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How to channel boredom | Psyche

Incheon airport, South Korea, 2007. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

Guide

How to channel boredom

Feeling bored? Learn how to use that discomfort to switch up a gear and regain control over your life and your interests

by James Danckert & John Eastwood

Incheon airport, South Korea, 2007. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

James Danckert

is professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a cognitive neuroscientist. He is the author, with John Eastwood, of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (2020).

John Eastwood

is associate professor in psychology at York University in Canada, and a clinical psychologist. He is the author, with James Danckert, of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (2020).

Edited by Christian Jarrett

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If you think about boredom at all, you might consider it trivial – a part of the furniture of life, mostly an affliction of youth, and characterised by the quintessential couch potato. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, the couch potato is a better description of apathy than boredom. Apathy is the absence of any desire. Boredom, by contrast, involves desperately wanting to do something, yet nothing seems to fit the bill.

It’s also incorrect to suggest that boredom is frustration in a different guise. Frustration arises when you are thwarted in the pursuit of your goals. Boredom is the yearning for a goal to pursue in the first place. When you’re bored, whatever you’re doing right now is unfulfilling in some important way; you really want to be engaged, and you’re urgently looking for an activity to satisfy your deep restlessness.

Maybe you’re unfulfilled by the daily drudgery of highly repetitive work that never changes. Maybe it’s the irksome task of having to do your taxes. Maybe it’s trying to read an instruction manual for your dishwasher. Whatever your current situation, boredom is urging you to explore better options for becoming engaged. It’s motivating you to make a change.

The apocryphal story of Humphrey Potter, a version of which is told by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), illustrates the point. At the tender age of 11, Potter had the unfortunate job of ‘plug man’, tending an early version of the steam engine. His task, exceedingly boring even by 1713 standards, was to open and close valves repeatedly. Watch for the right moment … open valve A … wait for the next critical moment … close valve B. He had to do this ad nauseum, day in and day out. The task rendered him, as a thinking, decision-making human being, superfluous: he was literally a cog in the machine.

Driven by excruciating boredom, Potter devised a system of cords and gears to make the machine do the work for him. His eureka moment not only freed him from soul-destroying work, but also advanced steam-engine technology through his invention of what has come to be known as the ‘skulking gear’. Boredom felt so bad for Potter that it motivated him to make a change.

Technology might have moved on, but the role of boredom in motivating change is no different for us in the 21st century.

Yet not all change is equal. In the 2010s, June Humphreys, a 79-year-old great-grandmother in the English town of Crewe in Cheshire, went on a five-year crime spree because she was bored of her life. Travelling around on her free bus pass, she racked up a haul worth hundreds of pounds. Clothes, sweets and alcohol made her list, but so too did some stranger items, such as a breast pump. In court, asked why she did it, Humphreys snapped: ‘I just took them, all right? I don’t get anything out of it.’ Darren Vernon, her hapless probation officer, defended his client feebly, noting: ‘She knows what she’s doing is wrong … she is bored and needs to fill her time.’ Lonely, bereft of meaningful activity, Humphreys and her life had become pointless. Like Potter, she needed a change.

So, which is it? Is boredom the mother of invention or the root of larceny? On its own, boredom doesn’t cause either. It feels uncomfortable to be bored and so motivates us to act. What happens next is up to us. And, in a nutshell, that’s boredom’s ultimate message: it reminds us that what happens next is up to us. If you attend only to the discomfort of being bored, you’ll miss the opportunity to use it to propel you forward in meaningful pursuits.

When you experience the discomfort of boredom, it is alerting you to the fact that, like Potter and Humphreys, you’ve become superfluous and pointless; you need to reclaim authorship of your life. You’re having what psychologists call a crisis of agency. You’ve become passive and are currently letting life happen to you: you’re not forming goals or following through on them. You’re not engaged with the world on your terms, pursuing goals that matter to you, that allow you to deploy your skills and talents in a purposeful way. It’s actually a good thing that boredom feels so uncomfortable because without it, you might fail to notice your plight.

The change that boredom demands is not simply about doing something different, be that inventing new technology or stealing a breast pump; rather, what’s required is a change in the way that you connect with the world. Boredom signals a need to look for activities that flow from and give expression to your curiosity, creativity and passion. In short, you need to re-establish your agency. You could create, or steal – either would do the trick as far as boredom is concerned. Of course, some strategies might be judged more desirable than others. Ultimately, how you resolve boredom is up to you.

Boredom is not a place to linger. You’re the better for having passed through boredom because, in doing so, you stop doing whatever it was that denied you a sense of agency and, instead, start doing things that promote your agency – a critical transition we all need to make in small and large ways each and every day. It’s when you get stuck and struggle to move on that boredom can become a prison, the precise opposite of a passageway to something new. This happens to some of us more often and more intensely than others.

‘Boredom proneness’ is characterised by difficulties with self-regulation and is akin to a personality trait. For those inclined to it, the story of boredom proneness is not a good one – it’s associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety, problems with drug and alcohol use, higher rates of problem gambling, and even problematic relations with smartphones. It’s as though the highly boredom-prone turn to these things – alcohol, gambling, the rabbit hole of social media – as a pacifier for boredom. Ultimately, when the pacifier is no longer there, boredom remains, relentlessly pushing them to embrace their agency. But this is precisely where the boredom-prone struggle to take their life in hand. Wherever you fall on the boredom-proneness spectrum, we hope that the advice in this Guide will be helpful by showing you productive ways to respond to the signal that boredom sends.

The internet abounds with lists of activities for when boredom strikes (one has 150 options!) These lists at best miss the point, and at worst hinder the very self-determination boredom demands we seek. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. There are no specific activities – baking sourdough, learning a new language – that will always work (for all people) to eliminate boredom and, in fact, that’s the point. The message of boredom is that you need to reclaim your agency. It has to be up to you. While we won’t be telling you specific activities to try out, there are various steps you can follow to help you reclaim your agency in the midst of boredom.

What to do

Relax

It is hard to embrace your agency when you’re restless and agitated. Overcoming that agitation is essential when you’re caught in the conflict of wanting to move forward but unable to see a way around looming problems. A few deep breaths could help you feel less threatened and stuck. You could also try redirecting that restless, uncertain feeling into a physical activity, even something as simple as going for a walk. Physical exercise can allow us to feel effective, and dispense with the agitated, unused energy that we feel so intensely when we’re bored. And if you find yourself trapped (imagine lengthy, boardroom meetings), even discreet fidgeting or doodling could help you stay calm and keep boredom at bay.

Transform boredom through acceptance

The paradox of change is that ‘what you resist will persist’. If you get caught up in feelings of disdain and rejection, you will sink only deeper into the quicksand of boredom. Instead, try to accept boredom for what it is: an uncomfortable, but helpful pointer back to a life well lived. Spending time in nature or talking with friends might help you regain perspective and let go of a hostile, oppositional attitude towards the world. Alternatively, meditation might be a useful way to cultivate a nonjudgmental attitude. Whatever strategy works for you, shifting out of an oppositional mode and acknowledging your circumstances will set the stage for you to express your agency and climb out of boredom.

Self-reflect and choose your goals

After calming down and acknowledging your predicament, try to focus on the possible rewards of the different things you could be doing. If you can muster up just a smidgen of enthusiasm or excitement for the possibilities, then you already have boredom on the ropes. Agency is about acting in the world based on your desires and intentions. Having something positive to aim for is helpful.

To get you started, you might find it beneficial to set aside time for self-reflection. Often in our day-to-day lives, we’re so busy, running this way and that without consideration of what really matters to us. Boredom affords an opportunity for self-reflection, it’s a chance to regroup and address some key questions about your life and yourself. Who are you? What do you care about? Having good reasons for doing something can make it less boring. After a period of reflection, even just a few moments, you can launch back into activities that matter to you, with a greater sense of why they matter. Ultimately, this promotes a greater sense of self – who you are, and what you value in life.

A word of warning – we have at our fingertips a world of passive entertainment: social media, news feeds, streaming services such as Netflix and, in Canada, Crave (there’s a hint at the problem right there in that name!) as well as addictive games such as Candy Crush Saga (which is nothing novel – remember Tetris?) It’s tempting when you’re in the throes of boredom to reach for these pacifiers. The problem is, they make you a passive consumer. You’re not actively pursuing the goals that matter to you, so these options are temporary pacifiers at best.

If you’re still struggling to find what matters to you, it might help to generate a list of personal values, anything from strong family bonds, professional success, adventure, social justice, financial independence or improving your knowledge in some domain. Then generate concrete, actionable goals that further your personal values. You might also stop to consider past times when you felt most effective and capable, and look for activities that allow you to go there again, to showcase your unique skills and talents.

It’s important to choose realistic goals. The pandemic has made this abundantly clear. During the various national or regional lockdowns, we’ve all felt the pain of constraint, not being able to do what we wanted, when we wanted – a fantastic breeding ground for boredom. But setting yourself the goal of writing the world’s next great novel to compete with War and Peace is not a realistic approach. What you choose to do has to matter to you, but that doesn’t mean that your goals need to be grandiose. Baking a cake, repairing a bicycle, even just reading a book – all are good boredom remedies so long as they matter to you and give expression to your goals and intentions.

Just do it

People who feel bored a lot of the time often suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis’. A preoccupation with doing the right thing prevents them from ever getting started – they experience a kind of failure to launch. Rather than planning effectively, starting and following through on goals, these boredom-prone people focus on their current situation, hesitate to make change, and easily lose sight of their guiding North Star. To avoid this happening to you, once you have some goals in mind, whether big or small, try to ‘just do it’. If you can just get started in some way, then you’ll keep boredom at bay.

Change your perspective

When you’re mired in boredom, it can feel as though there’s no way out. Sometimes a change of perspective can help. For instance, try imagining yourself as a fly on the wall and explore your boredom from the outside, rather than ruminating on it from the inside, and then you can often find the freedom to move. A sense of efficacy and autonomy are key hallmarks of agency. Technically referred to as ‘decentring’, this fly-on-the-wall technique is known to upregulate the part of the nervous system responsible for activating behaviour – another way to get you moving.

Sometimes it’s even possible to turn a boring situation into an engaging one. For instance, if you’re stuck doing highly repetitive work, you could try to beat your personal best time for the task to help make the time pass more quickly. Or if you’re completing a school project on what you consider a dull topic, you could imagine yourself as a detective working a case. Sure, in each case you find the work monotonous, but reframing it might make it a little less boring and put you back in the driver’s seat.

Simply making the choice to focus on something gives it value, and that’s where agency comes in once again. The artist Andy Warhol supposedly once claimed that you have to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you. Channel your curiosity towards something and, all of a sudden, the tiny details become fascinating because you choose to pay close attention to things you previously dismissed. As we’ve said, it’s up to you. You might imagine stamp collecting to be quite boring, but those who passionately pursue philately as a hobby would strenuously disagree. Boredom can’t get a foothold when you commit yourself to a pursuit. When you choose to be curious, you can’t be bored.

Key points

  • Boredom is a motivational state – when we’re bored, we want to be engaged, which is nothing at all like being lazy or apathetic.
  • Boredom can push you towards positive or negative behaviour, but which way you choose to go is up to you.
  • Boredom serves an important purpose – it signals the need to reclaim authorship over your life.
  • Avoid remedy without cure – minimise passive entertainment, which only pacifies discomfort without addressing the root causes of boredom.
  • Look for activities that flow from and give expression to your curiosity, creativity and passions.
  • To help you get started, reflect on your values and goals in life, and consider changing your perspective – channel your curiosity towards something and, all of a sudden, tiny details can become fascinating.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you what to do – responding well when boredom strikes is up to you.

Learn more

Just like Goldilocks, many of us look for circumstances that are ‘just right’ – not too hot and not too cold. We want to find that perfect fit. It turns out the Goldilocks Zone can shed light on boredom, both why we feel it and what we can do about it.

There are numerous kinds of mismatches that keep us out of the Goldilocks Zone and leave us struggling with boredom. For example, it’s hard to engage fully with tasks that ask either too much or too little of you, which can leave you bored. Too challenging, and you can’t get a foothold; too simple, and your mind drifts off. Any mismatch between your need for autonomy and the constraints of your surroundings can also make it harder to commit to any of the options at hand. Poor fit in terms of novelty is another boredom hotbed. Some situations are too monotonous and repetitious, other situations are so noisy and chaotic you turn away; again, in either case, you’re left unengaged. Finally, you must see meaning and purpose in your circumstances; there must be a fit between what you value and what’s on hand, or you’ll find it near impossible to embrace any of the available options.

In each case, when you find yourself in situations that are a poor fit, you’re much more likely to be beset by boredom. Quite simply, it’s much harder to form goals and follow through on them when you’re outside of the Goldilocks Zone.

On the flip side, when you find yourself smack dab in the middle of the Goldilocks Zone, this leads to a psychological state known as flow. This hyperintense engaged state is exemplified by the incredible achievements of the American rock climber Alex Honnold, known for ascending the 3,000 feet of sheer granite of El Capitan in Yosemite on his own, without any equipment. Honnold chases such moments of flow. As he completes unimaginable feats of climbing prowess around the world, dangling by his fingertips thousands of feet off the ground, he experiences a near-perfect fit between his abilities and the challenges of the rock.

Flow is a peak expression of agency. In a flow state, you’re driven by the sheer joy of expressing your abilities and reaching for your goals. You’re working at the limits of your abilities, perfectly challenged and growing. And, critically, you’re in control.

Honnold epitomises this state when he’s on a climb. To be successful, he must plan and rehearse each move in meticulous detail. Then on the wall he is ready for any eventuality and able to determine how each and every movement unfolds. Despite the technical difficulty, each move feels effortless, his mind is laser-focused, and time melts away. The fit between Honnold and the task is so perfect – his agency is so fully realised – that the actor and the act merge. He is one with the rock.

Few of us are capable of such extreme feats (nor would we want to attempt them), but what the example highlights is the potential reward of finding a match between what you’re capable of and what you’re currently pursuing. The kind of match we’re talking about has two key components: first, when your skills are well-matched to the task at hand, you’ll feel a deep sense of efficacy (your actions are having the desired effect, and that feels good); second, for flow to occur and boredom to be banished, you need the goals you pursue to push you to the limits of your skill set.

It feels deeply rewarding to achieve things that, before we started, we might have felt were just out of reach. You build model aircraft? Choose your next model to have a challenge you haven’t conquered yet (bigger scale, remote control, etc). You’re an amateur roboticist? Programme your robot to do something you thought it couldn’t. You’re a runner? Aim for a better time or a longer distance than you thought you could manage. You play guitar? Choose songs to play that push you to your limits. The point is, to feel like you’re meaningfully engaged with the world around you, you can’t sit on your laurels.

Striving to do the best you can, and to make that a little better than the last time, is a surefire way to keep boredom at bay.

Links & books

For a fuller exploration of the ideas in this Guide, check out our book Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (2020), which Margaret Talbot reviewed in The New Yorker.

In May 2020, we held a virtual event, ‘The Psychology of Boredom’, for Salon London, available on YouTube, in which we explored boredom and agency more extensively.

The podcast Choose to Be Curious by Lynn Borton is a great antidote for boredom, with wide-ranging conversations on curiosity and its value in our lives. One of us (James) appeared as a guest to discuss boredom on an episode released in June 2020.

John was interviewed about boredom for ‘The Tedium is the Message’, an episode of CBC radio’s Ideas programme recorded in 2016.

For a discussion of the concept of agency, start with the work of the Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura. On his website, he briefly outlines his four-part theory of agency, and links to more detailed resources on the topic.

For a short and engaging explanation of what makes us bored, you could turn to this clip from the YouTube channel Vsauce, created by the American educator Michael Stevens. The clip touches on sensory deprivation, speculative accounts of brain states associated with boredom and even on the relation between boredom and disgust, which Jean-Paul Sartre explored in his novel Nausea (1938).

In his book Propelled (2020), the writer and philosopher Andreas Elpidorou at the University of Louisville outlines how boredom, frustration and anticipation all act to push us forward towards goals and what philosophers call an ‘authentic’ life. In this YouTube video from 2016, watch Elpidorou give a talk on boredom for the breakfast lecture series CreativeMornings HQ.

For another philosophical perspective on boredom, you could listen to this interview with the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen talking about his book A Philosophy of Boredom (2004). Be warned though – the interview on YouTube has a single, static image displayed throughout – so it’s not interesting to look at!

Peter Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary, wrote the fascinating book Boredom: A Lively History (2011), which traces boredom’s depiction throughout history and in visual representations in art. It’s out of print but you can find copies on the secondhand market.

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6 January 2021