We’ve all uttered it. If you’re a parent, you’ve heard it a thousand times. And even now, as an adult, you’ve felt it—even if you didn’t say it like a whiny seven year old.
What I’m realizing is that we got boredom totally wrong. Boredom is actually a gift.
I look back on those long summers in the 60s and they’re some of the greatest of my life, even though I was “bored” for much of the time. Days that stretched forever. “Nothing to do.” Minutes moving like glaciers. But those were the days where I was forged, where who I am today began asserting itself.
When I was bored, I learned to navigate the rugged coasts of the tiny Maine fishing village I called home. When I was bored, I figured out how to make money mowing lawns and painting houses. When I was bored, I discovered my athletic potential and set the stage for my eventual career in health and fitness. I didn’t have any choice—there weren’t any video games, iPads, or streaming media networks to distract me.
A child, any child, is a true master of the art of boredom. They have the entire package: imagination, creativity, a psyche unencumbered by the expectations of society. They’re masters, that is, until you snuff it out of them or give them an easy out by sticking a screen in front of them or orchestrating the perfect use of their free time with dance lessons and play dates and other extracurriculars. No, there’s nothing wrong with dance lessons or gymnastics class, but they can’t—nay, shouldn’t—replace the unfettered roving creativity of a bored child forced to fend for him or herself.
Looking back, I realize that my extreme boredom was a gift. Although the child doesn’t appreciate it in the moment, as long as you don’t give in and take the easy way out by providing cheap distractions, the child will transmute the boredom into kinetic, creative energy. I’m serious here, try it.
Next time your kid says “I’m bored,” do nothing. Don’t react. Don’t relent. If you must, give a nudge like “Go outside and play.” That’s probably enough to get them going and the magic happening.
Those are kids, though. They are subject to the whims of their parents. If you want, you can withhold devices and other distractions and the kid simply has no choice but to deal with—and overcome—the boredom. What about adults? What about you, reading this right now? How can you become a master of boredom and use it to your advantage?
It’s harder than it sounds. The modern world is safe, comfortable, predictable, linear. You know everything there is to know, or, at least, you can look it up on your phone and get a reasonably correct answer. Many of us have jobs that require us to sit in a chair in the same spot for hours at a time staring at words and images on a screen. We drive home along the same route, have the same nighttime routine, brush our teeth before flossing before rubbing on face oil in the same order. That’s the beauty of modern life but it’s also the downside. When things are too safe and easy and readily available, we don’t have to worry about dying or starving or a paycheck or marauding armies laying waste to our homes—but we get bored.
Much “boredom” is actually just restlessness. It’s feeling like you should be doing something. Rather than boredom, it’s actually guilt. You feel bad about being idle and can’t accept that doing nothing may actually have value and merit. But since you can’t think of something productive to do, you flounder. The trick is accepting the idleness for what it is without ascribing value judgements: Sometimes there’s just nothing to do and that’s okay.
Some researchers have looked into the “function” of boredom and hypothesize that it acts as motivation to switch from an unsatisfying pursuit to a more satisfying pursuit. In other words, boredom is the “trigger” for a person to try something new when the current activity isn’t working. That suggests that you should listen to boredom, but it also presupposes that your sense of boredom is “right.” Maybe it’s not.
But say the boredom is real (or feels real). Say you’re legitimately bored. What do you do? How should you deal with boredom?
Get up and move.
I don’t mean do a workout, although that is an option. I mean move through space and time. When you sit in the same spot, time blurs together. Moments get sticky, like clotted red blood cells. You’re in a daze, you can’t tell one hour from the next. You’re stuck in place with nothing new entering your experience. It’s no wonder you’re bored.
Stand up. Go. Take a walk. Go water plants. Grab a coffee. Handle that thing you’ve been wanting to do for a long time but never find the courage to actually try. Boredom is inertia, and movement makes it dissipate.
Get off the hamster wheel of distractions.
How many people have experienced this?
You’re bored, so you open up Facebook and see what people have posted—you get on the wheel. After a couple minutes you run up against posts you’ve already seen, so you switch to Instagram. Then you flip through Twitter, then Reddit, then email, and back to Facebook. And on, and on, and on. Every time the boredom leaks through, you rush over to the next distraction. This continues into perpetuity. If you let it, it never stops, and you’re never content. Before long, the sun is going down and you just wasted the entire day. And the boredom is still right there waiting for you to step off the wheel, stronger than ever.
You haven’t fixed the problem. You’ve ignored the problem, and it’s only gotten worse.
Enrich your environment.
An older study separated minks into unenriched environments—plain, basic, boring cages with nothing to do—and enriched environments—cages with lots of toys and things to climb and play with—and exposed both groups to the same types of stimuli, including blowing air on them, introducing strange objects like candles, or dangling toys for them to chase. The minks in the unenriched environments were far quicker to react to the stimuli, an indication of increased boredom.
“Environmental enrichment” is relative. Your house probably isn’t as bad as the lab mink’s sterile cage, so you don’t need to install tunnels and rope toys to enrich your environment. Instead, make your home a place of beauty and contentment. Keep it clean. Fill it with books and art. Open up the windows to let fresh air in. Turn it into a place where you feel at peace.
You can also just go outside. I often find that if I’m struggling through some “boring” work, taking it outside suddenly makes it bearable again.
Sit with the boredom.
This is the hardest step to take because it’s not really a step, but it’s not most important. It’s doing nothing. It’s often the only one you need to fix the problem.
Let the boredom consume you. Don’t attempt to head it off at the pass with distractions. Yes, this is difficult. You don’t have a parental overlord limiting your options and forcing you to get past the boredom. But just like you did 30 years ago lying on the bedroom floor with your feet up on the bed spotting figures and faces in the popcorn ceiling at 2 PM on a summer afternoon because there was nothing else to do, you’ll get through this bout of boredom. Maybe some idea will come to you in a flash, and you’ll leap up and engage with it. Or perhaps the beauty of the mundane inherent to the present moment will dawn on you, seep into your system, and crowd out the boredom. Maybe you’ll become at peace with your boredom. Whatever happens, because you sat with the boredom and didn’t fight it, you can trust that whatever solution presented itself is a noble, helpful one.
That’s where the magic happens. That’s where the gift of boredom emerges, and it’s where you really turn the tables. If you’re okay with being bored, if you can accept that state of mind, you’re no longer bored. And when boredom isn’t an issue anymore, you can use it to start living, and creating, and embodying who you truly are.
How do you deal with boredom? Do you find it to be an ally or an enemy?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.
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