Welcome to Press Pause. This January, we’re asking: What does self-care look like when it’s not all or nothing? What if we simply pressed pause here and there?
I am the most sinfully boring I have ever been in my life. Paint-drying boring. Tumbleweed-dancing-across-a-desert boring. I recently watched an hour-long video on the virtues of frugality led by a charming couple in their 60s. Then I made a spreadsheet. It was a Friday night. My once-thriving social life now consists of two book clubs and three streaming subscriptions. I have far fewer friends, and I have slammed two feet on the brakes on what I used to find fun and thrilling.
I rarely show up on Instagram nowadays, because, well, there’s truly nothing to see here. In this current iteration of “L’Oréal Blackett,” I find that I am, more often than not, simply doing nothing outside of the realms of work and adulting. And I am bored. So bored. But this isn’t a cry for help. Like a child too excited to sit down, I’ve been advised (read: forcefully instructed) to sit in this unfamiliar space of boredom in an attempt to give myself — body, mind, soul, and finances — a well-needed break.
I feel strongly compelled to write that I’ve not always been like this (I am fun really, promise!) Since my teens, I have chased (very legal) thrills and lived for experiences to tell people about (to paint a picture, I’ve applied for at least three reality TV shows in my lifetime, because why not?). I like — no, I love! — making plans. My career in media, and all the absurdities and event invitations that come with it, has kept me full of anecdotes and I’ve relished in being a woman with far too many aspirations and dreams to slow down.
Because, truthfully, “slowing down” sounds like something to be afraid of as a woman in my early 30s. Like many things we negatively associate with aging, to accept you’re “slowing down” means letting go of the things you once did and possibly never doing them again (will I ever step foot in an oontz-oontz club again? Jury’s out on that one). These are the fears that haunt me on an extremely boring Friday night in front of an episode of Grand Designs. But I’m assured there’s a means to an end. And this lapse in fun is temporary. If I want it to be.
Because, truthfully, “slowing down” sounds like something to be afraid of as a woman in my early 30s.
Boredom has been recommended as a salve for many of my common afflictions: burnout, stress, overwhelm and low self-esteem. “What if, instead of joining another intense fitness program, or starting another project, or filling your calendar with after-work events, you did nothing for a while?” recommended a mental health nurse earlier this year. I had sought advice from my GP and a mental health coach when the aforementioned got particularly bad.
I was experiencing an atypical level of anxiety, as well as other uncharacteristic symptoms such as rapid weight gain, depression, and panic attacks. I was burnt out but I was still trying to show up in my life as if nothing was wrong. It was quickly identified that while my zealous attempts to be a *better* person were somewhat admirable, it would be far better for my anxiety and stress levels if I just, for a brief period, stopped everything completely — no matter how bored I may feel.
“I believe that certain burnout episodes are basically trying to steer you back on track by making you rest,” writes author Emma Gannon in her popular Substack newsletter “The Hyphen”. Gannon describes the emotionally exhausted as a result of what she defines as an “existential burnout.” This kind of burnout or breakdown sees a “crumbling of identity” that leads people to question their life as it currently is and are forced to accept it. Gannon explains, “Essentially this kind of breakdown is a way of life saying to you: this current way you are living isn’t working.”
Many scientists and psychotherapists have studied the positive impact of frequent periods of boredom, especially for the over-stimulated, impulsive and anxious minds of the digital age. “Some research suggests that boredom can stimulate creativity. When individuals are bored, they may be more inclined to seek out novel and stimulating activities, which can foster creative thinking,” says Dr. Jenna Vyas-Lee, clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental healthcare clinic Kove, to Refinery29. “Boredom may provide individuals with an opportunity for self-reflection. It can prompt them to think about their goals, interests, and values, leading to personal growth.”
While psychotherapists acknowledge boredom can be a great source of unhappiness — and associated with self-control issues such as gambling, addiction and overeating — some experts believe boredom can improve mental health outcomes, even inspire creativity and a new sense of focus and direction. Psychotherapists such as Louis Laves-Webb offer “boredom therapy” to inspire “increased self-reflection”, and “increased altruism and gratitude”. The so-called “therapeutic benefits of boredom” are said to be the key to accessing your deepest thoughts — because all you have to do is think.
Psychologist Dr. Sandi Mann, who penned the 2017 book The Science of Boredom: The Upside (and Downside) of Downtime told BBC Science Focus in 2019 that she is “a strong believer in being properly bored every day.” Within the book, Mann argues that in the digital age, with access to so many forms of entertainment, we don’t experience boredom enough, which can lead to extreme behaviours.
“In our current information age, we are constantly connected to technology, and have so many varied ways to spend our leisure time that we should all surely never know what boredom feels like,” Mann writes. “Yet, boredom appears to be on the rise; it seems that the more we have to stimulate us, the more stimulation we crave. In a quest to relieve our boredom, we engage in dangerous risk-taking — from extreme sports to drugs to gambling to anti-social behaviour, or we overindulge in shopping or eating.”
We are a dopamine-drunk society — between Netflix and my phone, when am I not seeking the sweet relief of a daft meme to top up my happy hormones? More so, our relationships with social media are fuelling a dependency, a need to be seen and have our lives validated by others. For the chronically online, boredom is a struggle because if you’re not sharing, the assumption is you’re doing nothing but scrolling.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, Mann also writes that the radical solution to the “boredom problem” is to harness it rather than try to avoid it. “Allowing yourself time away from constant stimuli can enrich your life. We should all embrace our boredom and see the upside of our downtime.”
It’d be wrong to say I enjoyed feeling bored over an extended period — there was no domestic bliss or enriching meditation sessions to help pull me through. Yet I was deeply introspective in a way I don’t usually allow myself to be. As the event-less weekends came and went, I moved from feeling despondent, lonely and jealous (I cried a lot), to feeling excited about the plans I would eventually make in the future.
For many psychotherapists, spending significant periods feeling bored can tell you a lot about what you want out of life. As Shahram Heshmat PhD, wrote for Psychology Today, “Boredom is an emotional signal that we are not doing what we want to be doing … boredom encourages us to shift to goals and projects that are more fulfilling than the ones we're currently pursuing.” Referencing multiple studies, Heshmat tells Refinery29, “Without boredom, humans would not have the taste for adventure and novelty-seeking that makes us who we are — intelligent, curious, and constantly seeking out the next thing.”
Sarah*, 33, who asked us not to use her real name, vowed 2023 would be her “fun” year, after spending most of 2022 forced to rest due to an unexpected illness — it was a year of cancelled plans and needing to do absolutely nothing. “I made it my mission: 2023, would be filled with fun. So I've not actually had that feeling of real boredom in a long time.” 12 months later, after a year of catching up with friends, ski-trips, spontaneous getaways and prosecco, for Sarah, feeling bored is now something she is looking forward to as means to catch up on not-so-thrilling tasks. “I am now looking into 2024 with the opposite mindset. I quite like knowing that I’ve got a weekend with nothing scheduled in because so many of our weekends have something scheduled in.”
Then, again, there is something sinful about saying that you’re bored. Somewhat subconsciously, I’ve lived by the phrase the “devil makes plans for idle hands” and if my time was not spent socialising or working, it was definitely spent being productive. Growing up, admitting to my parents that I was “bored” of all my toys meant I was given chores to do. Because there’s always something we could and should be doing.
“If I’m at home, I always have something to do,” says Sarah. “I’ll end up doing jobs like tidying. Because the thought of sitting there and doing nothing is more painful than it is to finally clear out my wardrobe or whatever I’ve needed to do for the past six months.”
Then, again, there is something sinful about saying that you’re bored.
If I’m honest, feeling bored feels like a close cousin to lazy. However, according to experts, this way of thinking could be spiking my anxiety levels. “If we don’t allow ourselves time when we are not actively doing something then it can mean that our brain doesn’t have time and space to think about and process emotional worries or other big decisions that may be on our mind,” says Dr. Lindsay Browning, a psychologist, neuroscientist and sleep expert at And So To Bed.
“This is why, when people go to bed at night and they turn the lights off, they can find their mind is suddenly filled with busy whirring thoughts. Or people may wake up at three or four in the morning thinking about all the things they haven’t yet done. This is because people haven’t spent time during the day deliberately giving themselves the time and space to do this thinking.”
As I write, I can’t help but think of author Ottessa Moshfegh’s bestselling novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a young woman in her mid 20s who withdraws from the world, and sleeps a year away in a chemically induced malaise. “When I’d slept enough, I’d be OK I’d be renewed, reborn,” says the protagonist. “I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She spends her days doing the bare minimum, like collecting her unemployment check, or sleeping. Everything else, like bills and laundry, is scheduled and automated. It’s extreme, feral, and the protagonist’s misuse of sleeping pills to avoid dealing with grief and misery is far from advisable. However, in my case, this period of inertia has given me space to heal from some recurring health issues related to stress and hormones. There’s been no social bandaid to help me ignore some dormant emotional issues. I am sorting out my sleep (because I have nowhere to go at night). And, I am reflecting on the past few, truly exhausting, years of my life.
Not everyone is accepting of my slower, infinitely more chill life. When I told a loved one that I spent Saturday night making a new soup, they responded, “Oh.”
In their eyes, I am no longer that girl. And the need to compare current, “boring” me to the most vibrant, shiny version of myself is a constant issue. While I do miss *her*, she wasn’t always sustainable.
Romanticising past versions of yourself — whether your size, your income, former relationships — is rarely healthy. In my case, it’s easy to forget that when I was “living for the plot”; I was perpetually tired and my priorities and finances were all out of whack. I said yes to outings when I desperately needed to say no. In my time spent in boredom, I’ve realised that I prefer the social version myself because others like that version of me. And so my existential crisis continues.
In my boredom, like Sarah, I know for sure that I want to resume a more full, adventurous life again. I recently told my colleagues scattered across the US and Canada, that, in advance of meeting me in person for the first time in years, “I am better in person.” As you’ve probably guessed, I am raring to make my big glamorous re-entry into the world. By having no plans and nowhere to be, I have learned so much more about myself, including my pitfalls and my desires. I want to pursue my career with the same gusto, but I also want more meaningful friendships and more valuable experiences. I want more rest, more kindness, more peace. I will likely show back up online, I will most likely attend a fabulous event or three in the near future. But, I no longer see boredom as an inherently bad thing. The need to fill my days with things to prove to myself and others that I am living are over. I am here, I am doing, I exist (just in incognito mode).
*Names have been changed to protect identities