With the global pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment, and widespread social unrest, 2020 has been marked by anger, grief, flat-out terror. And oddly enough: Boredom.
An April 2020 Gallup poll of adults during quarantine found that 41 percent of Americans frequently experienced boredom. In an Italian study of adults in quarantine, boredom was the second most common concern—above loneliness and lack of fresh air.
We’ve had plenty of downtime, but we also have more entertainment at our fingertips than ever before. How can we be bored?
First, boredom is actually more than an absence of things to do. In their book “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” researchers James Danckert, Ph.D, and John Eastwood, Ph.D, define boredom as: “The uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable to, engage in satisfying activity.”
What boredom signals, they say, is a loss of or disconnection from purpose—which happens when we suppress our emotions, says Eastwood. With our daily lives shaken up, we’ve become further destabilized, causing many to wonder, what does it all mean? Enter boredom.
“Boredom is a call to action,” note Danckert and Eastwood. Instead of rushing to banish boredom, or distract yourself from it, view it as a signal and opportunity to reconnect to what matters to you, and watch your restlessness recede. Here’s how.
1. Address the Agitation
Because boredom is an agitated, restless state, further feeding it doesn’t solve the problem, says Danckert. Instead, he says, it’s important to address that excess energy and restlessness.
Rather than look for something to stimulate or energize you, do something deeply calming. Take a walk or some deep breaths.
2. Don’t Mistake Entertainment for Fulfillment
At the first sign of boredom, we reach for our phones. But treating ourselves as “empty vessels” to fill up with passive entertainment causes boredom to return “with a vengeance,” say Danckert and Eastwood.
Rather than just scroll through what other people are up to, Eastwood says, turn that attention to what you’re up to and why by asking questions, such as, “What matters to me?” and “What do I want to do that I’m not doing?” Even better, jot those thoughts in a journal to discover what to explore next—something you won’t find in someone else’s feed.
3. Set Small Objectives
The itch for entertainment comes because we’re too tired to do anything else. “Dealing with uncertainty and anxiety depletes our limited mental resources,” says Yijun Lin, M.S., a researcher at the University of Florida.
When you’re bored, “Write a novel” could be too big a bite. Instead, strive for small goals that honor your limited capacity while providing a sense of meaning, she says, like reading an article you bookmarked, checking in on a friend, or writing a page or two.
4. Say Yes to Some Busy Work
You might think that dull chores only make things worse. However, research published in “Creativity Research Journal” found that people performing mind-numbing tasks (like reading the phone book) brainstormed more creative possibilities on a follow-up task.
The reason? Simple, repetitive tasks encourage our minds to wander. So while it may not seem like folding laundry or mowing the lawn is a boredom solution, they may give your body enough activity and space to turn your creative wheels.
5. See Boring Tasks Through a New Lens
Sometimes the task at hand is the problem—you don’t want to do it. But what if you shifted how you felt about it?
Research published in the “Journal of Educational Psychology” found that when students were prompted to write about why their schoolwork was relevant to their lives, their interest in learning surged.
Ask yourself: What greater purpose does this work serve? Who will be helped? What does it mean to accomplish it? This can change your relationship to the task—which may be all you need to finish it.
6. Notice the Nuances
When you’re bored, everything feels boring—you start a show and stop it, pick up a book and put it down. One solution may lie in your powers of observation: The more you look at something, the more interesting it becomes, says Eastwood.
A Japanese study in the “Journal of Cognitive Psychology” showed that participants preferred and paid more attention to shapes they’d seen multiple times.
Surrender the search for the perfect activity and rest your attention on one thing—whether that’s a book, a meal, or a sculpture in the park you’ve passed by a thousand times. When you pay attention, the quality and nature of your attention changes—and so might your experience of everything.