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Boredom Can Be Good For You

Boredom Can Be Good For You

Being bored will help you be better at what you do
Big yawn

    There are a great many books, web sites, and training courses today more or less dedicated to the idea that being bored is a major sin, for which the only cure is to find ways to be busy and productive every waking moment. People who follow this idea are constantly on-the-go — any feelings of boredom quickly smothered with yet more activity.

    At work, at home, at play, each moment must be filled with things to ward off the slighest possibility of being bored. As a society, we’re over-stimulated to the point of mania, like hyper-excited children in those few moments at a party before it all goes wrong and everyone starts crying. I suspect the rise in ADHD isn’t only due to eating strange chemicals in the diet; we’re training ourselves to require continual distraction, reducing our attention-span to less than a few seconds before we’re bored again.

    It used to be only teenagers who sighed, “I’m so bored!” Now almost everyone acts as if not having something truly exciting to do every moment is either the first sign of senility or — much worse — positive proof that they, and their careers, are gone, past it, over the hill, on the way towards oblivion.

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    Yet boredom is, in reality, crucial to any ability to be truly productive, let alone effective. If you’re flat-out busy and engaged all the time, you may feel important, but the reality is different. It’s those who are constantly distracted with activities who are most likely to be headed towards a nasty let-down.

    Busyness is a great excuse for becoming tired and repetitive

    The trouble is that people who are afraid of being bored soon become too busy to stay effective. In all their rush and haste to stay active, they have no time left to think about what they are doing, let alone add any new tricks to their repertoire. Besides, just sitting around in some classroom learning stuff is so . . . boring. I want to be out there, in the thick of the action, doing things.

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    Of course, being so active makes you tired, but resting is boring too. With the help of a lot of coffee, some superficial excitement, and a great deal of sheer determination (plus youth), you can get through on remarkably little sleep. And once you get into the habit of keeping your mind racing, ready to leap into the next crisis, you’ll find it hard to sleep anyway, until you are so exhausted your body rebels and knocks you out. Who cares what this is doing to you, physically and mentally? That’s years away, whatever it is. Plenty of time to worry about that when you’re old.

    It’s not true, sadly. A large proportion of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived: a situation that is known to have serious present and long-term ill effects on both body and mind.

    How boredom will help you towards success — if you let it

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    Being bored turns your mind inward and encourages reflection. When you’re rushing about, there’s no time to think. When you’re bored, there’s nothing else to do but think. The fashion today may be to admire action heroes and denigrate the power of the mind, but fashion never made anything right. With time to consider what you’re doing and why, you may just come up with some useful questions about the direction you’re headed in. We may be living in an age full of self-regard, but that doesn’t mean people spend much time in introspection. It’s more like they keep looking at themselves in a mental mirror, seeing how they look on the surface. They don’t go any deeper.

    Boredom is nearly always essential to creativity. It isn’t true that creativity is mostly sparked by having a specific problem to be solved. It’s far more likely to arise because the person is bored with the way something has been done a thousand times before and wants to try something new. That’s why new movements in technology, the arts, and even public life usually start when there are still plenty of people polishing and refining the current approach. They don’t begin because what is being done now is totally played out; they begin because a few people decide that’s boring and start playing around with how to change it.

    Boredom stimulates the search for better ways to things like nothing else does. How many improvements in processes and ways of producing things have come about because the people doing the job are so damn bored with going over same thing again and again? My guess is that it’s the single biggest spur to working smarter, far exceeding cost-cutting or abstract ideas of ‘constant improvement’. It’s become a truism that vast amounts of creativity and improvement are available from simply asking those who do some job how they might do it better. Those dull places where processes never change, and people spend their working days with minds numbed by boredom, relieved only by gossip, get that way because the people in charge are control freaks who can’t stand that anyone might have an independent idea.

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    Boredom is an essential step in falling asleep and getting enough rest. Watch almost any animal. If they’re stuck somewhere with nothing to do, they go to sleep. It’s the natural thing to do. We do it too. People usually can’t sleep because their minds are too active. They’re thinking about what they will do tomorrow, worrying about what they did today, or mad because they ought to be asleep and aren’t, and lying here wide awake is so boring. If they would only give in to being bored — relish how dull everything was and how there was nothing to do or think about — they’d be asleep in a matter of moments. But their minds are trained to seek constant stimulation. Even when they fall asleep, those minds fill the night with dreams of frantic activity. No wonder they wake up feeling tired.

    The next time you find yourself saying, or thinking, that you’re bored, be happy. You’ve just been handed a gift you can use in any of these ways. If you do, you’ll find that being bored is sometimes the very best state to be in.

    Photo credit: Jessica Lim

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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