I get about a dozen emails or comments on social media every month asking me what to do when you wake up one day and you realize you’re bored and you feel like your photographs are boring and because the only only thing worse than making boring photographs is being bored yourself, and because I think there’s a connection, I want to talk about it.
I have this sneaking feeling that when we create while bored, assuming the act of creating doesn’t pull us out of that boredom, there’s a good chance that what we make will be, well, boring. I also think boredom is just one of those obstacles in the life of any creative person and what you do with it will determine how quickly you get back to the work of making things you love, that stir you – and others – and take you to new and interesting places in your creative life.
So what is boredom and how do we get past it to the place where we’re making exciting images again and finding greater satisfaction in our work? First, I’m not a psychologist so on some level I’m just kind of making this up, but I’m doing so after 24 years of making my living from my creativity and dealing way too often with boredom. The best definition I ever heard of boredom is that it’s “the lack of a lack.”
We’re not good with nothing to push us, nothing to discover, to figure out, without challenge. I talk often about creativity needing something to push against, like a muscle. Our attention is like that too – it’s needs to be looking for something it doesn’t already have or learning something it doesn’t know. It needs something to gnaw on. Boredom is like the hunger of our minds, of our attention. It’s our brain screaming out for something to chew on. I’m pretty sure you won’t find that in a text book, but it’s the best way I can describe how it works in my own life and how it threatens my creativity and productivity.
So what do I do when I’m bored?
Same thing I do when I’m hungry. I get something to eat. I feed my brain the thing it craves: challenge. I give it something it’s no good at, something hard, something unfamiliar. I give it a hole to fill. And the more bored I am, the bigger the challenge I need. What does that look like? It depends on the context in which I’m feeling that boredom, but if it’s with my camera in hand I do something different, go somewhere different. I give myself a problem to figure out. Something hard. I learn a new technique or photograph something I’ve never photographed before.
A couple years ago I was bored in Venice and combined that with my frustration about selfie sticks and I went out just to clear the cobwebs and I pushed myself to shoot pure candids, with a longer lens. Some people feel really uncomfortable getting close to people with their camera. I’m the opposite. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with a long lens. I feel like a voyeur. A sniper. So I went out determined to photograph people with selfie sticks and it was a challenge but it sparked something because it was a new subject and it was a challenge, if not technically then emotionally and creatively. And I ended up staying out much longer than I expected and creating work I loved and the boredom disappeared. It also lead to a whole new personal project that I’m still working on and I’m loving the challenge.
Here are a few of the images from Venice and the subsequent longer-term project:
I don’t know a lot of people who just naturally choose to maintain the creative discomfort of constant challenge. It feels good to just kind of coast along. But without challenge we will never get to the state of creative productivity and satisfaction that we know as “flow.” Flow is the state of mind we hit when the creative challenge we undertake is just a little out of reach of our skill or comfort level. So we have something to reach for, we’re just pushing beyond our limits, but never so much that we feel like it’s impossible and we give up. Flow is that state of being where we get so immersed in something that time just passes unnoticed. It’s also the state of being in which we make our best work, and I’d be willing to say it’s opposite is boredom. But the pre-requisite is challenge. No challenge, no flow.
So if you’re stuck, and you’re bored and you look at the work you’re making and you feel nothing but ambivalence toward it, perhaps it’s time to shake things up, to give yourself a new challenge, to create some constraints for yourself. Learn to do something new or use a new piece of gear. Pick a new compositional element and learn to use it well. When’s the last time you made a photo-essay or spent a week making portraits of people on the streets when the last thing in the world you want to do is talk to strangers? If you’re serious about escaping your boredom, challenge yourself. That challenge can lead to flow and flow leads – eventually – to our best work. It won’t be comfortable but if you find boredom even more uncomfortable, this is the only way I’ve found to dig myself, and it works every time. Boredom and flow can’t occupy the same space in my brain, and flow always wins if the challenge is right. So, if you’re stuck and you want a quick hand – here are 3 things you can do to get out of boredom and into flow.
Challenge Your Ideas.
As a photographer that might mean picking up a book of photographs that you might not normally enjoy, or work by someone you might never have heard of. Just expose yourself to something different. A constant diet of new ideas, and new subject matter will keep your brain working.
Challenge Your Skills.
Pick up a new piece of gear or learn a new technique just for the challenge of it, and see if you can’t find a way to work that into what you do. For some of you that might mean a step backwards and just learning to shoot manually, for others it might be learning to shoot slower exposures and playing with intentional camera movements. Others might want to just try a different subject – try photographing nudes or abstracts or macros. New challenges means new skills and eventually new possibilities.
Challenge, or Change, Your Context.
Go somewhere different. It doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic, it just has to be different. Go to photograph somewhere you’re not used to, even a little uncomfortable with. Closer to home find a park or part of town you’ve not been to, or explore a time of time you’ve never explored. Take your camera out at midnight. Or do a road trip to a town you’ve never been to and just explore.
And here’s an extra one: Collaborate.
Find someone to do something together with. Call a photographer and do a project together – even if you’re around the world. Pick a theme and work together on it, Allow the ideas of another person to challenge your own and allow your ideas to perhaps challenge theirs. Whatever you do, life is too short to just sit around truly bored. There’s a place for little moments of boredom, we need that time to incubate ideas. But long-term boredom and lack of challenge is lethal to our creative lives and the work we should be doing, so challenge it, and change things up,
Thanks so much for joining me. If you’re not already getting my emails, go to MyContactSheet.com and the first email I’ll send you will have links to four of my best-selling ebooks about making better photographs, yours free and with my gratitude.
This is a transcript from Vision Is Better, Episode 72. If you’d rather listen to it as an Mp3 file you can download that here, and if you’d rather watch the episode on YouTube, you can so that here.
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thanks David, good one. Although, seeking a challenge is sometimes hard to do against a pretty deep tiredness and lack of inspiration. Well, i guess it takes that effort.
Hi David. I do like your “lack of a lack” expression. Not sure if you ever read the book ‘101 Dalmations’ and its sequel, but in the latter (Starlight Barking) Dodi Smith coins the expression ‘longing for the longing’. Another neat expression of ennui or boredom.
Ha! Moving to Ecuador has eliminated any “boredom” problems for me for the forseeable future. Truly a goldmine for a photographer, any really not captured by the photography world to any large extent. I’m getting the best work in years…
My web site doesn’t reflect it yet, but soon.
I’m also learning Spanish, no time to be bored!
David, thanks so much for this. I have been bored with my photography for some time. Not the stuff I did before, I like that stuff. I just haven’t been able to come up with something that moves me since. I’m taking the Compelling Frame course so hopefully that will help me out. I’m also thinking some form of accountability would help me. One image a week sort of thing. Anyway, thanks again.