How do I learn to stop and smell the roses?
November 12, 2006 4:44 PM   Subscribe

What the hell is wrong with me? Why do I tend to fill my spare time with brainless crap? There's

I’ve always considered myself to be a very introspective and thoughtful kind of person. The kind of person who would keep a journal, or enjoy painting and reading. In my mind’s eye, I imagine that these activities would bring me a great deal of satisfaction. The problem, however, is that I find such pursuits to be incredibly boring.

Instead, I spend most of my spare time ‘zoning out’ to the TV / Internet / video games.

I work a lot, and have convinced myself that these kinds of mindless activities are soothing. And they are, to a certain extent. But I’m beginning to notice that I’m not getting out of them what I say I’m getting out of them. I can spend an entire day doing ‘nothing’ and still not feel like I’ve recharged my batteries.

I want to learn how to enjoy more creative pursuits. Help me be a better person. Has anybody had any experience with teaching themselves to enjoy a more deliberate lifestyle?
posted by richmondparker to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Full disclosure first: you've described a personal frustration of mine more with uncanny precision, so it's not like I've found a fool-proof solution.

That said, it might be helpful to approach this issue as you would a new exercise regime. Creative activities are more satisfying than 'zoning out' in part because they're more demanding. You need to build your creative muscles as you would physical ones. That means a regular, consistent routine--even (especially) when it is difficult or boring to follow. I wouldn't expect to reap too many rewards right away. After a couple of weeks, however, you may find your more expressive free-time activities to be more fulfilling and actually easier than zoning out.

Pick one or two of your desired activities (painting, reading), and try to do them at the same time every day (or every other day), and for the same amount of time. Be rigorous with yourself; DO NOT allow yourself to slip from your schedule in the first few weeks. I'd imagine that after this initial period, you'll be looking forward to your creative time all day.
posted by scarylarry at 5:09 PM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try Rumi's (the Coleman Barks translation is particularly good) or Kabir's writings. They're great for breaking you out of the narrowed-perspective state you seem to be in.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:15 PM on November 12, 2006

Hipster PDA

When you have a thought, write it down. Keep it until you've done something about it, or until you're really certain it's not worth doing.
posted by Arcaz Ino at 5:15 PM on November 12, 2006

Also, as hinted at by the high number of favorites this thread has had already, nearly everyone has this problem. Of the few that don't, of course, many are unhappy and unstable.
posted by Arcaz Ino at 5:23 PM on November 12, 2006

Here's how my wife and I stopped watching tv:

* No cable.
* No antenna. (One channel comes in well enough to watch in case we need to see the news or something.)
* We can watch as much tv as we want when we're somewhere other than our house.
* Occasionally we watch a movie on dvd.

If you watch as much tv (and rent as many dvds) as we did, you'll now have at least 30 extra hours per week in which to do something else.
posted by melvix at 5:23 PM on November 12, 2006

I don't own a TV. My boyfriend has a TV with a TiVo. I TiVo all my favorite shows all week, and watch them in one lump on the weekend. So, instead of wasting 3-4 hours every night watching the TV just because it's on, I only watch 4-6 hours a week of stuff I really like.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:29 PM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

A friend who made incredible progress on restoring his car had this simple rule: those times when he was going to watch TV, he worked on his project instead. At first he missed his regular shows but quite quickly the satisfaction from the strides he was making caused him to lose interest in TV completely.

Give it a shot.
posted by maxwelton at 5:31 PM on November 12, 2006

First of all, don't throw the baby out with the bath. A little bit of TV can be extremely enriching and intellectually stimulating. Just ask any "Lost" afficionado.

You mention that you think you might do well at writing in a journal. So why not do it? Get a Moleskine and allow yourself to fall victim to "Moleskine-lust" ... carry it with you everywhere, buy yourself a nice pen, write down whatever you feel like. Do it for fun, not because you think it says something about you.

Finally, a thought experiment. You mention that you feel the constant need to "recharge your batteries." So, what if your work situation could be changed so that you weren't exhausted - so that your batteries didn't need so much recharging. What would you do with your spare time if that were the case?

Whatever the answer is to that question, do those things.
posted by jbickers at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2006

The problem, however, is that I find such pursuits to be incredibly boring.

Maybe you should try something other than these activities. Take a scuba diving class. Join chess club. Find interesting things going on from your newspaper. 'cause you're bored and maybe depressed (you mentioned you work a lot, has that got you down?). You're takind the easy route for your entertainment/stimulation, but that mind of yours is craving more.

Scary larry has good ideas, plus an unspoken point--you're going to have to do some work here. Part of the distraction of tv/videogames/internet is that it's so easy to be entertained without putting out much effort.

Time for you have some fun discovering new things, but realize it's gonna be touch and go as you find these things. Not everything is going to work out for you right away.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:35 PM on November 12, 2006

Maybe they make you lonely. (TV and Internet are more "interactive" and I heart they appeal to extroverts stuck at home alone). So maybe try a writing group or art class.
posted by salvia at 6:48 PM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Watch out for things like TIVOs that push content to you - that can be a road to overload.

Can a TIVO save you time? Sure - you get to skip all the crap. However, if you start subscribing to too much stuff, you end up with a big backlog of TV shows that you "have" to watch.

The same applies to RSS. Earlier, I would only visit some sites once a week and spend maybe ten minutes on each. Now that I've subscribed via RSS, all of it's content is pushed to me, and I read it all. Add a lot of these channels, and suddenly you haven't saved any time at all!

I second the "stop watching tv" rule, too. It's the biggest time-waster ever. Cancel your cable and after a month or two without it, you won't even miss it any more.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:48 PM on November 12, 2006

Oh, and one more thing: If you find yourself having trouble getting motivated, find a partner. If you schedule some time to paint together at a friend's house, you'll be more likely to keep the committment. The same goes for exercising, going out to cultural events, etc.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:50 PM on November 12, 2006

Watch TV with a laptop in your lap. That way you can more efficiently waste your time by browsing the internet while watching TV.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:06 PM on November 12, 2006

Consider Keri Smith's suggestions.
posted by azul at 10:00 PM on November 12, 2006

I should really respond to this later when I have more time, but it's possible this is a perfectionist problem. As someone with such a streak, I find myself sometimes eschewing doing more challenging (but more rewarding things) because I don't believe my mood is right to enjoy them as they should be enjoyed or done like they should be done. But then my mood is never quite right. There is no failure in watching tv or surfing the web or playing video games (ok, so the last case is hard to make, but when you die, you get up again) so they are "safe" for perfectionists.

Of course, getting away from this form of perfectionism involves admitting that you're going to do things imperfectly. Ideally, the fear of failure is gone, but unfortunately it seems to also underwrite the acceptability of doing the imperfect things (watching tv, etc). If I ever get this hump figured out, I'll let you know.
posted by ontic at 10:59 PM on November 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

Are you physically fit? The RCAF-developed 5BX and XBX training programs take less than quarter of an hour per day, and they really do work.

I've recently got back into doing 5BX every morning, after a long period of telling myself and the world that exercise is just too hard for me because I'm fat; and even though I'm still only three levels from the bottom of the easiest chart, it's already paying dividends. My batteries don't seem to run down anywhere near as fast as they have been, and I find myself less inclined to just sludge out and more inclined to Do Other Things.
posted by flabdablet at 3:59 AM on November 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

I also have this problem and can't claim to have solved it but I believe this phenomenon comes down to excessive stress, tension and anxiety. I personally never feel at all relaxed unless I make a conscious decision to let the tension out of my muscles, so I'm trying to make a habit of doing that whenever I remember. It can be done while watching TV or at work or whatever. As well as being very pleasurable in its own right, being physically relaxed promotes relaxed thinking, which means that maybe creative activities will seem more like fun and less like The Ultimate Test of Richmondparker as a Human Being.

Obviously if you're using a ton of caffeine every day this willl be harder, I have not quit altogether but limit myself to no more than one small drink in a day - this has helped noticeably.
posted by teleskiving at 4:18 AM on November 13, 2006

If they're boring, they're not for you - but that doesn't mean that similar activities won't engage you, keep trying things. (Also, many hobbies are practical, eg, the payoff is the thing you have created, which is worth the bordom it took to create it. These may be hard to start out with, because it takes a few failed projects to develop sufficient skill to make something non-lame enough that you feel it was worth the time).

However, as to actually getting started, for me, I promise myself on the way home from work that I'm going to sit down and start working on whatever the current project is. After that, I can go watch TV or whatever, but I have to at least sit down and have a go. More often than not, once I start, I soon get into it, and don't stop until much later. Other times, I just don't get into it, and go do something else. In this way, I can seperate lack of motivation due to just-got-home-from-work, from lack of motivation due to I'm-really-NOT-in-the-mood-today, and if it's the former, get past it and get stuff done.

A friend of mine also has some excellant advice - do something on it every day. It doesn't matter how much or how little, just do something every day. Presumably this has a similar effect for him - it gives you a chance to get into the zone, and if that's not going to happen, it's no big loss - just a few minutes finding out it's just not going to happen that day.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:40 AM on November 13, 2006

I struggle with this problem every day, and judging by the number of favorites, we are by far not the only ones.

I second both the recommendation and note of caution about Tivo. It does make my TV-watching more purposeful, since I have a list of pre-chosen programs to choose from; however, sometimes looking at that list is simply overwhelming. Self-control is necessary to whittle that list down, or to allow programs to delete themselves after just a day or two.

Instead of plunging right into painting or things like that, you might try some good old multitasking. I love casual watercolor painting (basically doodling); set up a table in front of the TV and paint while you watch.

When I get too caught up in mindless activities, sometimes I just have to get up and physically leave. Take a journal to a park, or even just to the porch; write little stories about the people around you, or just transcribe your internal monologue. Also, I know that with journaling, I have a HUGE problem with self-editing to the point of giving up before I even start; I'm working on convincing myself that my journals don't have to be masterpieces of prose and content, they just have to reflect me.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 6:10 AM on November 13, 2006

The problem with internet is that it is tied to many of our pasttimes. If I want to write a letter to someone, I sit down. If I want to play music or look for new music or make a cd for someone, I sit down. If I want to make plans to go out, I look up directions, movie times, etc. online. I've noticed that I'll deliberately leave the computer to do other things, only to find myself sitting back down to find whatever recipe or upload photographs or send someone a quick note.

In other words, it all comes back to sitting right back down. So the key is to shut it off, and pledge to leave it off for at least 2 hours. Play music with a separate device. If you think of something you need to do on the computer, write it down on a slip of paper that you keep by the computer. Later, when you get back on, you have a list of things to do instead of just "zoning out".

This isn't something you'll have to do forever: it's simply about breaking your behavior patterns. Once you do, you'll experience some discomfort, but as the patterns break there is potential for new ones to emerge. Putting yourself through a mandatory blackout periods is good for you; you'll find things to do pretty quickly if you are just plain not allowed to shuffle back and forth from screen to screen. Eventually you'll be able to count on yourself to nourish all aspects of our time alone and won't have to be so rigid. Until then, you have some behavioral conditioning to do.

Why are you still reading this? Shut it down!!!

posted by hermitosis at 7:53 AM on November 13, 2006

If they're boring, they're not for you

I dunno, I think it's become really hard in the modern world to give enough time and energy to pursuits like these to get past the boring part and into the satisfaction it can ultimately produce. A lot of things that will ultimately have enormous payback will not immediately feel exciting. There is a lot of hard work involved in these kinds of pursuits, and I think we often forget that or imagine that if it's really meant to be, it'll just be like "love at first sight" - you just sit down and a novel flows out of you or something. But talk to most successful people, and that's not how it actually went.

I also spend way too much time on my computer - like hermitosis said, everything I do can trace back to it, so even if I'm meant to be working on some writing in Word, I can easily switch over to check my email, or visit MeFi or watch/listen to something in iTunes, or whatever. That makes it hard to find the time to concentrate, because every 10 minutes I can just "take a break" and then I never get into the level of focus that is really necessary to get something done.

My current strategies - and they do not always work, but they have helped me somewhat - are to section out certain blocks of time, and to note certain tasks that must be completed within the week. So if I must be writing from 12-2, that means no browsing or emailing or whatever, and even if I'm bored or not having any ideas, I have to just keep reading over what's written, and adding possible notes, and keeping my mind on it, until something happens. Sometimes it's not as productive as I'd like, but usually after I struggle through the 'getting started' part, I start to get invested in an idea, and I even lose track of the time and spend longer than intended etc. As for the 'tasks', I make some of them simple enough so that if I'm really getting nowhere, I can do something fairly easy that will "count", like reading a section of a not-too-difficult book (I always have a few different books on the list, to compensate for different moods).

I don't currently have a TV but watch too much crap on itunes & youtube, and manage to waste entire days just daydreaming or listening to the radio, so that alone is not a final answer. I think what you said about being "deliberate" is key. What do you want to accomplish? set a goal, work back from it, and try to complete a small portion of it each day. Then reward yourself with some free TV time. But don't get discouraged because it isn't initially sweeping you off your feet. You have to shut out the noise, relax the soul, and give yourself time to find out if these things will make your life better.

I'd also recommend visiting nature now and then, if it's the least bit feasible. I really wish I could see the empty heavens or the quiet forest more often. I can't think how to phrase it that doesn't sound cliche, but the modern technology soaked world hardly has room for that kind of patience and beauty, and I'd bet we're collectively poorer for it.
posted by mdn at 8:30 AM on November 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I force myself to do more creative things (which I enjoy but put off using internet/tv) by taking classes and getting out of the house. I'm always reluctant to pay to take art classes, but I am always glad I have a structured time where I have to show up and do something. The money part actually helps because if I don't go, I am wasting that money as well as my time.

As for reading, again- get out of the house and go to a coffeeshop or sit in a public library or a park where you won't have as many distractions.
posted by rmless at 11:25 AM on November 13, 2006

I've also had success with rmless's suggestion - paying for a (practical) class, even if you've taken it before and don't expect to learn much from it, is a useful way to ensure you keep working on something, or practising, or whatever. (And even if you've taken it before, a good teacher/instructor will ensure they send some more advanced stuff your way, to keep you on your toes).
posted by -harlequin- at 3:49 PM on November 13, 2006

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