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We all felt bored. Maybe you feel like this now and want to know how to overcome boredom. Boredom is quite common and the discomfort it brings can be difficult to manage. That is why we usually look for something to do as a solution to this emotion. Simple. Or maybe not so simple.
Why a boredom management guide? You may think to yourself. Because it is an emotion, boredom can trigger two types of actions.
Some of these actions or solutions are functional, others are dysfunctional. That is, some help us direct the energy of boredom towards doing something useful and enriching, or towards things that aren’t so beneficial. We will talk in detail about how to deal with boredom, what is good to do and what not.
But, before these essential details for developing emotional intelligence, let’s talk about boredom. What it is, what is its purpose, and why does it appear?
Here’s what you need to know about this complex emotion.
What is boredom?
Boredom is one of the most complex and bothersome emotions. It is not one of the basic universal emotions, but it is a very common emotion. If we do not know how to manage it, it can cause us to chose unhealthy actions. Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, called boredom, the “root of all evil.”
“Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
As studies show (see footnotes), boredom is associated with depression and dysfunctional behaviors. It is also a predictor and sometimes cause for psychological problems such as compulsive eating behavior, compulsive shopping, social media and addictions. And as that would not be enough, boredom can make us feel rejection for the work we do while becoming bored.
Boredom is an emotion that is often uncomfortable, depending on the type experienced. Yes, there are several types of boredom. Counting 5 types of boredom actually. Depending on the intensity of the physical and emotional discomfort, there are:
Indifferent boredom is characterized by a state of calm and withdrawal in general. The emotion felt is slightly positive. The person is not fidgety, and does not look for activities to do. Hence the name of indifferent boredom.
Calibrating boredom is more unpleasant than indifferent boredom. When we feel this kind of boredom we are available to do activities other than those we are currently doing, but we are not actively looking for something else to do. We are not fidgety, but we feel a slight discomfort of boredom.
Activating boredom is the type of boredom is characterized by a state of restlessness and an active pursuit of activities to reduce boredom. It is that kind of boredom that already has a negative emotional valence that we want to change. We think and plan activities or we have other attempts to do a pleasant activity.
Reactant boredom is a type of boredom felt more intensely than the activating one. The level of physical agitation is increased. The person is actively seeking and trying to get involved in different activities. Maintaining attention in a given activity is difficult. The general tendency is to try to get out of this state or activity. This kind of boredom can occur when we do an activity that we feel is an obstacle between us and what we actually want to do.
Apathetic boredom is a type of boredom different from the 4 types above. Looking at the indifferent, calibrating, activating and reactant boredom, the negative affect and the physical agitation increase gradually. The apathetic boredom is different in this regard. It has a high degree of negative affect and a low degree of physical activation. It is a type of boredom similar to the apathy from depression and can trigger thoughts similar to those encountered in depression.
How do you know what type of boredom you have?
To identify the type of boredom you feel, follow these simple steps:
do you associate boredom with positive (1) or negative (5) emotions? Score from 1 to 5 the valence of the emotion felt. Is it more negative or is it more positive?
score the activation level from calm (1) to agitated (5). Write down with a number from 1 to 5 to show the degree of physical activation you feel. Are you more calm or rather restless?
The results are the following:
The valence of emotion 2 and physical activation 1 indicate indifferent boredom
The valence of emotion 3 with physical activation 2 indicates calibrating boredom
The valence of emotion 3 with physical activation 3 indicates activating boredom
The valence of emotion 4 with physical activation 4 indicates reactant boredom
The valence of emotion 4 with physical activation 1 indicates apathetic boredom
Other combinations fall in between the boredom types
What causes boredom?
There are several reasons why we feel bored. Most often the cause is a combination of internal and external factors. For example, the difficulty of keeping our attention and the environment that does not stimulate us enough are two factors that cause boredom.
It seems that lately, the attention span has decreased in the last decades, and we are able to keep our attention focused for a short time. This, in my oppinion is not good news in terms of feeling bored.
The environment is loaded with equally intense stimuli
If we have too many things to do, we have the freedom to choose what we will do. Having this freedom is essential to our mental health. What we may not know, however, is that too many options can sometimes have a paradoxical effect called decision paralysis. We don’t know what to choose, we procrastinate, and as a result we get bored.
The environment does not contain satisfying stimuli
Although there are things we need to do, we don’t find these things interesting (yet). As a result, we want to do something, but we will not know what, therefore we feel bored.
There are stimuli in the environment that interfere with the activity we do
Something very interesting is happening in this case. If there are stimuli that overlap with the activity we do, our attention is distracted from the activity we do. Also, if we cannot focus on the activity in progress we experience boredom. The effect of boredom here is that we will associate it with doing that activity and we will not like doing the activity anymore. Plus it will take us about 15-20 minutes to mentally return to what we were doing before we were distracted.
Example: let’s just say I like to listen to music while reading. Doing two things at the same time, it will be hard for me to focus on reading. Then I think that I cannot keep my attention focused because what I read is not interesting, and not because I do two things at the same time. In the future this will make me no longer want to read that book because I will thing it is boring.
Our skills are higher than the ones required for the activity we do
If we happen to be asked to do something that is below our level of professional or personal skills, we can feel bored. The reason is because the activity in question does not challenge us enough to feel that we are useful and that we do something to the best of our ability.
It can also happen that we feel bored when playing a game against a weaker opponent. We eventually get bored because we feel that the opponent does not challenge us enough.
We are obliged to do something we do not want
This is most often the case during work or school activities. The presentation, the subjects and so on, can be things that we do not want to do. Thus we feel boredom when we cannot, for some reasons, leave (escape) the situation we are in.
We want to do something else but there is something that stops us
For example, I want to see my friends in the park, but the rain stops me from leaving the house. Therefore I experience boredom.
We have too much free time
We all (or some of us more than others) have days when we have time and don’t know what to do with it. We are so rich that we have free time. Free time is very good, necessary and healthy. But boredom can occur if we don’t know what to do with this wealth of time.
We have energy we don’t know how to use
Boredom does not mean the lack of energy, but its presence. What are missing, however, are the activities that are of interest. We can hear ourselves saying “I want to do something but I don’t know what”. So energy to use exists, but we can’t find what to do.
How to overcome boredom?
There are ways to use your boredom in a positive way. You can learn new functional coping mechanisms and you will know better what to do when you are bored.
Boredom has the power to mobilize us to look for activities we can do. But these activities, in order to cope with boredom and use it for their own benefit, must be constructive.
From my point of view, boredom can stimulate creativity and can help us grow and develop on many levels ofour life. Boredom has a mobilizing energy. It can mobilize us to meet many of our needs. Boredom aims for development, discoveries and evolution in general.
It is good to know how to direct the energy of boredom, not to waste it, or try to “treat” boredom with substances or other substitutes.
Here are examples of positive coping mechanisms. You can use these ideas as a guide to managing your boredom:
Taking responsibility for how you feel
Sometimes when boredom settles in, it becomes like a fog that distorts our vision. And we can blame everything else for how we feel. We could blame ourselves, the life, society, or other external things. And we feel lonely and depressed, helpless, captive.
But when we take responsibility for what we feel, we no longer fall into the trap powerlessness. Then we can choose to change something and use our boredom for our benefit.
I’m not saying that boredom must be changed or eliminated. Boredom can exist within us without problems. It can be an emotion that we can accept and continue our daily activities without problems. Boredom becomes a problem when we fall into the trap of victimization, powerlessness and choose to “self-medicate” for boredom.
You can always change something if boredom has negative effects on you. Keep this in mind. You are always in control of your actions.
Behavioral activation, cognitive engagement and personal development
Cognitive engaging and behavioral activation, meaning being interested, curious, learning new things and implementing them through specific actions can help us use the energy of boredom for a positive purpose. Also, by doing these things and having an action plan for boredom, we can develop ourselves.
Make a list of things you would like to learn and which you have not had the chance to approach before. That may be the course you always wanted to take. Or maybe you always wanted to learn how to surf or sing, or learn about the universe, planets, animals, or plants. This world is too vast and complex and deserves to be discovered.
Make a list of things you can do when you feel boredom is bothering you. It can be cleaning your closet, cleaning the room or the house, sorting books from the library, cleaning and sorting the files from the computer, do sports. Physical exercise helps us to relax and spend our energy in a constructive way. Therefore, it can reduce boredom.
Build confidence in yourself. In my opinion, in some cases boredom can be caused indirectly by a low self-esteem and self-confidence. Why? Because if we do not trust ourselves it can be difficult to take risks, to believe that we can accomplish something or that we can learn something new. Therefore we can abandon some activities too soon, leaving us inactive but with energy to spend. This leads to boredom.
Dig deeper into the activity you are doing
When boredom occurs while we are doing something, we can think “that something is boring”. But it may not be boring, and boredom has arisen from another cause (such as us not being able to focus). How do you manage boredom and finish what you have to do?
Get involved in what you do. Keep your curiosity alive by asking questions, looking for information and understanding what you do. Become a scientist or researcher in the activity you do. This mental set stimulates interest and curiosity, two essential aspects in managing boredom.
If there is curiosity, there is no boredom.
Reduce stimuli that distract you from what you’re doing. When you get involved and you want to go deeper into the activity you do, stop the music or make your environment as quiet as you can. Try to keep your environment clean as well. If your room or desk are clean, you will have less mental clutter. This will help you focus better when working.
Do the activity at a slow pace. I noticed that when I feel boredom my pace or rhythm of doing things is very fast, I want things to happen quickly and I have no patience. For example, when I read and get bored, I no longer have the patience to read a whole paragraph. I skip over some paragraphs, turn pages or scroll and skip information. Well, when I slow down, this helps me channel my attention, understand and assimilate the information.
If boredom really appears because of the activity we do, we can still change the way we do that activity to help finish it. (version 1) Keep your curiosity active and keep doing that activity for 5 minutes. 5 minutes on your timer if you want. If you still feel bored, continue for another 5. Then take a break, relax with meditation or mindfulness exercises and resume activity.
(version 2) Or instead of continuing with 5 minutes, continue with 10. If it’s still boring, do 15 minutes, then 20, and so on. This technique gives you control over the time spent doing a boring activity. You may find that the activity is not boring at all.
Do creative and recreational activities, find ways to spend your free time
Create. So far I wrote about how curiosity and interest are amazing ways to manage boredom. Creativity is also very important in managing boredom. We use our creativity when we do recreational activities. These activities help us to relax and spend our free time in a pleasant way.
Do you have a hobby? Do you like to create something? Do you like arts? Only well, you can do these at home and you can develop a hobby that you enjoy. You could for example paint, draw, color books with mandalas, carve, model, draw, make collages, build things, decorate your house, tailor. Choose the creative activities you like. Plan, implement and develop your creative skills. You don’t have to become the new Picasso or invent something new. All you need to do is like or be interested in that activity. That’s all.
Travel. When you go on vacation or decide to travel to some place, you open yourself to all sorts of new things. Traveling means curiosity, surprises, new stimuli, new information, new tastes and smells, new landscapes, emotions and contact with new people, new culture. You can’t get bored when planning an adventure. Travels are experiences that enrich our being.
“Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.” – Lovelle Drachman
Read. Always have a good book at hand to read. You can make a list of books you want to read. Books shape our thinking, stimulate our imagination and creativity. They are a source for quality information and personal development.
Socializing and community involvement
Being involved in your community and socializing (for example attending events), are things that help us bring new people into our lives. It is particularly useful for us to contribute to and be part of something greater than ourselves. Being useful in social causes makes us feel good.
Meet your friends. You can spend quality time and have fun together. Friends are invaluable in our lives, so if you have them, keep them close!
Volunteer. Volunteering for me is an endless resource of doing good. It also bring a lot of good things in our lives, but also in the lives of other people. It is also a way of investing the time we have (or donating it) for social purposes. We can help and at the same time form friends or contacts who can help us grow professionally or personally.
Attend cultural events or areas of interest to you. Do you remember that list of things you would like to learn you wrote just earlier? You can look for events where you can go and learn about many things. Or you may be interested in the cultural events you would like to attend. Is there a folklore event in your city, a museum where you would like to go? These events are occasions where you can learn new things about your culture, history, or other fields.
Take care of your mental and emotional health
Write in a journal. My recommendation is to keep a journal where you can write about what is going on in your life, about the dreams you have, or the boredom you feel. We have an infinite universe within us that we can explore through writing. Journaling is an excellent resource for managing emotions. It helps us discover things about us, solve some problems. It also helps us understand why we do some things and discover the dysfunctional coping mechanisms of boredom.
Explore boredom. Why does it appear? When it occurs? Why now? Is there a desire or need that you are prevented from fulfilling? What do you do when you feel this emotion? Do you have an action plan? Can you tolerate boredom?
Meditate. This is an effective tool for developing the capacity for concentration, emotional management and relaxation of the nervous system. When feeling boredom it is very useful to reduce the stimulation of the nervous system through relaxation. Relaxation is useful because it reduces the activation of the nervous system. Therefore, the energy surplus partly responsible for the appearance of boredom, decreases. Usually meditation and mindfulness techniques are correlated with the disappearance of boredom because it has this effect: it reduces the activation of the nervous system and calms us, helps us focus our attention more effectively and for a longer time.
What NOT to do when you are bored? – dysfunctional coping mechanisms
Boredom (especially reactant or apathetic), being a difficult emotion to bear, sometimes we can consciously or unconsciously choose self-medicating methods to improve the way we feel. These methods or dysfunctional coping mechanisms are not beneficial for us. These methods could be compulsive actions such as eating, using substances, checking the phone (facebook and other social media platforms) and others.
And the negative effects of poorly managing boredom do not stop here. Apathetic boredom can cause depression, because it is so similar to it.
Examples of unhealthy mechanisms:
Not knowing what to turn our attention to, we go to what is more accessible and easy to do. We lose contact with us and do something other than what we need. For example, we go to the fridge to check what’s in it and either eat, or close the door again because we can’t find anything there. Or we consume something else: social media, drugs, or other things.
The things we do compulsively can be felt as an escape from the uncomfortable discomfort of boredom. But these actions are not good for us because there are consequences on several levels.
Drug use changes the way the brain works and creates addiction. And addiction has multiple negative effects in someone’s life.
Compulsive eating can lead to obesity and health problems related to it.
Infinite scrolling on social platforms has the same effect as addictive substances. In addition, the consumption of social media reduces the decision-making capacity, it affects the memory and the attention span.
Drug and alcohol use
This kind of dysfunctional coping solves nothing. Managing boredom does not occur by swallowing a pill or several liters of wine. Using drugs to fix our boredom is very bad because we can develop physical and mental disorders or diseases.
When we feel boredom, it is important not to immediately pick up the phone to get rid of this emotion.
In some situations facebook, instagram and other social networks are like the refrigerator we go to when we aren’t actually hungry for food. We don’t find anything useful when we infinitely scroll down on our FB wall. We have no contact with the people we like, there is nothing we really need there.
Procrastination and personal devaluation
We can end up procrastinating because we choose not to do something. And so our confidence in us diminishes, and we feel worse about what we do. We can have negative thoughts about ourselves. Or we can think that doing the activity is too difficult for us. Therefore we devalue ourselves and our self-esteem decreases.
These were some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms I could think of. There could be other ones too. However, when we are bored it is healthy to mobilize ourselves to find the things or activities that are good for us. Focus on the healthy activities that are helpful, be curious and creative (the two antidotes for boredom), meditate, and this emotion can subside.
What do you do when you feel bored?
- The state of boredom: Frustrating or depressing?, Edwin A. J. van Hooft, Madelon L. M. van Hooff, Motiv Emot. 2018; 42(6): 931–946. doi: 10.1007/s11031-018-9710-6
- Relationships Between Boredom Proneness, Mindfulness, Anxiety, Depression, and Substance Use, Nicole LePera, M.A., The New School for Social Research, 2011, Vol. 8, No.2
- Fenomenologia plictiselii școlare, Götz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie (2006), 38, pp. 149-153. https://doi.org/10.1026/0049-8618.104.22.168
- Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach, Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C. et al. Motiv Emot (2014) 38: 401. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-013-9385-y
- Yael K. Goldberg, John D. Eastwood, Jennifer LaGuardia, and James Danckert (2011). Boredom: An Emotional Experience Distinct from Apathy, Anhedonia, or Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 647-666. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2011.30.6.647
- Eaten up by boredom: consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self, Andrew B. Moynihan, Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg, Eric R. Igou, Arnaud Wisman, Alan E. Donnelly, and Jessie B. Mulcaire, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00369
- Dar Meshi, Anastassia Elizarova, Andrew Bender, Antonio Verdejo-Garcia. Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.138
- Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner, PNAS September 15, 2009 106 (37) 15583-15587; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106