The Lost Art of Creative Boredom

AAand 56 minutes.That’s how much time I spent watching YouTube videos one week in June. Think about that: I basically made a part-time job out of consuming other people’s content. Hell, I would have been better off flipping burgers for $12.35 an hour than watching a full day’s worth of YouTube.

25 hours and 56 minutes.

How many books could I have read in that time?

How much German could I have taught myself in preparation for my upcoming trip to Berlin?

I mean, shit — what if I’d just laid on my bed and stared at my ceiling fan for a day straight instead?

How much better off would I be if I’d done any of those things rather than watch YouTube?

You can see your own stats on the YouTube mobile app. Just tap your avatar in the top right corner of the homescreen, then tap “Time watched.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Surprisingly, I didn’t judge myself too harshly when I saw those stats. “No big deal,” I thought. “I’m sure I spent some of that time watching music videos and other bullshit, but I know for a fact that I watched psychology lectures, guided workouts, and German language videos, too.”

Oh, how wrong I was.

Immediately, I had an impulse to check my Pandora listening time to see how it compared to my YouTube stats. I knew I used the music app constantly, but I had no idea to what extent.

What did I discover? Well, first off, 25 hours and 56 minutes was small fuckin’ potatoes compared to my Pandora numbers, if you can believe that.

Try 50,300 minutes. That’s how long I listened to Pandora in 2018, good for top 5 percent on the entire 70 million-plus person music app.

I never thought I’d feel so insulted being referred to as a “master thumber,” yet here we are.

I mean, it sounds like that Rent song: 50,300 minutes. That’s more than 833 hours, or the equivalent of listening to Pandora 24 hours a day for 35 days straight.

Now, most of that time was spent on music, but some of it was podcasts, too. And for the most part, I listen while I do other things, like working out, commuting, or even writing.

So it would be yet another harsh judgment to chastise myself for listening to that much Pandora (even though it’s so much).

That self-compassion I practiced was a victory in itself. There was a time when I would’ve seen my YouTube watch time, my Pandora listening time, and that smartass thumbs up on my stats page and responded with the opposite of self-compassion:

Self-tyranny.

I would have deleted YouTube and Pandora from my phone.

I would have blocked both sites (plus a few others, just for good measure) on my laptop.

And I would have convinced myself that these actions were righteous exhibitions of my will power.

And you know what? It would have worked for a couple weeks. I would have cut my media consumption down to zilch and become hyper-productive in the meantime.

Until my desire unexpectedly materialized in a more nefarious way, likely on some random Saturday afternoon. I’d get access to a library computer — one that doesn’t treat its user like a child, and therefore doesn’t have YouTube and Pandora blocked — then, like an ostensibly-recovered drug addict returning to his old haunts, I’d take a hit from the YouTube crack pipe.

“It’s been so long since I’ve watched a video,” I’d think. “I deserve a taste. Just this once.”

Before I knew it, I’d be in the back alley of the internet, sucking that virtual dick just for the momentary, ever-fading rush of satiating my addiction.

Boom! Just like that, I’d be back where I started, all because I never truly addressed the underlying problem leading me to binge YouTube videos in the first place, and because I thought I’d solved my problem by blocking those sites. In other words, by being a tyrant to myself.

“The will can control [our habits] only in part. It may be able to suppress them, but it cannot alter their nature, and what is suppressed comes up again in another place in altered form, but this time loaded with a resentment that makes the otherwise harmless natural impulse our enemy.”

— Carl Jung

Because I’d seen in the past that tyranny doesn’t work, I approached my recent discoveries with curiosity.

Why did I watch YouTube and listen to Pandora so much?

Why did I feel the need to fill every silent moment with sound?

In Jung’s terms, what harmless natural impulse had I made into my enemy?

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became: the habit I had tried to suppress was the impulse to chill the fuck out.

In other words:

The impulse to be bored.

The Seduction of Self-Tyranny

A giant melon-baller might have done the trick. Or maybe a gun. Anything to get my brain — or whichever part of it was in control of my unconscious behaviors — outside of my head. Scoop out a juicy orb of pink watermelon with a suctioned slurp. Or just blow the whole thing out. Whatever. If that meant I didn’t live anymore, then so be it.

It was September of 2018, and I was sitting in the stale smoke-stench of an Extended Stay America in Greenville, South Carolina. A perfectly bleak setting for an existential breakdown.

I was in town for my college buddy’s wedding, and I tried to turn it into a work trip.

It wasn’t working.

I woke that morning — two days before the wedding — with a plan to write all morning and afternoon. As a ghostwriter and editor for a media company, my impending manuscript deadlines had already slithered their tentacles into the preceding days and weeks, consuming me completely.

My college friends heard I was in town early and texted me to hang out.

I ignored them. Got books to write, I told myself.

What I was really trying to tell myself: I am very important. Why else would I be writing and editing 11 books at a time?

In reality, I was being overworked. I just couldn’t admit it. I’d only seen it in flashes when other people reflected the absurdity of my writing load back to me. Like when my dad would call and ask how I was doing. The only thing I could talk about was work.

“How many books are you working on now?” my dad asked. “Last time we talked I think it was 8.”

“It’s 11 right now,” I said with finality. I liked the impact that answer had on people.

“Wow,” he said.

“But we have it set up so I’m only interviewing like 3 at a time, writing 3, editing 3, and proofreading 2.”

“Still.”

Boredom was not an option. Any time I spent not writing or editing those books was wasted. I had turned into one of those Hustlers: someone who hides from their emotional pain in their work.

And even if I wasn’t working, I had to do something that felt like work — or a “doing” of any kind — to make the way I spent my time feel valid (and, therefore, to make myself feel valid).

If I’m on a bus, I’m listening to a podcast.

If I’m eating lunch, I’m watching a psychology lecture.

If I’m in the shower, I’m listening to music.

But after a year-plus of this nonstop working feeling, I’d hit a wall. And that wall was beige, paper thin, and it was the only thing separating me from my loudly fucking Extended Stay neighbors.

“What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?”

“If you need me, I’ll be crying underneath my desk/ironing board.”

It’s the day before the wedding. I accomplished nothing yesterday — other than daydreaming about scooping out my brain and adding hours to a YouTube watch counter I won’t know exists for another half-year. My thoughts went dark yesterday, but I have all day today to catch up and write these books before their deadlines.

I walk to the nearby Chick-fil-A and grab a chicken biscuit while I watch more YouTube videos on the free wi-fi.

“Just a few while I eat,” I tell myself. “I still have a lot of writing time today.”

Then I finish breakfast.

It’s 10:15am, and it feels like I’m already too late.

It’s 10:30am and I walk back to my hotel room. The moist blast of A/C and the dull stench of previous tenants hits me. The seeds of self-hate have been planted.

“I have to reach deadlines for three books by the end of the day. How the fuck am I gonna do that if I’m barely getting started at 11am?”

I sit at my computer and open the Word document for a book about startups in Upstate New York. I write one paragraph. It takes me 20, maybe 30 minutes.

“What’s the point? I have to write a chapter every 2 hours if I want to just finish this book in time. That’s still not even half of what I need to write overall.”

I read the paragraph. It’s shit. At least 2 polishes away from being usable. I step away from the laptop, telling myself how much I suck.

I feel an emotional drain like I’ve been doing work for the last two hours, because I have: I’ve been battling against myself.

This time would have been better spent doing anything other than beating myself up — at the gym, walking around the parking lot, meeting up with college friends I haven’t seen in years.

I have a great job, an amazing relationship, and friends I love, and I’m about to ruin it all because I can’t just sit down and write.

I try again, but I watch YouTube videos instead. I ask myself “Why am I doing this?” every time I click a new one.

I stand up at different times, crying.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Is this the pattern you’re going to live in for the rest of your life? You finally get this amazing job writing books and you’re about to fuck that up, you’ll fuck up your relationship, and you’ll convince your friends to leave you because that’s what you do isn’t it, you piece of shit? You self-sabotage every good thing in your life because you think you don’t deserve it. Well guess what, dude: you don’t deserve to be alive.”

It’s early afternoon now and I haven’t eaten lunch. I feel my energy draining.

My girlfriend texts me and I ignore it.

The thought persists:

What’s the point of being alive if I’m going to ruin every good thing I bring into it?

If I had a gun in here, I’d have to lock it in the freezer or something. I’d be scared to touch it, like a poisonous snake that could strike without my consent. I do not trust my own mind.

I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep in the early afternoon.

I wake up at 6:15pm.

The workday is over and I have accomplished nothing.

Tomorrow I’ll see my buddy get married then I’ll hop on a plane back to Texas wondering just what the fuck I was doing in South Carolina in the first place.

What I won’t admit to myself:

That I went there for a vacation. That I needed a serious break. I needed nothingness, boredom, and to see old friends from a more creative time in my life. Anything other than trying to work.

And by not allowing space for that relaxation I turned on myself, like a snake eating its own tail.

“Some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that because you are able to tyrannize over yourself…nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

American Work Values: an Artist’s Poison

Part of my Greenville breakdown was due to faulty, unfair, and just plain harsh expectations I had for my own writing output.

I saw my life as a writer through the lens of standard American work values, as though I could sit down at 9am and write until 5pm, the same way professionals in other industries work those hours.

Because why not? That’s what everyone else in the country does — they work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year. And shit, let’s up the ante in the startup world (like the one I operated in at the media company):

The 40-hour workweek is for people who aren’t willing to sacrifice enough for success. Extreme riches and happiness await you. But only as long as you:

Hustle.

Hustle.

Hustle.

Here are two icons that people in startupland point towards to rationalize their own unhealthy work habits: Gary Vee, the hustle king; and Elon Musk, who once tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

From this hustling worker-bee mentality, I wasn’t an author anymore, like I’d dreamed of since boyhood. And sure, I wrote books, but I was a ghostwriter — those books weren’t mine. I wasn’t an artist of any kind, like how I saw myself in college and grad school.

I was a content creator. A copy editor. A marketer. A writer only in the most literal sense of the word, the same way a house painter is still technically a painter.

I’d given up my true art — writing books with my name on them — for the comfort of a steady paycheck.

I was a sellout. I just couldn’t admit it to myself yet.

And within that hyper-productivity expected in the American startup scene, silence, boredom, and relaxation were the opposite of working.

How can I relax with my old college buddies in South Carolina when there are books to be written?

Why go to the gym when I could be at the office?

What good is a bike ride or bus ride if I’m not listening to a podcast to improve myself, thus making me a better worker?

And get this: I even contemplated using my self-created break times at work to play Tetris, because I hypothesized that exercising my puzzle-solving skills in that way would make me a more efficient writer. Yeah, it was that bad.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was avoiding any possibility for serious introspection because if I allowed myself that emptiness, I might have to face some unpleasant truths about who I’d become.

What if I sat on the toilet in the silence of morning — in one of those boring moments that I’d learned to fill with the dopamine hit of a YouTube video — and got an idea for a story?

A story I didn’t have the space to write with 11 books for other people on my plate?

That’s what I was hiding from.

And my inability to cope with that fact — that I was trying to fit the square peg of artistry into the round hole of American work culture — led to me tyrannizing over myself in ways that were costing me my time, my life, and my art.

Every waking moment had to be filled with something #productive.

Of course that’s impossible — your mind needs a break.

But instead I filled those silences — which should have been filled with things I actually enjoy, like reading, exercising, and going into the world and watching people — with things I didn’t enjoy, like YouTube videos.

Because within that American work value structure I’d imposed on myself, unconsciously consuming YouTube videos at least felt like some kind of doing, which was always preferable to the dead, unproductive space of nothing.

As a marketer, any time I wasn’t writing felt like lost time — my value was determined largely by the quantity of words I could crank out.

But as an artist, I’d just forgotten how integral doing nothing and being bored were to the creative process.

The Illusion of “Doing” on Youtube

Much like a vegan or crossfitter, I am legally obligated to inform you that I don’t own a television at the moment.

“Please, somebody ask me if I watch Game of Thrones so I can tell you that I don’t have a TV.”

Watching television seems like a waste of time. It’s much better to get infrequent entertainment from the internet than to leave the yackbox on at all hours of the day.

But after I found my YouTube watch history, I got to thinking…

There’s something more demanding about watching YouTube than watching television.

A television is a piece of furniture. You can turn it on and leave it in the background as you walk around your house tossing pizza dough, or playing darts, or whatever it is that people do.

But you watch YouTube on your iPad or phone. It’s right fuckin’ there in front of your face, intimately and actively enticing you to interact with the screen. (Not to mention you get the joy of surreptitiously disobeying all of your mom’s childhood edicts to quit standing so close to the television screen or you’ll melt your brain.)

YouTube keeps me tethered. Even with AutoPlay enabled, I’ll still choose what video I watch next, which gives me the illusion of conscious choice, even though I’m just chasing the next dopamine hit like a rat pressing the button for another pellet.

And the worst part of it all?

I get to convince myself of my superiority for not owning a television, even though I still waste as much time on mindless entertainment as I would if I had a 96-inch flatscreen.

And that was just the beginning of the self-delusions — I hadn’t even gone through my watch history yet…

The Shattering of Self-Delusion: My Watch History Breakdown

Despite my memory of my South Carolina breakdown about 8 months ago, I still had this story in my mind when I discovered my watch time counter:

“I may be watching a lot of YouTube, but I’m mostly using it as a tool to learn about psychology, language, and exercise.”

Oh, how wrong I was.

As I poked around my watch history, I quickly discovered that I could see exactly which videos I had watched in the preceding week.

I decided to make a morning of it:

I went through all 25 hours and 56 minutes of YouTube for the week — 396 videos worth — and analyzed every single video to see if I was really using YouTube the way I thought I was.

What I found taught me a valuable lesson in self-deception.

Week of June 16-June 23, 2019

Total videos watched:

396

Music videos:

19.44%

This percentage doesn’t account for the fact that I watched DaniLeigh and Chris Brown’s Easy remix approximately 15,000 times that week.

Baseball-Related Videos:

18.69%

Podcasts:

15.9%

Miscellaneous Comedy:

15.15%

Psychology Videos:

13.1%

Standup Comedy:

10.4%

Random Stuff That Nobody Could Ever Fit Into a Single Category, but I Somehow Found Myself Watching Anyway:

5.8%

The most embarrassing example: (part of) this video of two women eating a fuckton of seafood.

Movies:

1.01%

Guided Workouts:

0.2%

Language Lessons:

0.2%

As I went through the videos, I felt a growing sense of doom that I wasn’t expecting. When I started this analysis, I didn’t realize what exactly I was going to learn about myself.

Look at the numbers: only 0.2% of the videos I watched were language lessons. And the same percent were workout videos.

I was actually impressed by the number of psychology videos I watched (13.1%), but I realized something as I saw the thumbnails and titles:

How We Enslave Ourselves

How to Narrate Your Life Story

Creativity and the Pursuit of Excellence

They were all related to this article I would eventually write — which is great — but if you asked me for a thesis statement or even a simple summary of each of the videos, I’d be at a loss.

All except for this video, which significantly changed my perception of love and dating. The thesis: long-term love is so obviously valuable that we disregard the value of short-term love.

Seeing the huge number of psychology videos I watched and gleaned nearly nothing from forced me to face yet another uncomfortable truth:

Watching psychology lectures and video essays didn’t actually teach me anything.

They just made me *feel* smarter, all while I was still unconsciously consuming other people’s creations.

Again: YouTube fostered the illusion that I was accomplishing something.

Watching stand-up videos helps me write jokes.

Watching music videos makes me a better dancer.

Watching psychology lectures will help me stop watching YouTube.

And so the vicious cycle went on.

The Value of Boredom for an Artist

What I lost in the meantime was boredom, that necessary space where I do nothing: in the shower, on the bus, or biking around my neighborhood. That’s where my creations are born, not while I’m sitting at the computer.

Writing, outlining, and brainstorming — the majority of my creative work happens off the page. The page is just where it all comes together.

Without that boredom in my life — when I could watch people on the street and get ideas for characters, or hike along Austin’s Barton Creek and brainstorm plans for my ghostwriting business — I lost my creativity.

I became a doing machine. By not allowing myself the necessary space of creative boredom, I stopped feeling deeply into my own creative work. I was so busy pumping out surface-level “content” that I’d created a hamster wheel effect: the more unconscious words I pumped out, the more I had to write just to stay afloat.

And in the moments when I should have stepped away from writing, I sought relaxation in the only form of boredom that gave me the illusion of doing: YouTube.

But with creative boredom — quiet moments where I could discover the seeds of my stories, articles, and new business ventures — I could get the best of both worlds: the time to unwind, as well as the internal creative exploration necessary to life as a writer.

I mean, think about it. That’s probably how you first fell in love with writing and creation of all kinds, too: through boredom. As a kid, the germ of every home video my brothers and I made was some bored summer afternoon when there was nothing good on TV and we didn’t have access to a car to see a movie.

We had no choice but to create our own entertainment.

Or when I was a teenager, and all my friends signed off AIM for the night, but I didn’t feel like going to sleep, so I went onto the dinosaur of a Compaq PC in my bedroom and wrote raps, or silly stories about Spider-Man, or haikus about tunnel-digging gorillas.

I’m not gonna turn this into some anti-technology fingerwag of an article — it’s just a fact: we don’t allow ourselves many opportunities for boredom anymore.

And although “doing nothing”, being bored, or staring into space for an hour might look and feel like a waste of time compared to diddling with your phone or on the computer (“He could be sending a business email for all I know!”), empty time is a necessary and valuable part of the creative process. One that I disregarded and lost sight of as a #ContentCreator.

Just the fact that clients and people in our media company referred to my writing as “content” was enough to make me resign from my job (which I eventually did, a little over a month ago).

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with listening to Pandora while I shower, or watching psychology lectures while I eat lunch, or listening to podcasts on the bus. Those activities may even seem beneficial at first glance.

It’s just that taken as a whole, other people’s creations had become the background music of my life.

They sucked up space I could have used to brainstorm my podcast, my videos, and my books — the creations I’d spent too much time and energy running away from.

Filling the Void

It’s Saturday night and my date rescheduled. I already feel like going out, so I hop on the bus and head to Austin’s 6th street by myself.

I grab a cheap drink and lean against the railing of the second-story patio at Buck Wild, watching the drug addicts and prostitutes meandering the back alleyway behind the bar. I imagine their drugs of choice, how much they charge for their services, where they were 5 years ago, what their parents were like, and where they sleep at night.

I see other groups of people making their way through the seedy alleyway toward the music-blaring bars of 6th Street. I wonder about their pregame routines, and what they expect from the evening. Love? Sex? Fun? All three? I imagine what they’re trying to signal to the world with every shirt, skirt, ballcap, and piece of jewelry they choose to wear.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m sitting on the bus, phone in my pocket, earbuds in my backpack. I’m listening to some professional-type dude talk about reports and meetings on the phone, and I’m trying to guess what kind of pornography he watches and why.

It’s Wednesday at the ass crack of dawn and I’m actually watching an exercise video in the gym as it guides me through ab workouts.

It’s a Thursday evening and I’ve reached my writing limit for the day. The sun is still out, so I hop on my bike. Not to go anywhere specific or to “get exercise,” but just to explore. My mind drifts to this article as I bike along, and I write in my mind as I go.

It’s Sunday morning, and I check my YouTube watch history for the week: 6 hours and 14 minutes — almost 20 hours less than the previous week. Not bad.

As a writer and artist, this is what “work” looks like for me: voyeurism, listening to conversations, listening to myself. Not working in a way that is designed to prove to the world that I’m doing for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. But instead working in a way that is designed to create the best art I am capable of at this time in my life.

I still ghostwrite for a select few clients — and enjoy the hell out of it — but my writing has become the priority. Through creative boredom, my books, my podcast, my articles, and my imaginings become the stereo of sounds resonating through my experience as I move through life, rather than surrendering my precious boredom to the deafening cacophony of other people’s noise.

If you’d like to read more of Greg’s articles about writing, interviewing, and therapy, check out his website: Greg-Larson.com.

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