Are you one of those kids who grew up in a household where the phrase “I’m bored” was strictly forbidden? Did your parents ever tell you that “You are not bored, you are just not using your brain.”? Yet, despite a house full of puzzles, toys, games, you somehow still found yourself with nothing to do.
Decades later, a lot about our world has changed, what we have in the house to keep us from getting bored also changed; but somehow, this quarantine has put us back in square one, we are sitting there, uttering the unthinkable:
Isn’t that odd? We seem to be living in a world of inescapable stimulation. We are so connected all the time that we are fast losing the ability to just sit with ourselves and be content. So maybe it’s time to take a look at boredom to find out what it really is and the tools we can use to escape it, or if we really need to escape it at all.
So, what is boredom?
Aside from the mind-numbing state you enter when you have nothing to do, what actually is boredom? Well, according to James Dankert, a professor of cognitive science, boredom can be understood as an “unfulfilled desire to be engaged with the world.” We are constantly looking to find stimulation and fulfillment in our everyday lives, it’s no wonder we sometimes find ourselves veritably overdosing on content and unable to be satisfied by any. Do you ever notice that when you are bored you so often drift towards your Instagram feed or to binge another few episodes of Tiger King? (Damn you, Carole Baskin). Our boredom is an often very timely reminder that what we are doing right now is not working for us anymore. And yes, that does include spending 10 hours cursing at Netflix that of course you’re still watching, you can’t go outside!!
So, why do we get bored?
Netflix, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube; these are not things we dislike and yet we still find ourselves drifting when we use them. This is because boredom doesn’t necessarily stem from having nothing to do, it stems from not feeling stimulated by what you are doing. This is the sort of boredom we are currently experiencing whilst being limited in our options during isolation. We just aren’t satisfied with how we are spending our time, so we fall into a state of boredom. Now, this is probably all starting to sound a little boring itself but stay with me, folks because believe it or not, I have the solution. And no, it’s not relentlessly sharing memes about baking banana bread or shaving your head a la Britney circa 2007. It’s to start learning how to be productive.
So, does being productive mean keeping busy?
Now, the word productive gets thrown around a lot but it is strictly not to be confused with the word busy. So what is the difference? Busy means ‘having a great deal to do’, but as we learned earlier, having a lot to do doesn’t mean it’s actually anything worth doing. In fact, I don’t know about you but so often I have ended up so busy that I actually stop being productive. There is a funny little thing our brain does where it decides a task is too tedious or difficult and starts filtering in boredom as a kind of inconvenient revolution of resistance against that which is not fun. I’m sure you’ve felt this before, you know when you have a single report to write which could take you an hour but instead you watch 10 hours of goats falling over on YouTube. Yeah, that kind of boredom. It turns pretty quickly into procrastination if we don’t catch it.
But how do we stop feeling bored?
The first step is to ascertain not just what kind of boredom we’re feeling but also why we’re feeling it so that we can work out how best to convert this feeling into a state of productivity. In order to do this, we need to look at boredom and understand that this isn’t necessarily occurring through the fault of our own. It actually goes far deeper in a biological sense than most of us realise. From babies, we are deeply wired for curiosity. We pick up, touch, smell and even eat (questionably) anything we can get our hands on and are rewarded with a sweet little release of dopamine every time our curiosity is piqued. However, somewhere along the line our curiosity starts to be checked. We stop following our impulses, we live day in day out in a routine perfectly manufactured to avoid the unknown. But this is not what we are made for and so our brains send us some not so subtle clues, in the shape of boredom, to let us know that we need a little more than what we’ve currently got. It’s trying to help us find a better place to focus our attention.
Can boredom be good?
Absolutely! Turns out, boredom isn’t actually bad at all, it’s just a warning signal from our brain that something needs to change. Now that we know how to recognize and understand it, how do we start using it to manifest creativity and productivity?
While everyone is quarantined indoors and with a lot more spare time on their hands than usual, it’s the perfect time to start engaging with your curiosity. This is what leads to creativity and productivity. Think about what it is you really enjoy, or if you can’t think of anything, what it is that makes you curious? Even the tiniest spark is all you need. Then follow it. Get out the pen and paper, the paint, the instrument, the chopping board, whatever it is and simply begin. Follow your whims and use this time to explore, you might be amazed at what you discover.
But how do I stay inspired while I’m stuck at home?
Once you’re sold on that creativity high, it’s time to really harness that into productivity. If you find yourself waking up and gravitating straight to your device, try setting yourself a schedule. Not a strict routine, because you need to leave room for curiosity to rear its fascinating little head. Just a guideline to keep you from resorting to your old Netflix tricks again. Give yourself a break from the digital cognitive overload and start your morning with some exercise or meditation to kick off the day with a clear and open mind. Plan some new and exciting activities. Cook yourself some fresh and healthy (or delicious and greasy, you do you) recipes that you’ve never tried before. Most importantly make sure you are feeling engaged and stimulated by what you are doing. There are so many things to do within your own four walls if you simply start to expand your own possibilities. Like my Mum always said, ‘just use your brain.’
Time to put it into action
So, we’ve learned that boredom is a clear signal from your brain that you need more stimulation and that it's actually deeply ingrained in our DNA. Next time you feel that twinge of boredom creeping in, you’ll know it’s time to listen to what your boredom is telling you and start finding other ways to keep yourself engaged and excited. Maybe you’ll also start trying to sit with your boredom and listen to where it’s leading you. Let it take you away from your screens and devices and pull you into a wonderful world of daydreams, opportunities, and creativity. Always trust that there is more to be found than what you have already got.
Now, go kick boredom's butt! But make sure you listen to what it’s telling you first.