After work last Friday, I was sitting in front of my tv watching a show and playing a game on my tablet. I was bored. Considering everything going on, that didn’t seem possible. I was tuned in to a show that I liked and binging and the game was enjoyable as well. Yet there I was, almost listless, but I knew the reason. And that is why I am grateful for boredom.
I think that most people have a struggle within themselves between what they ought to do and what they want to do. This is the way it is for me. I havn’t yet come into harmony between these two aspects of my life. I put off, I procrastinate, I rationalize the things that in my heart that I know that I should be doing, but I don’t. I have a long list that I know that I’m supposed to get done, both for myself and for others, but instead, I sit down, play games, and stare at a television screen for hours. Boredom is a warning signal that there are more important tasks to do.
Boredom is a form of pain and discomfort. I’ll often go to astonishing lengths to avoid being uncomfortable or in pain. I want a feeling of control and homeostasis. Pain is a signal that things are not going well for me and to change something. When I do what I want instead of what I ought, I am sapped of energy, making it harder to take action in a better direction. I keep doing the actions that take the least amount of physical and mental effort, since taking more effort in these areas would make me even more uncomfortable, at least in the short term.
This leads to a wonderful puzzle: not only am I at a low level of energy, but I want to expend as little energy as possible. That means that as I continue to stay on this path, I will continue to feel discomfort and pain as I struggle to avoid doing what I ought. However, to get out of this cycle, I must take action, but given My current state, this will lead to greater discomfort and pain, at least in the now. So, the question becomes do I continue along as I have been doing and suffer minimal pain now and maximum pain later? Or do I suck it up and endure the pain of inertia and enjoy the rewards of doing what I know what I ought later? Most choose the former. Successful people choose the latter.
The second type of boredom comes when I am doing what I ought to be doing. Strangely enough boredom can come even when I am doing what I want to be doing. I can feel that it is something important, something that has value, but my attention still wanders. Personally, I find this disconcerting, as I know that what I am doing is in line with my core values and it is providing worth to others. As I see it, boredom shouldn’t be occurring. It took me a while to realize that my mind was giving me information to enjoy my experiences more, if I paid attention to what was going on. That knowledge allowed me to feel gratitude for boredom – it showed me what I needed to change to love and value my experiences more.
I noticed that boredom usually kicked in when I wasn’t focused enough on the task. When I allowed my mind to wander, when I took my eyes off of what I was attempting to work on now, that is when I felt boredom. I also felt it when I became impatient with myself and thought that the task should be completed already. Instead of allowing myself to take the time to do the task correctly, I was trying to force myself to be done with it now, and then berating myself when it wasn’t done. Instead of making the thing that I am doing at the moment the best that I can do, I was already looking ahead at the next task, the next reward, the next obstacle, instead of focusing on where I was right now and doing what I could with what I had. It doesn’t mean being perfect, but it does mean doing my current best. That is all I can do.
Although I am grateful for boredom, it is a signal that I need to change my mindset and activities. It is a warning that I am not doing what I should be doing and that I need to change. One of the more effective techniques for changing mindset and behavior is through anticipation. There are a number of activities that create a surge of dopamine in the mind and probably the easiest one to access is through anticipation. The stronger that we desire a reward, even if that desire is fabricated, the more I will push to get that reward. For example, a salesperson who has to make a set number of salescalls, but wants to check Facebook, might set out a hundred paperclips on the left side of his desk and then moves a paperclip to the right after each call. Once they reach the goal of one hundred calls and able to see the progress of the paperclips moving across the desk, then they get the reward of checking Facebook for a set amount of time. The key is to use anticipation as the drive to action and then to reward that action with the promised activity.
A second strategy to overcome boredom is to take immediate action. An action deferred is an action denied. The strength to take on a new activity diminishes the longer I take to get started. Mel Robbins became famous for her promotion of the five second rule. She posited that we have motivation to take an action for about five seconds, then rationalization takes over and we don’t take the action. So, the way around this is to count to five and then get up and do the activity. If you desire, you can combine this with the two minute rule, which runs like this: promise yourself that you are going to do an activity, but only for two minutes, then you can go back to what you were doing before. The important thing is to keep the promise to yourself. Do it for only two minutes. Personal integrity, especially with yourself is important. Get comfortable with the activity that you worked on for two minutes. Set a timer and do it again. After a while, you can expand the time that you do the activity, but feel comfortable doing the activity first. That is your greatest obstacle. The second obstacle then becomes how long each session lasts. Work on extending the time, but be patient with yourself. Don’t run a mile a couple of times and then belittle yourself because you aren’t doing marathons.
A third strategy comes from Nir Eyal and his book Indistractable. He shares the idea that we need to put more fun in our activities. His idea of fun is more along the lines of intense activity, not an amusement park ride. One of the aspects that he says that makes activities more fun is setting up the rules. All games have rules and we can intensify our enjoyment of an activity if we set up the rules and then strictly follow them. For example, if I was going to set up an exercise routine, I could say that I had to start by 5:30am four days a week, no more than twenty minutes of exercise, and each exercise must take up no more than four minutes each, with a one minute rest period between each activity. These constraints will keep the activity fresh and the mind alert as you work within the rules that you have set up for it.
Boredom doesn’t have to be the death knell of achievement – far from it. It is a signal that we are meant for something better and that this better life is within our grasp.