sick or sick themselves, or juggling child and elder care, or reeling from financial loss and instability. Others, the lucky ones, are facing an abundance of time and a scarcity of substantial ways to help. And so, the virtuous, all-American response is to perform helpfulness, even if the only person you’re helping is yourself. “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill, your side hustle started, [and] more knowledge, you never lacked time, you lacked discipline,” circulated a popular Instagram meme. Countless fitness pledges were set and screenplays drafted. Yeast for complicated projects sold out across the country.
But productivity should be the last thing on our minds. Writing the next King Lear — which Shakespeare did while quarantining from the plague, and has become Twitter shorthand for suggesting that we should all be making great art during this pandemic — will certainly benefit society if you’ve got it in you. But working toward a lofty goal whose inherent value has little to do with the problem at hand is like flailing, rendering those who try less prepared and able to do the only important thing right now, which is to survive, and help others do so.
COVID-19 has already created a new reality. For those living in the virus’ epicenters, we’ve personally known those who’ve lost their jobs, their people, or their sense of security — many of us have experienced those losses ourselves. To try and be productive in the face of this means expecting to win a sword fight with a sourdough starter. Suffering through these real tragedies while feeling guilty that you haven’t started a side business is not only silly, it’s pernicious.
I’ve found that chasing productivity as a goal makes you feel more resentful about doing your part, less able to see the bigger picture, and more anxious about taking a break — all things that are absolutely necessary right now to our collective health and personal sanity. Wuliao, on the other hand, breeds calmness, contentment, and creativity. My suggestion is that wuliao, not productivity, should be the lockdown’s North Star, our quarantine philosophy.
What I love about wuliao is that it treats the output of extreme boredom with the actual reverence it deserves, even when it’s wielded as a pejorative: the utter nonsense of a project, the sheer amount of labor in service of nothing really, the total waste of time and brainpower in the pursuit of a craft that’s only value is its tedium. Boredom is baking focaccia. Wuliao is creating a full Turkish meal in miniature, with kabobs the size of dates and a cheese künefe pastry as wee as a silver dollar. Wuliao is using every eyeshadow you own to paint your legs like a rainbow fish.
Indeed, there are a lot of wuliao miracles documented these days on social media. The DIY Rube Goldberg machines are one, where families create elaborate contraptions to perform simple tasks (for instance, to feed beer to an adult son). There’s a growing community of modern dollhouse artists on Instagram who create shrunken-down fantasy bunkers: of a frilly bedroom filled with Scott toilet paper and Purell, a Pepto-pink underground hideout complete with a sectional sofa that looks like it was made out of cartoon tongues.
“Tedious tasks are my love language,” wrote designer and clay artist Eny Lee Parker in an Instagram Stories highlight titled Clay Play, over a video of her meticulously dotting boucle-like perforations onto a pillowy Mauro Fabbro chair. “During shitty times like this, it’s important to do our best as humans to keep sanity, be kind to one another, and keep good vibes going,” she writes on a post welcoming others to join her.
On community app Nextdoor, a neighbor looked for adventure: “What does it take to raid a beehive in the lavender bush in my yard to get some of their liquid bounty?” My sister, quarantining with my husband and me, proposed we make an entire supper from Little House on the Prairie, following historically accurate recipes and techniques (we did it one weekend afternoon, and the result was extremely enjoyable, if not entirely edible). While watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on Day 14 of quarantine, I was struck by how differently I felt about the Christmas play scene, as Jo wrote, directed, and staged an entire production for just her sisters and neighborhood kids. When reading the book as a child, I used to think it would be insane for someone as grown-up as she to do something as wuliao as that. Now, facing the kind of schedule where I can luxuriously watch three movies on a weekday night, I think Jo was perfectly wise.
And like Jo, it’s the things we do when we let our subconscious take over that clue us into what actually fuels our souls, so we have something worthwhile to offer. Those plays led to Jo’s writing career. And it was the countless hours I spent dialing into my family’s broadband internet to meticulously build bad websites on Geocities — not the hours in front of a piano — that led to mine. Of course, the point of wuliao is not to think about the future. Any hobby, even the pointless ones, will immediately become poisoned if you approach it with the plans to eventually reap from it.
Wuliao means you do not work out to achieve a certain muscle mass or weight goal. Work out to maintain your health, to keep a routine, to feel alive in your body. Do not make an Alison Roman recipe because everyone else is. Learn an Alison Roman recipe because her food tastes good. Do not engage in wuliao in order to go viral on Tiktok, a platform that might be full of wuliao activities but whose inherent fame engine robs wuliao of its inherent benefits. Better yet, do it and tell no one but your favorite group chat. Instead of spending the free time you have maximizing, optimizing, and churning, consider frittering it away. It’ll feel good.
In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell talks about how the pursuit of productivity — driven by capitalism, competition, and consumption — has redirected our attention outward, leaving us feeling empty and purposeless. But an infolding of attention, of maintenance and care for ourselves and our immediate surroundings, of shrinking our experienced world in order to feel more a part of it, can make us more human.
Creativity and openness, she writes, requires boredom and nothingness, two things some of us are so lucky to have in abundance right now. Don’t waste it.