The misguided war on boredom

The other day, a friend of mine said to me “You know? I can’t remember the last time I felt really bored.”

She spends hours a day on Reddit. I know. I see her posts and comments while I’m spending hours a day on Reddit.

We do a lot to feel busy. We do a lot to not be bored. And we have this vast technological army to back us up. Entire businesses have been built on simply saving us from the discomfort of dull moments. No more monotony of standing in line at the coffee shop, there are real-time metrics in Google Analytics that need reviewing! Stuck typing a tedious email? Just take a quick break and check some status updates. Dull bus ride home? There are many apps for that.

It’s gotten to a point where being bored feels like a novelty, or even some weird kind of luxury. There’s just too much going on. Too many people to keep up with. Too many channels to stay on top of. Way too many baby animals doing cute things that have to be aww’d over. Here’s one of them now!

Aww! Look at him! He’s even bored reading this post!

We’ve won the war on boredom. Everyone give themselves a big pat on the back.

Now we are just… busy.

But what if boredom got a bad rap? I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m starting to wonder.

First, let’s talk about the busy-ness. At first, it sounds pretty cool. “How’ve you been?” “Oh, I’ve been suuuuuuper busy, life has been crazy. You wouldn’t believe it.” Sounds awesome. I’m important, because I’ve got stuff going on, and I’m staying on top of it. Except, a lot of the time I get to the end of the day and I can’t think of a single awesome thing I did all day. Hell, we even started a company because of it. I can think of a lot of stuff I did that had to get done, so I guess I can say that. I’m watching all of my company’s social media channels like a hawk. And I certainly know a whole hell of a lot about people I haven’t talked to in years, so there’s that. Oh and I’ve read all the comments (but not the articles) to everything posted on /r/politics and /r/science. My trivia levels are pretty rad.

But in terms of real-deal stuff I’m legitimately psyched about… those days are way less frequent than I’d like. And if I’m not getting that, I think I’d rather be bored than busy. The patterns I fall into are the lowest-common denominator of not being bored. And I don’t think I’m that special of a case.

And another thing. All those quick-fix mechanisms that I use to combat boredom have absolutely wrecked my attention span. I actually can’t believe I’m still typing this post (brb, going to look at cats for a minute).

Sure, I fall into some traps and unproductive patterns. But they’re not accidental traps. Human beings have natural aversions to boredom and unnecessary effort. Lots of companies take advantage of that psychology and use the carrot of instant gratification as a wedge to get a foothold in your brain. That relief from momentary dullness is a terrific habit forming mechanism. Have you ever been typing an email that you’re not really interested in, and then all of a sudden you’re staring at Twitter, and you’re not quite sure how you got there? I have. It’s weird, and I don’t like it.

So, I’ve been thinking about it lately and I’m wondering if the discomfort of boredom isn’t something to run away from in the first place? What if underneath the dullness, magic was happening?

  • I know boredom is a state where habits are formed, for better or for worse. But if all your downtime has been eaten up, there’s nothing left over to be a fertile ground for new, better habits.
  • Boredom can be rejuvenating and energizing.  Even if it just makes you appreciate the things that you don’t find mind-numbingly dull. But I bet it goes way beyond that. After I’m stuck being bored for a while, I’m chomping at the bit to do something exciting.
  • Most importantly, though (and probably at the core of the previous points), it’s the place where you form intent. It’s the time where you can legitimately ask, and most truthfully answer the question “What do I REALLY want to be filling this time with right now?”. And being able to do that is powerful.

And once you have intent, and you’ve been able to give your mind a little bit of room to take a couple breaths, and your brain is coiled up ready to spring out of the dull state you’ve found yourself in… well, then you’re ready to kick ass.

A little boredom can be more motivating than the most effective to-do list or time management app.

I’ve been trying a little experiment for the past few days.

I’m taking ten minutes a day and doing nothing but try my best to be bored and not give in to all those little impulses to do something to not be bored. Now, don’t misunderstand, I’m not meditating here. I’m not taking some quiet time to collect my thoughts. I’m being bored. I’m trying to cultivate that “unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a lack of interest in the current activity” (from Wikipedia). I more or less focus on the fact that there’s about a thousand things I’d rather be doing than sitting there like a dummy for ten minutes doing nothing. Pretty quickly, those thousand things start to fall into a hierarchy in my head, and the ones on the top aren’t generally the ones that I’d choose if I hadn’t given myself a time-out.

I don’t know if it really helps or not, but it feels pretty good for now, so I’m rolling with it. If you feel like it, try it too and report back.

3 Comments on “The misguided war on boredom”

  1. andra says:

    Huge dilemma now: I want to share it, but then I’d be back on FB and the whole point of this is that it’s better to (sometimes, at least) stay away . Ahh, 1st world problems

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Hehe. For the record I dont’ think there’s anything terribly wrong with all those distractions. In fact they’re awesome in their own way (sometimes, at least :). It’s just that it’s a bummer when they get completely lodged in my head as the default response to feeling bored, annoyed, challenged, etc…

  2. Kudos on RescueTime’s mention in “Wired” (issue 20.10) in an article titled “Conserve Your Willpower: It Runs Out,” p. 110. I hope you get a nice bump in web traffic.