How Doing Nothing On Purpose will Help Your Recovery and Mental Health… But at First It Will Drive You CRAZY!

I confess, I love my unproductive time. If fact, if I am busy, busy, busy… I am not only less productive but also unhappy. I crave unstructured time where my mind can wander. But sometimes it can feel excruciating and I want to escape with a little (mindless) surfing.

It’s a bit of a love-hate thing. I love the unstructured openness but when I get it, I fritter it away. Really, having 15 minutes to an hour of mind wandering is about enough for me right now.

I have come to believe that each of us has our own unstructured selves and that this part of who we are is essential to our mental health and well being.

I used to think that my practice of mind wandering was caused by my Attention Deficit Disorder, my ‘creative’ mind (which my wife calls my excuse to be messy) and my less organized side. In some way, this unstructured self is a key part of my self. And until now I have not identified it as a strength. I have come to believe that each of us has our own unstructured selves and that this part of who we are is essential to our mental health and well being.

Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings, authored a post in 2016 “In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Non-Doing from Some of Humanities Greatest Minds.” Hats off to her for creating one of the longest titles I have seen in recent years (so I tried it myself with this post…). Most times, we are told that Google like short titles with key phrases that make searching easier. I guess the lesson is “Who cares?” Is it about ‘Likes‘ or is it about the content in what we write? I think it is the latter, but this is probably why I still work a day job.

Medicating our boredom?

Boredom (unstructured openness) is where we flourish. It is key to our well being. Strangely, being bored can feel like a mild case of depression, which poses an existential question in today’s depression-averse world. We are so used to diagnosing our daily experience that feeling momentarily bored or depressed brings about a sense of panic.

Boredom is a mental health crisis for some of us. Understandably in recovery circles boredom can be a trigger. It’s an ironic thing. Within your boredom is a lesson that you need and you have to learn to listen to yourself, but most times… listening to yourself is, well… boring! But the very feeling of boredom can be a trigger to use again or to re-escalate our tired minds with high adrenaline screen time or risky activities.

A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. Bertrand Russell

Being productive and busy makes us feel that we are part of the ‘in crowd’, the cult of productivity… the obsession with being busy, terrified of being seen as being unproductive (or worse… being “those parents” whose kids are not programmed to their eyeballs with soccer/hockey/dance/tutoring/and other “learning opportunities”). The father of Psychology, Sigmund Freud said “Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.” While we may not all love our work, we have married ourselves to the feeling being busy “workers” all of the time… rather than taking time to just “love” whatever may present itself within ourselves.

We are told that having an unstructured self is not the path to productivity. We are lectured about being goal focused and moving towards the person or the life we want to have. In this blog space, I also write about productivity and goal setting. There’s nothing wrong with being focused, but in the same way, there is nothing wrong with boredom.

Being able to “be with” ourselves is a sign of mental well being, but not if we have an iPhone in our hands

We have nearly pushed quiet, listening, boredom and an unstructured self off of the cliff along with our picture tube TVs and VCRs.

In our culture, we equate ‘getting things done’ with well being. But what if we have it backwards? For me, the optimum life is having times of being gainfully occupied along with times where my mind can wander. We have nearly pushed quiet, listening, boredom and an unstructured self off of the cliff along with our picture tube TVs and VCRs.

When I am bored, the cure is shopping and eating… and even better if I can do them at the same time. I can spend a few bucks at the local dollar store and come away with a bag full of plastic things made in a country half way around the world and various kinds of edible sugar products. But soon it gets old even though it is quite fun.

When I react to my boredom, one of the things that I rob myself of is the very opportunity to just be with myself. Hurrying to fill our time removes the awkwardness of wondering what will we do with ourselves? Isn’t one of the hallmarks of psychological health the ability to be with ourselves, warts and all? If it is, then our Western culture is not doing so well.

To be bored is to be unafraid of our interior lives — a form of moral courage central to being fully human. Maria Popova

Unstructured openness can teach us to pay attention.

We are so used to diagnosing our daily experience that feeling momentarily bored or depressed brings about a sense of panic.

I know, it seems counter intuitive. If you want to learn to pay attention, you need to give yourself a break. More correctly, we pay attention and then shift our awareness to our wandering mind. In this way, we make sense of what we are learning and link it with our longer term memory.

Boredom is not a diagnosis, but if we are too bored, too often it can backfire. Being chronically bored can make us prone to things like depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, gambling, hostility, low academic performance. For a boredom quiz, follow this link.

Do you have a moment for a little mindful boredom?

Perhaps a middle way is best for our society? Mindful boredom may be a way to allow our minds to wander and then catch ourselves, but rather than chastise ourselves for not ‘doing’ something… for a moment, pay attention to ‘where we were.’ I think that our wandering minds have a lesson for us.

Too often our ‘break’ from concentrating is being on our iPhones, try putting the phone down for a few minutes and just letting your mind go wherever it wants to go.

Want to try something radical, counter cultural? Even… weird. Do nothing, with no one else, on purpose. Take a few minutes and see what happens. You may need to warm up to it because if you schedule an afternoon for nothing, you may feel like you are going crazy. You aren’t, you are probably just ‘coming down’ from being overly scheduled.

I am free, but my time is not. Ursula K. Le Guin

So what about you? What do you do when you are bored? Is your unstructured time a part of your recovery or well being? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

I hope that you enjoyed this post. If not, maybe what you read was an opportunity for a little unstructured openness? If you want something else to read, check out a few of my other related posts:

Boredom will Kill Your Recovery, Or it May Just Save It!

Boredom and the Beautiful Mind

4 Habits That Will Make Your Experience More Valuable than College

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Keep it Real

Photos by denAsuncioner, Joonas Tikkanen, and Francisco Marquez


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