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Reduced travel has removed boredom from our lives, but has reduced our opportunities to be creative

Jan 8, 2022

Before COVID-19, I spent a fair amount of time on airplanes. Travelling for work, travelling for fun – it was part of my routine. The endless “hurry up and wait” of airport travel was built into the fabric of my life. When it all disappeared, I enjoyed eliminating that time spent waiting at the departure gate, sitting on the runway and gliding WiFi-less through the air facing a selection of movies I’d either already seen or didn’t want to see. Or so I thought.

You see, in the confined space of an airplane seat, my usual distractions of exercise, internet, cooking or calling friends weren’t options. Truth is, I realized, a small part of me relished that time. It was the part that saved the “hard thinking” for when I knew I’d be strapped in and undistracted for several hours at a stretch. Thinking back, I experienced key moments of self discovery, planned for big creative projects, and organized difficult thoughts while hurtling along at 700 kilometres an hour. While I don’t miss the stress of tight connections, the aimless airport wandering and the inflight food, I do miss having built-in boredom.

Many of us have bid goodbye to long commutes in favour of waking up, pulling on a different T-shirt than the one we slept in, and logging on. We’ve started working from anywhere – bedrooms and kitchens, cars and coffee shops – and even while walking the dog. This flexibility has meant that I’m “working” most any time I’m not actively engaged in something else, even if the workday is well over. And even though I’ve always tried to maintain control over my screen time, I find myself slipping into work e-mail or endless social media scrolling the second I’m not actively doing something else. I’m never bored any more. In fact, it’s almost as I’ve forgotten how to be bored.

I recently had the opportunity to travel for work once again. Boarding the flight, I was checking my e-mails until the last possible moment before putting my phone in airplane mode. We took off (which had me watching out the window like a kid again as we climbed up and everything got smaller and smaller) and I reached for my phone … only to be reminded that there is nothing to do on it with no internet.

I stared out the window and tried to recognize some of the mountains we flew over. I read the plane safety card. I read the airsickness bag. I not very subtly watched part of my neighbour’s movie until they gave me a sharp look. I stared out the window again and tried to remember how refraction and light work. I checked my phone to confirm that it had turned into a useless brick. I looked at some old photos on it anyway.

An engineer by training, I animate videos relevant to energy transition, safety systems and other topics that capture my interest; coupled with a life-long love affair with journaling and drawing, this means that I carry an unlined notebook everywhere.

Eventually, I reached into my bag for it and started to draw. I drew plans for a course. I practised drawing animation poses (happy, sad, exultant, grumpy), which reminded me of a script I wanted to build. By the time the wheels touched down, I was engrossed in actively thinking about our world, my insights and what I want to do with it all.

For the first time in far too long, I had the unstructured and disciplined space to be creative in boredom.

I will soon be travelling for work – and, I hope, for fun – once more. I probably won’t fly as frequently or as long haul as I used to, but I recognize that I need to make peace with boredom as a necessary part of building in creative space. Even when I’m not hurtling through the air.

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