Boredom

My mind rebels against boredom.

When I find myself lacking external stimulation, my knee-jerk response is to seek out some means of filling that void: something to read, something to listen to, something to scribble or type or exercise or otherwise occupy my deactivated digits and neurons and attention.

I know I’m not alone in this, and I know I’m capable of muffling and rewiring that impulse. But that knowledge and capacity doesn’t change my default setting, which is to fill the emptiness with activities and entertainments.

I find this subconscious nudge away from boredom is particularly pronounced and pernicious when I’ve made some kind of change to my environment and norms. When I’ve moved to a new physical location, for instance, or when my work or exercise habits have undergone a substantial collection of tweaks, my determination to recalibrate things in a positive, prolific, healthful, and sustainable way often results in a jam-packed calendar that leaves little room for intellectual and psychological flex time: periods in which it is understood that I’ll do little or nothing, which gives my brain some breathing room and provides permission to not go go go for a spell, and to be okay with that.

You don’t have to be a workaholic to succumb to the seductive momentum of “doing things.”

Spacing out with something on Netflix or a podcast playing in the background is arguably just as much an activity as doing paid work, going for a run, or having a chat with a friend.

The distinction here is that being bored is actually a little bit psychologically distressing, and most of us have reflexes that help guide us away from that kind of distress.

Being bored on a semi-regular basis, though, can force us to flex our imaginations, dig deeper than we would otherwise be compelled to dig into personal issues and persistent, just-below-the-surface concerns, and unspool overwrought, overworked neurons.

There’s evidence that experiencing periodic spans of boredom is psychologically healthful: exercising and amplifying our capacity for focus, creativity, self-control, and our taste for novelty.

But my own anecdotal experience is why I try to catch myself when I fail to work periods of nothingness into a recently updated schedule.

I notice benefits to my thinking and mood when I allow myself to be bored for even five or ten minutes a day; it feels similar to but different from what I gain from meditation, and I notice its absence in the same way I notice when I’ve (for whatever reason) failed to maintain a consistent exercise routine.

I’ve also found that if I’m ever stuck in a truly unmotivated, don’t-feel-like-doing-anything mindset, consciously forcing myself to do nothing at all—to sit in my own head for a while—makes my brain crave stimulation, which then often results in a period of enthusiastic focus and activity.

Some people have boredom-inducing forcing functions built into their lives, because of the nature of their work, home life, or some other variable that leaves them with periods of nothingness that are tricky or impossible to fill with any kind of typical activity.

Something to consider, if that’s you, is trying to lean into that boredom a bit—just for a while—to see if it adds something to your non-bored moments (as opposed to psychologically struggling against the boredom, and doing everything you can to fill those moments with your smartphone or a magazine or whatever else).

Boredom isn’t pleasant, but it can be counterintuitively, holistically productive, at times.

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