boredom and the shape of time

The Cut magazine has a recurring feature called I Think About This A Lot, devoted to those pop-culture moments that writers have on repeat in their head, such as George Lucas’ cameo in The O.C., or Elle Woods’ restaurant meltdown in Legally Blonde. I have a lot of these, but one that’s been floating around in my brain recently is the units of time theory in About A Boy. 

Hugh Grant’s character, Will Freeman, is unemployed, footloose and fancy-free (yes, the protagonist’s name is a bit on the nose), an island of a man, and he has a methodic approach to filling up his solitary days:

“I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit. Watching Countdown: one unit. Web-based research: two units. Exercising: three units. Having my hair carefully dishevelled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job. How do people cram them in?”

If boredom has a shape, it’s an unattractive amorphous blob, a flubber of ennui which creeps its way through your windows, slithers under your door, fills up your bones with useless marrow. It’s a being I’m intimately acquainted with right now, and it’s tempting to cut the blob into those manageable cubes of 30 minutes to stop myself feeling like I’ve spent an entire week in the same position in the same chair.

You may have heard of the Pomodoro technique, a productivity method which tells you to work for 25 minutes and break for 5; the theory being that 25 minutes is the optimum length of time to concentrate on one task. You can find any number of tomato-themed timers online which beep at you angrily when you’re meant to get up and walk about. Inevitably my 5-minute break turns into 10 or 15 as I get distracted by the crossword, or doing my washing, or eating half a jar of chocolate peanut butter. But it lends a skeleton structure to a day of sitting alone at a desk, hours where I try to resist the temptation to pester my housemates for the milk of human contact. 

I’ve always been quite a food-focused person, never long without thinking about what my next meal is going to be (is there a word for the irrational fear of feeling hungry?) but now I crave these meals, obsess about when lunch and dinner will be, simply to break up the day with an activity. Meanwhile, going to the supermarket feels like an actual event. And then there’s the constant snacking. The Japanese apparently have a word – “kuchisabishii” – which translates as “lonely mouth” – the hunger or peckishness born of boredom, where you find yourself wandering to the fridge for the third time in an hour with no real idea of what you want. There’s an analogy I could draw here with a tiger pacing in its cage, but tigers aren’t typically allowed out for a few miles of running every day.

I’m sure we’ll look back on parts of now with rose-tinted glasses, talk about the luxury of time, not having to be anywhere, or rush, or double-book ourselves. But I’m craving the busyness of our former selves. I say this from the luxurious position of a faux-busy person; no children to be responsible for, no business to run. My busyness was all the self-imposed, fun kind. My days were pen-scrawled entries in a battered diary, carried with me everywhere. (My addiction to IRL paper planners was a habit formed in school and never broken, and this was the first year I haven’t cracked open the spine of a fresh Moleskine come January.)

Part of the relief of Boris and co’s roadmap out of this is surely down to the fact that it gives the months ahead of us shape and hue; instead of the grey days bleeding into grey weeks, hope has formed and coloured them. Now, March is the faintest primrose yellow, a watercolour paint streak on a blank canvas. April is the green of a daffodil’s stem, pushing bold and bright from the earth. And May is the colour of sunrise, the shimmer of a new day washing across the sky. Thanks to the last year, I know we shouldn’t get overexcited by promises of freedom, but you can’t help but feel hopeful when the world around you is waking up from winter. 


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