The Psychology of How to Be Profitably Bored
Our society is geared around anti-boredom. Here’s how you can benefit from boredom instead.
Being bored is the antithesis of our current society. Social media is built around and driven by your need to be constantly entertained. But being bored is one of the best things you can do to spark your creativity.
Everything we do is geared around eliminating boredom, reducing boredom, minimizing boredom. I mean, we take our phones to the bathroom (even though that’s incredibly unhygienic) to avoid that two-minute gap where we don’t have any mental stimulation. Oh, the horror.
Try and remember the last time you were bored for longer than about two minutes. Even at work, whenever I feel that first twinge of boredom, I can instantly access a suite of my favorite boredom killers — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even email.
This isn’t accidental. I’ve written before about how social media has been designed to reward you variably, to trigger dopamine to be sent to your brain, getting you hooked on checking all your accounts on a loop to get that hit again. But there are steps you can do to to get away from that cycle, and start benefiting from boredom.
Here are the steps you can do to cultivate a healthy attitude towards boredom.
1. Ask yourself why you’re bored.
For most of us, we have a very low boredom tolerance. It takes me about three seconds between getting bored at a task and immediately switching tabs, or checking my phone. This is because I’ve learned that my boredom can be instantly lifted with social media, and it’s gratifying.
But I also noticed boredom rearing its head at another crucial point: when I was alone with my emotions.
This happens most often when I’m trying to go to sleep for the night. I’m fairly good at not using screens at bedtime, so when I’m tossing and turning, I resist the siren call of my phone.
Instead, I’m left with my emotions. Noisy, loud, troubling emotions. The urge to stop being bored at this stage is nearly overwhelming because I’m so uncomfortable with processing my feelings. Many times, I’ll give in to the mindless scroll as a way out.
Recently, I’ve tried to notice when that’s my boredom trigger and cope with it in healthier ways instead. I’m working on making my mind a happier place for me to be, rather than being inundated with self-criticism and doubt every time I was bored.
2. Recognize when your boredom is genuinely useful.
Sometimes your boredom is a useful trigger. Like pain, which can convey valuable information even though it’s unpleasant, boredom can tell you when you’re not gaining anything from a situation.
If you find that you’re bored at work, at a party, in a relationship, don’t just immerse yourself in Netflix, or Instagram refreshing.
Instead, evaluate what it is that you find boring about that. For example, if I get bored while dealing with a client email at work, and I feel the urge to stop, I try to figure out why. Sometimes, it’s because it’s a challenging issue, and instead of grappling with it, I’d rather lapse into mindless entertainment.
Or, it’s the opposite — it’s too simple, not engaging enough, and it’s something I should work to automate in the future. It might be even more meaningful, and make me question whether this job, relationship or even party I’m at, is right for me.
Sometimes, when boredom tells you to quit, you should listen.
3. Get in the right mindset.
Now that you’ve learned when boredom is a signal, and when its something you can start turning into an opportunity instead, you can start to cultivate the right environment for boredom.
Give yourself a chance for it. Clear time from distractions, whether this is phones, other people, pesky emails. In my case, I like to go outside without my phone, so that when boredom inevitably comes, I have to sit with it rather than immediately escape it.
If you want to stay indoors, maybe consider turning off the Wi-Fi, pouring yourself a drink or getting a snack, and smoothing away all possible distractions both future and present. Make sure you’re not expecting any interruptions, so you can relax fully without anticipating anyone who might need you shortly.
4. Turn your boredom into creativity.
Finally, you’ve invited boredom into your life and you’re committed to not escaping it at first opportunity.
This is what we forget sometimes, now we have TV, games, social media and more all creating instant enjoyment and entertainment for us: our brains are pretty d*mn good at coming up with entertainment for us, too.
The best way to do that is to get your body working and your mind free. For example, I do a lot of painting. Sometimes I watch Netflix, but sometimes I like to just let my mind wander, with my hands occupied with paints and brushes.
Go for a walk without headphones. Let yourself be surprised by the stories that pop into your head when you see two strangers walking alongside each other, or what emotions the birdsong sparks in you.
I like to always have a pencil and paper with me, so that when I’m bored, I can write down any thoughts that come to mind, that are worth keeping.
Let yourself be bored and watch as your brain starts churning up new ideas, thoughts, and plans. Or you could just relax. Boredom can be turned into creativity, but it can also be a time to space out, blissfully unproductive, and happy about it.
Boredom is an annoying feeling. With all our devices, technology and distractions, it feels like there’s always something better we can be doing with our time.
But I believe that boredom is good. It’s helped me identify problematic patterns in my own thoughts; it’s given me a cue that it’s time to go do something better with my time. It generates endless ideas. And it lets me relax, zoning out to my own brain.
Avoiding boredom does our brains a disservice. It’s a valuable emotion, whether telling us something about ourselves or our situation, or allowing us to wander in our own mindscapes for just a while.
Let yourself be bored. We’re more than capable of coming up with our own entertainment, given a chance.