Listening to Boredom

Boredom isn't a problem, but a tool we can use.

Posted Mar 30, 2020

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

It’s an understatement to say these are challenging times. And if you’re one of the many who are continuing to lay low at home, you may also be wondering how to keep from feeling bored. 

Dr. Erin Westgate and Dr. Timothy Wilson are psychologists who have looked at boredom, and they invite us to do something different than judge it or try to put a lid on it to make it go away. Instead, if we listen to boredom when it arises, we can gain useful insights about what’s happening for us and what we might want to change.

According to Dr. Westgate and Dr. Wilson, we want to aim for experiences that

  1. Fit what we can mentally do at the time (e.g., alert and mindful vs. exhausted or preoccupied)
  2. Feel personally relevant and worthwhile

If either (or both) of these elements is missing, that’s when boredom sets in.

The first step is to notice what sort of boredom we’re experiencing. If we’re feeling “attentional boredom,” there’s a mismatch between what we can mentally do and the situation we’re in. 

For example, if you’re trying to solve a very difficult jigsaw puzzle (my husband and I are grappling with one that’s so thorny I’ve called it names I won’t repeat here) but you’re so mentally exhausted that you can’t think clearly, you’re going to be overloaded and feel bored. 

Or the reverse could be true. If that puzzle just seems too easy, then your mind isn’t being tested enough and it will look around, itching for something else to do. 

Another type of boredom is “meaningless boredom,” which is when what we’re doing doesn’t feel important to us. And finally, there’s “mixed boredom,” which is a blend of those two other types.  Going back to the jigsaw puzzle example, if it seems either too easy or too hard and also a waste of time that adds nothing to your life, then you’ve got mixed boredom.

Once we’ve figured out what kind of boredom we’re dealing with, the next step is finding out how to give ourselves what we need. Dr. Westgate lays out four options:

1. Adjust the level of difficulty

If you’re feeling mentally wiped out and you can’t focus, try relieving the burden on your mind by taking on a smaller challenge (e.g., reading something easier) or getting rid of diversions (e.g., the TV in the background, new emails you can see coming in). On the flip side, if what you’re doing isn’t pushing you enough, you can ramp up the difficulty a little by, for instance, adding some background music.

2. Adjust what you can mentally do 

Let’s say you’ve decided to take this time at home to learn a new language or musical instrument or embrace some other interest. If you’re been too tired and are having difficulty processing what you’re learning, see how you can get more sleep. You might also boost your mental capacity by mastering easier steps before moving on to more difficult ones, or by giving yourself the time to study, rehearse, and repeat what you’re trying to learn.

3. Adjust the importance of what you’re doing

Let’s say your boredom is telling you that what you’re doing just doesn’t seem valuable enough. If that’s the case, ask yourself why. It may be that what you’re doing in the moment isn’t actually helping you make progress toward what’s important to you. 

Alternatively, your boredom might be rooted in your outlook toward what you’re doing. Our mind tells us stories about various aspects of life, and sometimes these stories can tell us that what we’re doing or learning isn’t important. 

As an illustration, most of us have probably had the experience at some point in learning something and having thoughts along the lines of: “What’s the point of this information? It has no use!” But is that really true? It may be that it does have a purpose, and we’re just having a tough time seeing it. Thankfully, we have the ability to tell ourselves a different narrative and actively look for how what we’re doing or learning now will serve us later.     

4. Adjust what you’re doing

In the end, you may decide that the only thing that needs to be adjusted is what you’re actually doing in the moment. If you find yourself in this situation, you can choose to pursue something thought-provoking. Or, you can choose something pleasurable, which involves easy activities you’ve already tried before (anything new and challenging tends to reduce our pleasure). 

According to Dr. Westgate, if we tend to look for options that are more mentally engaging, this may help us decrease how often we feel bored in the future. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that we should never do something that’s effortless and pleasant when we’ve had a long day or we just need a breather from thinking. That certainly has its place too!

Ultimately, her larger point for us all, which is more relevant now than ever when so many of us are spending lots of time at home, is to listen to boredom and be mindful of how we choose to react to it.

Thank you for reading.  Take good care of yourselves and stay well.

References

Westgate, E.C. (2020). Why boredom is interesting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29, 33-40. 

Westgate, E.C., & Wilson, T.D. (2018). Boring thoughts and bored minds: The MAC model of boredom and cognitive engagement. Psychological Review, 125, 689-713.