The delicate art of doing nothing

Boredom is a good thing for kids. We just need to let it be

On the morning of my daughter’s fifth birthday party, I made a cheese tray for parents and set out craft projects for kids before anxiously writing a run-of-show at my kitchen counter. My husband, having plucked the last of the dirty laundry off the floor, sidled up next to me and raised his eyebrows. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“What does it look like?” I snapped, glancing at the clock. “I’m making an agenda!” This was the first party we had hosted since before the pandemic. Every recent birthday party we were invited to was held at an overpriced (and overstimulating) location built to entertain. A giant trampoline park. A labyrinthine ropes course. Chuck E. Cheese. What on Earth would we do with 10 kids and a dozen parents in our unremarkable suburban home?

My husband was quiet for a moment. He was choosing his words carefully. “Don’t you think we could let it evolve organically?”

“But what if they’re bored?” I was horrified at just the thought of parents milling about the house, awkwardly picking lint off their sweaters and checking their phones. And what about the kids, who were used to inflatable slides and loud video games — would they be bored, too?

As I looked at my husband, I saw myself through his eyes: a mom so insistent on warding off boredom that I was applying the agenda-writing skills I used at work to a kindergarten birthday party. The first guests knocked on the door.

I hoped everyone would have a good time. But above all, I feared they would be what has somehow become one of the worst things in our frenetic society, built around accomplishment, and “life hacks,” and optimizing every minute: bored.

It turns out that boredom is important for stimulating creativity and problem-solving, as well as for giving our busy brains some much-needed rest.

Most people, kids and adults alike, find boredom uncomfortable and strive to avoid it. Especially now, as summer begins, parents like me are scrambling to fill our children’s calendars. This preference for being occupied and entertained has grown with the advent of technologies that enable us to do routine tasks faster and remain constantly connected. If we’re not working outside the home, doing house chores or talking on the phone while driving, we are scrolling Instagram, devouring digital news or coaching youth soccer. Kids are busier than ever, too, engaged in long days of school, extracurriculars, homework and social media.

The casualties of this harried state of constant activity are rest, relaxation, hobbies, unstructured time, in-person social connection and even boredom itself. The effects on our mental health are alarming. American workers are reporting record-breaking rates of burnout and stress, while skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality in kids have prompted children’s hospitals to declare a national state of emergency for youth mental health. It turns out that boredom is important for stimulating creativity and problem-solving, as well as for giving our busy brains some much-needed rest. When we notice the stillness or disinterest that most of us characterize as boredom, responding in constructive ways pays dividends in productivity, creativity, social connection and mental wellness.

So if boredom really is good for us, then how can we learn to incorporate it into our lives despite the constant pressure to avoid it?

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In psychiatric literature, boredom is defined as a state of mind featuring disinterest or lack of stimulation or challenge. Ironic, since being bored these days is a challenge itself. Boredom often arises from repetitive tasks or a lack of novelty, and can make us feel restless. We ideally learn to tolerate and productively manage that restlessness, starting in childhood. Being bored prompts kids to make up imaginary games, initiate play with other children and take a proactive role in their own activities. This builds creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as social acumen, resilience, independence, initiative and self-esteem.

Yet many of us design our children’s lives in ways that minimize their opportunities for boredom and the crucial development that comes with it. We make sure their calendars look like that of a full-time working adult. Cringing at the whiny refrain, “I’m bored!” we orchestrate a game or allow hours of screen time so we can get things done or enjoy a break, all the while robbing them of the chance to develop positive coping skills.

Unfortunately, over the past 60 years, American children have spent less and less time engaged in self-directed play with each other and more and more time in adult-led activities that leave little time for being bored or conducting their freestyle type of play (child development experts define play as an activity a child chooses to do, rather than is obliged to do, and which involves imagination, scant or no adult interference and a focus on means more than ends). Psychologists connect this decline to rising anxiety and depression in children and teenagers. The link makes sense, as anxiety, in particular, is directly linked to feeling a lack of control over one’s life.

Many of us design our children’s lives in ways that minimize their opportunities for boredom and the crucial development that comes with it.

Technology is also a societal shift that has robbed children of the chance to be bored. Psychologists point out that the rise of pediatric anxiety, depression and suicide that began in 2005 and skyrocketed starting in 2012 mirrors the rise of smartphones and social media. Constant social media scrolling comes with overwhelming information bombardment and a lack of rest, stillness, unstructured time and boredom.

A consequence of depriving kids of the freedom to be bored is that when the restless feeling does arise, they lack coping skills and are more likely to respond with risky behavior such as dangerous thrill-seeking or substance abuse. There’s a reason that evidence-based therapy for a range of pediatric mental health conditions, from anxiety and depression to aggression, focuses on one key skill: the ability to notice, embrace, process and navigate difficult emotions. Take, for instance, boredom. The better kids and adults alike become at doing so, the more resilient we are.

As we become adults, our need for boredom becomes a need for unstructured, independent and self-chosen activities that allow us to engage with the present moment instead of a future goal. This could be taking a stroll or engaging in a beloved hobby or spending time practicing your faith or meditating or literally “doing nothing.” In “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing,” author Olga Mecking defines “niksen” as doing nothing without a purpose. Italians, meanwhile, prize “il dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing. If all this sounds similar to Buddhist principles of being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness meditation (sitting and breathing while noticing your thoughts and bodily sensations), that’s because it is. The common focus is on being (in the moment) as opposed to doing (to reach a future goal).

Counterintuitive as it may seem, making time to do less recharges our brain, restores our mood and brings heightened powers of critical thinking and strokes of insight. Albert Einstein reportedly spent a lot of time away from friends, family and work to do nothing but think, and some of his best ideas came while walking, sailing or playing his violin alone. Most of us have had the “epiphany in the shower” experience, when a mundane activity like bathing brings creative solutions, seemingly out of nowhere. For me, this happens during my daily walks, when I often have so many ideas that I need to dictate them into my phone.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, making time to do less recharges our brain, restores our mood and brings heightened powers of critical thinking and strokes of insight.

Being focused on the present moment without a care for “getting things done” is not a natural setting for most Americans. The Puritan belief that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” still influences many of us, while our culture’s celebration of celebrity has conflated happiness with the materialistic push for more, bigger and better.

Then there’s the issue of free time. For decades, the average American’s buying power has evaporated while wealth has concentrated in the top tier of the economy. Prices for basic necessities have surged. In my grandparents’ day, a police officer or teacher could buy a home and support a family with one salary. Now, households with two toiling earners are barely covering basic expenses, much less saving for retirement. Overwhelmed working parents are less likely these days to have parenting support and need help with child care.

In this context, the suggestion to make time for boredom may seem unrealistic and even insensitive. Yet what if our lives depend on it? Stress can negatively affect our heart health, mood health and immune function, and Americans are more stressed than ever. According to a 2023 American Psychological Association survey, 77 percent of U.S. workers reported stress at work last year, with 57 percent reporting negative health effects as a result. Workplace burnout — linked to stress, anxiety and depression — has also reached record highs. At least 55 percent say they can’t establish a work-life balance, and employees with the least financial security are most likely to be burned out, according to a report.

Though it might seem like we need a month of doing nothing on the beach to recover, one way to incorporate stillness into our schedules is with micro-moments. As a type-A parent who works outside the home, I try to do a five-minute meditation each morning between getting my kids off to school and diving into my inbox. I sit quietly and focus on my breath until my timer goes off. On days when I manage to do this, I feel calmer and more awake. Moments of nothingness don’t have to be meditation, though. I have a colleague who schedules daily dog walks and lunch breaks, and another who grows chrysanthemums.

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Another way to be “in the moment” is to use the concept of niksen and do what we’re already doing without multitasking or striving for a goal. It could be focusing only on our food while eating, for instance, or admiring the sights and sounds of the forest while hiking instead of talking or tracking our steps. On a recent drive through the Colorado plains, I resisted the urge to return phone calls or listen to the news. Instead, I rolled down the windows and blasted Tom Petty. When I arrived at my destination, I felt refreshed.

Infusing days with less doing and more being takes intention and discipline, like any habit. It takes standing firm against the cultural current that drifts ever toward exponential busyness. My resistance to stillness is not so different from my children’s cries of, “I’m bored!” In both cases, pushing through the resistance is worth it.

One recent afternoon, my nine-year-old son spent 10 minutes demanding more Nintendo time after his allotted hour was up and the tablet automatically shut off. I denied him and continued to work on my laptop. He walked away, dejectedly muttering something about being “so bored.” An hour later, he reappeared, proudly displaying a wooden walking stick that he had whittled outside. Other bouts of boredom have yielded blanket forts, elaborate dinosaur action displays and a catapult made of a cardboard box, plastic spoon and rubber band. Often, he and his sister collaborate on these projects or play “keepy uppy,” which involves keeping a balloon in the air for as long as possible.

This summer, during weeks when my son is not at camp but his father and I are working, I plan to use blocks of unstructured time during which he gets to choose what he does outside, which project to start, which book to read. Maybe structuring unstructured time is kind of an oxymoron and not exactly doing “nothing,” but it’s as close as I can get as a working parent. In a fast-paced world, more nothing is better than no nothing at all.

This story appears in the June 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.