After you’ve been staring at a proposal, research paper, law brief, business contract or letter writing campaign, your attention can wander. You get bored. No worries. Boredom is not a moral failing. It’s an invitation to move beyond the familiar.
Humans are wired for novelty. If not, we wouldn’t have lasted this long on the planet. In our early forms, we needed to hunt, cook and tend the fire with one eyeball, while with the other, monitor children, and also the woods for predators.
“…The brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias,” writes Daniel J. Levitin in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “This means its attention can be hijacked easily by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies and cats. And this novelty bias is more powerful than some of our deepest survival drives: Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate…”
Rather than resist and view novelty as an evil temptress to exorcise, tap into it. Novelty helps us stay sharp. Here are some ways to embrace it:
Move. Walk for 10, 20 or 90 minutes depending on the intensity and duration of immersion on a project. The longer and more intense the session, the longer the physical break. For shorter breaks stay close to home. In your living room, stretch, hula hoop or dance. Tackle household projects that are at stages that require more physicality (vacuuming) than cognition (cleaning out storage). I don’t like washing dishes but when I’ve been intensely immersed in a project for a few hours I’m eager to get down with soapy water. My mind views it as “something new,” which refreshes me from the “stale” efforts of whatever I’ve been working on.
Produce Mescaline Music. Create a playlist that wildly mixes musical genres. If you tend to stick to the same old tunes, enlist friends whose favorites differ 180 degrees from yours; include their contributions on your playlist. If your music tastes are wide-ranging, take sharp turns from one to the next in your mescaline mix. Examples from one of my 10-hour playlists: Gospel, Heavy Metal, Western Classical, Indian Chants, Disco, Euro Lounge Chill, Movie soundtracks, Pop duets. Soul, Folk, Country, Rap, Big Band, Techno, Spoken Word, Broadway show tunes.
Take a Sabbatical. In a 2009 TED Talk called The Power of Time Off, New York-based Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister shares how he uses sabbaticals to energize his creative mojo:
“I run a design studio in New York. Every seven years, I close it for one year to pursue some little experiments, things that are always difficult to accomplish during the regular working year. In that year, we are not available for any of our clients. We are totally closed. And as you can imagine, it is a lovely and very energetic time…I realized, just like with many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to it. And I get, over time, bored by them. And for sure, in our case, our work started to look the same.”
Float. Every week, enjoy a day or half day with no scheduled tasks, what Prince, lyricist for the Bangles song, Manic Monday calls an “I-don’t-have-to-run day.” Sometimes we are anxious about being still, having too much time on our hands. Here’s a friendly challenge: embrace rather than resist activity voids. Nature abhors a vacuum. If we sit long enough with what we perceive as “wasted time” or doing “nothing,” such voids will fill with unique imaginings that will yield deeply satisfying experiences.
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