Want a More Satisfying Life? Learn to Embrace Boredom

I think about weird subjects a lot.

Like how I would survive a zombie apocalypse.

And where I would live if I were homeless.

And what my final meal would be if I knew I was going to die tomorrow.

A frequent topic in my rotation is how to entertain myself if I were locked in a dungeon. I think I’d make up fairytales and share them with my dungeon mates to improve morale. I’d do push-ups until I had Instagram-worthy biceps. I’d devise escape schemes à la Shawshank Redemption. But one thing I wouldn’t do?

Complain about boredom.

In the early days of lockdown, when a friend of mine lamented about how bored he was, I found myself mind-boggled.

Bored?

It didn’t compute.

I have a Bucket List a mile long. And if ever I found myself with stretches of empty hours, I would fill them with some combination of the following:

  • learning Portuguese
  • reading all seven Narnia books
  • finishing Neil Gaiman’s masterclass on writing
  • sewing underwear from scratch
  • baking scones
  • learning to cast runes…

And the list goes on. (And on).

But the reality is I have no time to do any of those things because empty hours are like unicorns. They don’t exist.

I’ll admit that, at the time, I felt a bit smug at my inability to relate to my buddy’s boredom. I assumed it meant I was busy doing very important things. It meant I was doing life right.

Until I discovered I was totally wrong.

It turns out, for creative types, boredom is not only good, it’s necessary.

Never letting yourself be bored is the psychological equivalent of trying to grow a garden in nutrient-deficient soil. And in today’s society, the experience of boredom is becoming increasingly rare.

For many, boredom has become synonymous with wastefulness or foolishness. To combat this, we’ve created a smorgasbord of distractions, from social media and “edutainment” sites like BuzzFeed to phone games and Netflix. Regardless of whether these activities could be considered a waste of time, we believe they are not so much a waste of time as doing nothing.

As a result, a person choosing to embrace boredom must actively resist the multitude of shiny objects begging for their attention. Given that our willpower is a limited resource, this makes doing nothing strangely difficult.

Adding to the challenge is the domineering work culture (pervasive in the United States, especially) that tells us we’re always supposed to be doing something.

This survey found that the average American has only taken 54 percent of his or her eligible paid time off in the past 12 months. This statistic suggests that we have criminalized leisure time to such a degree that people feel if they dare to request vacation days, they will be stigmatized as lazy or disloyal.

While “busy” is seen as a badge of honor, “bored” is something you have to hide from the neighbors.

Why You Should Flex Your Boredom Muscle

Given the prevalence of workaholism and distracting shiny objects, embracing boredom is now counter to human nature.

Nonetheless, Heidi Hannah, CEO of Synergy Brain Fitness, insists that “if we are to train our brains to become more versatile, flexible and resilient, we must ultimately be able to shift out of problem-solving mode and into reflective, insight mode by practicing our ability to do nothing at all.”

So boredom makes our brains more resilient and  is a skill that can be trained. But this isn’t the only reason you should try boredom for yourself.

Boredom Aids Insights

Our brains can process a lot of information non-consciously — 400 billion bits per second, in fact. By comparison, our conscious resources process closer to 2,000 bits per second. This is why complex issues tend to unravel themselves when we aren’t focused on them and, instead, are engaged in simple, pleasant or repetitive tasks.

It’s why you have your best ideas in the shower.

As I mentioned earlier, boredom is like letting fields lie fallow in agriculture. Just as the time off from the growing cycle helps the soil regenerate, time off from critical thinking is crucial for revitalizing our creative problem-solving centers.

Boredom Breeds Curiosity

This paper suggests that boredom is a signal that your current goals are not motivating you, which can push you to pursue alternatives. Our brains crave novelty, so anything we experience again and again eventually morphs from satisfying into something we take for granted.

Restlessness and boredom, therefore, are signals that you’re craving new goals or interests. This was no doubt the impetus for the quote — often attributed to Dorothy Parker — that “the cure for boredom is curiosity.”

Unfortunately, in our ever-connected culture, we have learned to satisfy the restlessness of boredom by swiping across the screens of our ubiquitous technology. Each time we do this, we feed our curiosity intellectual junk food and deny it the playfulness that leads to innovative ideas.

Boredom Can Steer You Toward Fulfillment

Scholars suggest that attention management is the key to improving every aspect of our life experience. I always assumed that quieting the mind through meditation and cultivating focus were the only ways to accomplish this — without ever realizing that “attention management” also relates to how we respond to boredom.

If indeed, we can train our brains to become hardier via attention management, and doing so positively impacts our sense of fulfillment, then cultivating a tolerance for boredom deserves, ironically, to be at the top of our To-Do lists. As author Maria Popova discovered by dissecting fellow artists’ routines, boredom is where “a lot of magical things happen.” If you want proof, check out what Nina Katchadourian does when she’s bored on an airplane.

That said, here are some steps you can take to invite more boredom into your life. I’ll approach these from the perspective of the workaholic — who likely breaks out in hives at the notion of sitting still and doing nothing — and from the POV of the hyper-connected distraction junkie.

Tips for Embracing Boredom

Workaholics, we’ll start with you. You likely subscribe to a belief system that values hours put in over the quality of your work. Not that quality doesn’t matter to you — it certainly does — but if you put a million hours into a project you can judge it to be high-quality based on that merit alone.

So, on your behalf, let’s make the argument that it’s better to be doing something than to be doing nothing. Here’s how you might want to tackle boredom.

A Rose By Another Name. . . Just Sounds Better

As we learned above, in a state of boredom, we can become curious. So what if we became curious about the boredom itself.

Hmm, what is my mind doing?

What am I thinking about?

What am I feeling right now? Where do I hold this emotion in my body?

Do you know what this type of questioning is called?

It’s called mindfulness.

And if it helps your overachieving brain to think of this time as being “present” rather than being bored, you still get to feel productive.

In fact, let’s just stop calling it boredom altogether and just call it prolonged contemplation.

Doesn’t that feel better?

Make Your Meditation “Productive”

Counterintuitively, productive meditation is a thing.

Actually, I’d make the argument that all meditation is productive — it reduces stress, provides mental management training and offers myriad other benefits. Nonetheless, many people have a tendency to view meditation as doing nothing — so if this is you, I offer this trick to give your inner workaholic something to chew on.

Before you begin to meditate, select a challenging personal or professional problem on which you’d like some clarity. Hold that in your mind as you begin. Whereas typically you’d corral your errant thoughts by coming back to the breath, in this case, you’ll want to keep bringing your mind back to the problem you wish to solve.

This technique has been used by many great minds throughout history, most especially in tandem with long, repetitive walks. Jung and Darwin solved problems by traversing the same paths over and over and Nietzche famously said, “only ideas won by walking have any value.”

Structure Your Time

Now let’s shift gears and address the people who are glued to their phones.

Podcaster Manoush Zomorodi once sat on a Manhattan street corner and noted that out of 1000 people that walked by, 315 of them were looking at their phones. So roughly one-in-three commuters felt it necessary to stare at their phone screens while walking.

Here’s why this is such a dire notion. According to author Cal Newport, concentration is a skill that must be trained, not just a habit that we can add to our repertoire whenever we feel like it. If you fill all your bored and empty moments with noise and distractions, you are actually weakening your focusing powers. So every time you check your phone while you’re waiting in line at the post office, you’re hurting your ability to focus in the future.

Perhaps this is why many of the most prolific creators are vigilant about hyperconnectivity. One important example is Nir Eyal, who wrote a book entitled Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In an interview, Eyal laughed when asked about highly-addictive games and said he doesn’t go near these types of technological distractions.

If you’re a connection-junkie and desire to be less of one, try scheduling time blocks every day during which you allow yourself to be online. Do this for both work and recreational use of the web. The rest of the time, when you are in the “distraction-free zone,” you absolutely cannot go online.

Seriously.

Resistance is like mental calisthenics. If you cheat even just a few times, you ruin the effectiveness of this strategy. On the other hand, every time you ignore a distraction and simply remain present with your thoughts, you make your brain stronger.

Practice Not Answering Messages Right Away

Unless you’re an on-call surgeon, you can do this. Wait at least five minutes to respond to anything other than a life-threatening emergency. It’s not enough time for most problems to escalate, but it is  enough time for your brain to disconnect the distraction/task switching/reward feedback loop that has taught you to never tolerate the absence of novelty.

This sounds way too simple to be meaningful but it is. Interrupting the lure of something sparkly makes resistance that much easier the next time.

Distinguish Essential from Non-essential

You can probably think of a list of potential notifications that would be essential for you to receive. Knowing that you’ll hear about a sick kid or a canceled flight lets you rest easy about everything else. Use the following yardstick:

In a zombie apocalypse (yep, we’re back to that), who do I want in my camp?

Give those people a specific ring and text tone, and decide you are not at the whims of anyone else. Then use all that newfound free time to daydream.

The stream of today’s consciousness is faster and broader, but sorely lacking in depth. It’s the moments when we stop running and, instead, watch the sunset, stroll through the neighborhood gazing at the flowers, or sip Scotch in front of a roaring fire that really add dimension to our lives.

Let this be a collective call to do more of those things.

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