I was sitting in traffic the other day doing what I usually do. Belting out ballads in the type of voice that would make cats cry with the occasional car-appropriate dance number. While I’m sure there are family members and friends that would be horrified to be affiliated with me at these times, I’m also certain at the very least I must be entertaining someone in the car next to me. Because during a radio commercial break, I looked around to see what others were doing. There was the vehicle to my right and a girl in the middle of a “selfie.” I was so amazed actually that I pulled up a little closer to get a better look at the funny faces she was snapping and sending along. Then there was the girl in the car behind me, yawning on a cycle of about 1 gigantic yawn per 5-minute interval. And this got me thinking….what do we do with idle time?
Upon the advent of the ubiquitous smart phone, we are largely glued to our devices. And although texting and driving is illegal in many states, we still do it. Is it really necessary to check your email at a red light? Will it be this time that you refresh your phone to find a message telling you you’ve been offered the job of your dreams, or a chance to be on a reality show featuring Leondardo DiCaprio as the next bachelor? Chances are, probably not.
Boredom intolerance is commonly associated with the years of adolescent angst, in times when they find themselves in all forms of trouble under the tagline, “but I was bored!!” For many millennials, we do not seem to have outgrown this tendency toward instantaneous boredom onset quite like generations of yore. We have had less idle time, and when we did, we were often handed a gadget. Gameboy, a digital pet called a Tamagotchi, you name it, there was a device for us to fiddle with and to capture our attention. Even television, once deemed the backup babysitter, was not quite so mobile as it now is with portable DVD players and tablets. And yes, I’ll even admit to watching Three’s Company on the DVD player of the car in front of me during traffic one evening.
Still one wonders what a millennial is to do when agonized by the idea of sitting still and tuning inward. When suggesting yoga to a friend and fellow millennial recently, I was countered with the all too familiar “but it’s so boring!” line. Of course something slower moving that challenges you to sit still may sound unappealing. In fact, sitting and silence are two of the biggest fears of many. The opportunity to truly reflect on our lives, the decisions we are making and the life we are leading can be unsettling at best. There is always the possibility of realizing we are not living in alignment with our values or that we are using distraction techniques to keep us from delving a bit deeper and facing the inner demons that haunt us all. Whether they are past traumas, heartaches, insecurities, anxieties, or fears, we all have them and facing them from time to time is where real personal growth happens.
Am I suggesting we start meditating in the car? Of course not. If safety weren’t an issue though, perhaps I would. Nor am I suggesting you adopt my pseudo creepy car people-watching tendencies. But you can use those rare moments alone to realign. Below are 5 strategies to not only combat boredom but better yet, check in with yourself:
Yes, you can really do this! After all, if you’re lucky it might even be the law in your state. While driving, reserve that time to allow yourself to unplug and temporarily check-out from reality. Put your phone away!! Of course, let loved ones know when they shouldn’t be expecting you to respond to a message and so forth. But allow yourself to refrain from checking texts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times, or whatever it is that you typically wander to while on your phone. Going tech-free can give you a much needed break, because studies have shown that the constant pinging of your phone can actually increase your anxiety levels.
2) Practice Gratitude
Much like the shower, commutes can be a great time for deep thinking. But not all thinking is good or productive. Too often when lost in thought we can find ourselves thinking about the regrets of the past (“you know what would have been a better comeback to my obnoxious co-worker...”) or anxieties of a future that has yet to come or events that may never occur (“I haven’t heard from Billy all day, I wonder if he walked into the street and got run over by a distracted driver.”).
Instead, it is possible to transform that mental chatter into something more productive and positive. Happiness researchers often talk about practicing an “attitude of gratitude.” They have found that something as simple as listing 3 things a day you are grateful for can boost your overall happiness levels. So instead of using a stressful commute time to ruminate over all the other things you hate in your life, you can do the opposite. Think about what is going well, what you appreciate, enjoy. Think about the people you love and how you want to express your gratitude toward them. Ponder community service ideas, or something in the short-term future you are looking forward to. The idea being, turn that frown upside down!
We do it all the time, but we don’t even notice it. Until maybe we are stuffed up from a cold and remember how great effortless breathing was. But attending to our breath, not even attempting to change it can lower our blood pressure, increase our ability to tackle stressors and lead to improved overall health. You can also practice any number of breathing exercises.
You can count your breaths 1 to 10 and do several repetitions. If you lose your place, you can start back at 1. You can coordinate your inhales and exhales (i.e., inhale for a count of 6, exhale for a count of 6, and then as you become more comfortable, increase to a count of 8, or even decrease to 4 if 6 feels too long). The idea is slowing down your breathing and evening it out. There is also diaphragmatic breathing which is essentially belly breathing—picture how a baby breathes when it lays sleeping in its crib. This is the breathing technique most often taught when targeting anxiety and panic attacks.
(while it's good to relax, it's not safe to get this relaxed)
Believe it or not, your car is a place where you could practice a condensed version of progressive muscle relaxation or a body scan. You can even listen to a CD or mp3 to help guide you. Different individuals prefer various iterations. Some prefer to tense and relax the muscles one at a time, say starting from the hands down to the feet. Others prefer to only attend to muscles that feel stiff and attempt to breathe into them. They might inhale, exhale, and quietly say “relax” out loud or something to the effect of “just let it go.”
One of my favorite aspects of many yoga classes is the guided imagery during beginning meditations. While some like to imagine their thoughts as clouds floating away, others prefer the image of leaves floating on a river passing by. Or the petals of a flower wilting away as they are no longer needed, much like our worrisome thoughts. Any way you choose to do it, think about how you might be able to relax during what can be a stressful time. Believer that I am in aromatherapy, my hand sanitizer comes in a “relaxing” scent. It is likely a placebo effect. But I’m perfectly happy with that regardless!
5) Stop (it’s not Hammer time)
Just tune in. Be fully present in the moment. Mindfulness is often defined as moment to moment awareness. The idea of something like mindfulness or meditation can be off-putting to some as it seems that it might entail a special skill or magical incantation. But it’s actually as simple as it gets. Mindfulness involves the awakening of your senses in the present moment. What is the surface you are sitting upon? Do you feel supported by it? Are you sitting upright and alert, or slouched and tired? What are you smelling, seeing, hearing, tasting? What are all the points of your body touching?
It is about being fully awake and alive. Very few of us spend the majority of our days in such a state. So sometimes it can be ok to just stop and take in the present moment. Maybe you are feeling happy, and maybe you are disappointed and frustrated. There is no “right” way to feel, much as there is no “wrong” way to feel. Accept the moment for what it is, don’t try to fight and change it. Just be present with it.
At the end of the day, we decide how our moments are spent, even the ones that would be otherwise riddled with boredom. Maybe we’d rather take that “selfie” or text back a friend. But we can also choose to live more present and mindfully. You can also sing and dance and make a complete fool of yourself. Because sometimes, some of us choose that option.
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