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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boredom

“I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.”

–Russell, Junior Wilderness Explorer


I spend two hours each week managing our family finances. Every day, I spend 10 minutes recording the latest transactions in my rainbow-colored Excel spreadsheet. And once a week, I take an hour to go through the week’s transactions in the spreadsheet, transfer money from our targeted savings account to checking to cover the credit card transactions and any bills, and engage in wanton and hedonistic bill paying.

WHEEEEEE!

Generally, the reaction I get when I describe this process is akin to the reaction vexillologists likely get when they explain their adoration for flags.


In other words, most people can’t imagine spending so much time on something so unbearably boring.


I’m not going to argue that two hours a week on financial chores isn’t boring. It is the definition of a repetitive task. What I am going to tell you is that finding your love for the boring moments is the secret to life, the universe, and everything.[1]

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To Do or to Have Done?


The quote “I hate to write, but I love having written,” is commonly attributed to Dorothy Parker, although there is no evidence that she ever said or wrote it. She did actually write the following:


“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”


So it’s understandable why we’ve long believed that Parker was happier to have a finished product than to go through the arduous process of writing it.


As a writer, I have certainly felt the difference in enjoyment between doing and having done.


Writing is hard AF, and there are few activities I engage in that trigger more self-doubt (with the possible exception of trying on bathing suits) than staring down a blank page.


Having written, though!


Having written allows you to show off your writing, while standing by with a modest smile that seems to say, “Oh, this old thing? Yes, I wrote it ALL BY MYSELF.”


Having written gives you the opportunity to fantasize about

  • receiving awards while wearing a fabulous gown

  • fielding phone calls from publishers who are weeping with joy at the prospect of signing you

  • earning out your enormous advance while book reviewers suckle your toes

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Having written lets us type-A, goal-setting types feel like rock stars, even if it doesn’t actually guarantee any of the above fantasy scenarios.


But there’s something unfortunate that I’ve noticed in the over 30 years that I’ve been seriously pursuing writing.


You can’t have written without writing.


So why do I keep writing, if the process is so unpleasant? Because the meaning is in the writing, not in the having written.


The Meaning in Showing Up


It’s human nature to assume that meaning comes from reaching our goals. We think that getting married or getting the corner office or losing 10 pounds or buying a house or going viral or getting published will make us happy. Because we’ll have achieved our end.


We will have written.


But getting to those goals doesn’t actually provide any kind of meaning. Meaning has to come from within. [2]

That’s why I write, even though it’s boring and slow and difficult and ego-depleting–and did I mention boring?


I write because the daily practice feels good. I can try to create something meaningful from the chaos of my brain, if I simply put my thoughts into words. I find my purpose in putting the words on paper, no matter what happens to those words after I write them.


I also have complete control over my writing. The fame, fortune, acclaim, and glittery awards ceremonies (do writers have those?) are out of my hands. All I can do is show up to the page every day.


I needed this reminder recently about a different part of my life.


The Boring Keeps You Going When the World is on Fire


I've been fairly politically active since my teens–so for about 25 years.


While I wouldn't describe myself as an activist, I have always paid attention to world events, volunteered, voted without fail in every election, made regular calls to my representatives, and donated money when I could.


In that time, the world seems to have gotten worse. This feels especially awful because it seems like none of the political work I have done over the years has made any difference. What was the point of doing this work that ultimately had no meaning?

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I took my despair to my therapist. We talked about my anger, sadness, and fear–and I said that I knew we might not see progress in my lifetime. That’s when my therapist reminded me of the importance of the boring.


She told me about a book she had read on the history of cathedrals in Europe. “The architects and craftspeople who laid the cathedral foundations knew that not even their children’s children would see the final gargoyles placed atop the finished church,” she told me.


That made a light bulb go off.


Political action is just like writing.


The meaning of the action can’t be placed on the other side of a specific outcome. I needed to stop looking at my political activism as a means to an end.


The boring work that is volunteering, voting, reading, speaking, calling, and donating has meaning in and of itself, whether or not it advances progress. The political work I do has meaning because I do it, in the same way that the words I write have meaning because I write them.

There is comfort and pleasure in creating meaning simply by doing, whether or not it is “successful.”


Embrace the Boredom


Neither my writing practice nor my money management habit offer much in the way of traditional excitement. And while politics can certainly be “exciting” (especially in the past couple of years), the work of creating a more just and equitable society takes time, repetitive effort, and lots of boring work.


We may wish for a more cinematic method of reaching our goals–whether that is a published book, a million dollars in the bank, or a world with no second-class citizens–but such methods only exist on the silver screen.


For the rest of us who are not characters in a movie, learning how to love and find meaning in the boring is the only option.


And isn’t that worthwhile?


 

[1] 42 is the *answer* to the question of life, the universe, and everything. Loving the boredom is the *secret* to life, the universe, and everything.


[2] To be clear, I am more than happy to test this hypothesis via a runaway bestseller that earns me millions of dollars and universal acclaim.