The Busyness of Boredom

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“Boredom is the inner conflict we suffer when we lose desire, when we lack a lacking.” –Robert McKee

It wasn’t for a lack of desire that I found myself bored at work. I mean who can ever say that they are bored at work with truly no work to do and mean it? I can but I also understand the temptation that some people might fall prey to where they do have actual work to do but they are not motivated to get it done so they feel bored.

In my case I had actually finished the project I was hired to do and there was no other work for me to do even when I asked if I could be of help to anyone in the office. I had no choice but to wait out the next phase of work to begin. I felt quite guilty getting paid to just show up so I told one of my supervisors I wouldn’t be in one day so that they weren’t wasting their money on me not producing an end result. Who does that?

It was quite an interesting scene for me to not only feel bored but to use the resources that were in limited supply around me and fill my time. I finished reading a book, I caught up on correspondence, and I made some phone calls and doctor appointments. This article is a result of the research I did while I was bored at work. The take away for me is that boredom is a choice and when presented with a list of options on how to fill your open space of time in most cases we will usually choose to do as little as possible. I’m no different really but for the most part I think I am strange in that I hate down time unless I’m sleeping and even then I usually wake up the next day feeling very tired because I must have been working hard in my dream state. I can sit still and I can sit for hours at a time but I don’t like it very much so having a host of things to do is always a thrill for me. So as a result of my boredom I created a list of ways on how not to be bored within the down time I suddenly found. See if you can find yourself in just one of the items on the list. Please let me know if you have any options to add to the list. Okay, here we go:

Create avenues of interest: Conversation cues or prompts are one avenue of interest for me. I was on vacation with my daughter one summer and I found a conversation starter kit called a Chatbox. In the box are rectangle cards that ask questions to prompt conversation. I used the box recently when I got hired as a way to try to meet people from all around the office. Where I work is a big facility but most people have to pass my area to get to the kitchen so I set out some candy in a dish and put the cards next to the candy in the hopes that someone would be intrigued to read the questions and make conversation. Not many takers but there were some. Most people are very shy and closed to meeting new people so I’m not surprised but the candy worked out really well in terms of a quick hello or thank you but again not much in the way of conversation and introductions. Just so you know, I keep trying and in case you are curious Peanut M&M’s , Mini Snickers bars and Tootsie Rolls are the popular candy grab among adults indulging in their little kid candy cravings and chocolate fix. It’s the smiles that really do it for me.

“Even the most routine tasks become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Stay in touch: Taking an interest in someone else’s day or life moments means a whole lot to that person. Though I was on company time the company had no work for me so I used the technology available to me and got in touch with clients, family members and friends. Getting out of my own head and situation helped to pass the time. I learned things about each person that I may have missed out on if I were too busy to connect with them. I found that I was listening deeper because I wanted to bury myself in their thoughts and words and feelings.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh!” he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?” “Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” ~A.A. Milne

Learn Something: In my case, write something. I learn something new every time I write for my clients and the coaching community. Keeping my mind active is very important to me so I write and read a lot. I play word games and I doodle all the time. If you find a moment in your day where you just need to fill a transition spot of time why not learn a quick fact that you can share with someone right away. You never know where that fact will lead you or if it will benefit someone else.

“It is not that I am so smart. I just stay with the questions much longer.” Albert Einstein

Make Plans: Having something to look forward to is a great boredom buster. Add to or create a bucket list. Your list could be a lifelong list or a weekly list or daily list. What would you choose to do or accomplish today when you thought, “Oh, if I only had the time.” This might be a good time to schedule doctor appointments or schedule that much needed massage you’ve been putting off.

“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Bill Watterson

Problem Solve: Do you want to learn how to make big changes in your life? Take this downtime to get to know yourself better and create solutions to those life challenges that are getting in your way of moving forward in other areas of your life.

“Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.” Chris Hadfield

Go Within: Listen to music, meditate, pray. Get deep inside of you and let the person you are too busy to get to know, come out. Ask for spiritual guidance, put hard to answer questions out to the universe and be patient for the answer back. An answer always comes around. What is your truth and how are you honoring it? What makes you happy and how are you choosing it?

“There is a difference between the facts of a person and the truth of him.” Alix Ohlin

Play mental games: While trying to appreciate the slow time I was experiencing I tried to practice and possibly enhance my listening skills. I listened to voice patterns in conversations going on around me and I listened to office noises and tried to identify them. I listened to my own inner thoughts and wondered how best to use them. In some instances I was able to go deeper into the project I was assigned to work on and I was able to expand on the job requirement and learn the software more thoroughly.

“The ancestor of every action is a thought .” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Volunteer: Ask people around you if they need help with a project. Join committees or short term project groups that would benefit from your expertise and willingness to help. Perhaps volunteering outside of what you do all day will enhance what you do in your job.

“Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it. Remember, you don’t live in a world all of your own.” –Albert Schweitzer

Boredom has roots in the feeling of being too comfortable in life. According to authors Robert Biswas Diener and Todd Kashdan, Ph.D, and their book “The Upside of Your Dark Side”, “We feel bored when the current situation is monotonous, low intensity, and rather meaningless. As we become more comfortable in our lives, researchers observed a drop in our psychological health.” In this case the authors mention the invention of memory foam mattresses. “While people were getting better sleep, enjoying more convenience and expecting greater happiness, they were also adjusting to a life without too many trials or hardships.” I think of it in comparison to Purell. We are so anti germs that we are denying our bodies the chance to build immunities to the germs and so our bodies get weaker making us more susceptible to illnesses. Our psyche is ill prepared to handle many kind of hardship these days that our ancestors had to face that they would probably look at us and say, “Are you kidding me, you are upset about that?”

Our growing discomfort with boredom for instance, among other things like uncertainty, doubt and negative emotions lead us to escape and not face these uncomfortable states of being, by, for example, watching a lot of television. T.V. takes us away from our cares and our daily lives. We are not training ourselves to deal with the adversity of something simple like boredom. The authors agree on this point, “Both change and predictability are necessary for a good life.”

The authors ask this question: “So how can boredom be beneficial?” Their answer? “In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, boredom is described as a precursor to insight and discovery.”

I have to agree with this thought because sometimes being bored allows for my creativity to sky rocket. In some instances when I feel bored it’s because I’m procrastinating about doing something specific or I’m day dreaming about a life I wish I was living however there are a lot of times when feeling bored has led me to try something new or be more spontaneous in my life or get a project done that has been waiting for the availability of time. When there was no work to do at my job I felt torn between trying to be resourceful and find work to do while knowing all the work I could be doing if I were home and running the business of my family. Guilt is very powerful but is it also a great motivator.

Here are the authors:

“…..something special happens during periods of boredom. When the brain is left to wander, at best it’s a springboard to creativity and growth, and at worst it encounters a brief period of discomfort. Boredom can also be a state of low energy, signaling that work is complete and acceptable. That is, nothing is left to do so a person feels aimless, but this lack of direction is association with the satisfactory completion of tasks. Last, boredom can have motivational impact, pushing a person toward novelty, providing the mental gun to the head that helps people shift out of complacency into the uncertain, challenging zone where safety and success are not guaranteed.”

As with most experiences whether it is external such as having fun all the time or internal such as the foods we eat to nourish our bodies, everything in moderation. Too much boredom and too much novelty can cause anxiety.

I remember plenty of times as a child telling my mom how bored I was. Her answer was to go outside. Without doubt I always found something to do. In fact using my boredom and just letting the day unfold outside was where I discovered my love of archaeology. If the day didn’t allow for playing and exploring outside then my friends and I would clean my mom’s basement where all my toys and games were solely for the reward of a trip to the ice cream parlor for a job well done. Sneaky witches.

As a mom I fell into the trap of trying to keep my kids busy as they were growing up. Sure, there were times of boredom but not many. I wanted to feed their interests with matching activities or help them maybe discover interests they didn’t know they had. It wasn’t long at all before I noticed the health benefits of letting them NOT be so scheduled and busy. My daughter didn’t get as sick and the boys truly got pleasure in sitting around and just playing with Legos or their Matchbox cars. I have noticed however that my daughter, now a college student, finds it hard to say no to any new experience or interest feeding event. Even when she knows her body could use the rest she makes plans to go and do and be. Could it be the high activity level of her early growing up years or could it be that this is just who she is? I’m so grateful for the times I was able to not have anything scheduled.

There is something so magical about just hanging out at home with no purpose other than to do “whatever.” For example, when my kids were “bored” and they couldn’t go outside one day during the winter months we dressed in our summer clothes, decorated the house as if it were summer time and pretended we were at the beach and we had a picnic in the living room. When they were not tired yet and couldn’t fall asleep we pretended my bed was a boat and we went sailing around the world. Another time we made one whole day all about movies. It’s okay to be bored from time to time. It is the time that helps create the busyness of boredom.

“A good dose of fantasy is exercise for your sensibilities; it keeps your avatar strong.”Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway: Quotes, Verse, & Grumblings for Every Day of the Year

Call to Action

Whatever down time looks like to you, and whatever novelty you can come up with to beat back the feeling of aimlessness and boredom why not grab hold of those life moments when they show up and just be in it?

What does boredom open up for you?

When does boredom show up?

How do you make the most of boredom?

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