This Hack to Combat Boredom Could Transform Your Productivity
Try doing literally anything else for five minutes.
This time three years ago, most people around the world were learning the true meaning of boredom. Confined to our homes during quarantine, with the world seeming to offer nothing but time, we whiled away the days.
Boredom existed before the pandemic, and it still exists now. So, does boredom have a purpose? Cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Waterloo James Danckert studies the concept in his lab. While there’s still much we don’t know about boredom, Danckert is certain that the feeling isn’t a moral failing, nor is it something we should mollify with social media all the time.
What is boredom?
Danckert calls boredom a motivational state in which we want to be engrossed by something but aren’t interested in any of the options available. If you rattle off the many things there are to do on the internet, you can glibly claim that boredom is impossible. But it’s not only finding a task to do, Danckert says, it’s finding a meaningful one.
We’re still not 100 percent clear on what your brain is doing in fits of boredom, but we have a few ideas. According to Danckert, electroencephalograms (EEG) of the brain reveal that electrical signals normally associated with a focused state are less active in a bored noggin. EEGs also reveal that electrical activity in a mind at rest is even lower in those who are prone to boredom, which can relate to different cognitive abilities. People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Danckert says, are among groups who “tend to be high on boredom-proneness.”
This may be why fidget toys are so popular. ADHD and other similar conditions are thought to come from chronic under-stimulation, and these toys are meant to boost activity so that a relatively unmoored brain has more to focus on.
Who gets bored?
The axiom that only boring people get bored puts a moral judgment on this state, but it’s a failure of perspective. That’s like saying only weak people get sleepy or only needy people get hungry. Boredom had become equated with a failure to find joie de vivre.
“We do tend to weaponize boredom as a moral judgment,” Danckert tells Inverse. This judgment bestows responsibility on the individual to remain engaged at all times. If you can’t find something to occupy yourself, you must not be intelligent enough to see what makes even drying paint or growing grass fascinating. What it boils down to, Danckert surmises is a reinforcement of the head-down focus type of work ethic over restlessness.
But boredom certainly isn’t a deficit or moral failing. The feeling, at some point, likely had an evolutionary advantage. It’s hard to imagine how the discomfort that now manifests as anxious doom-scrolling was ever a selected trait for adaptation, but Danckert says this inner restlessness could be part of what urges humans to explore new frontiers.
“If you cast boredom’s function as a call to action, it's telling you that what you're doing now is not working, you need to find something else, then you can see an evolutionary history to it,” Danckert tells Inverse. He offers an example of a common experience dog parents have. You go out for a few hours, leaving your dog at home, only to find a destroyed shoe when you get home.
“That's your dog saying, ‘I was bored, I needed some stimulation, there wasn't enough of it,’” he interprets. Destroying a shoe is hardly Manifest Destiny, but the point, according to this notion of boredom, is that it functions to promote experiencing novelty. Your pet behaved in a way it may not have behaved otherwise because it sought new experiences. The boredom of staying home alone may have necessitated the push to act in a new way.
Some people’s brains are more prone to boredom than others
Some people’s brains are more prone to boredom than others, and everyone has different ways of responding to those feelings. High school students in a classroom, for example, may all experience this monotony in different ways. For some, the lesson is enough to keep them engaged and give the moment meaning. Others respond to boredom by immediately finding another task, like doodling, counting ceiling tiles, staring outside, or something else. Others still may feel so restless, so confined that they use every chance they can to get out of class.
According to Danckert, that’s not to say the students going to the bathroom every five minutes are the only ones experiencing boredom. They’re just a little more practiced at finding something to occupy their attention, whether it’s the teacher or something else entirely.
Can you die of boredom?
The short answer is no. There’s nothing wrong with boredom, but left untreated, this feeling can do a number on the mind.
In 2014, Danckert’s student Colleen Merryfield demonstrated in her thesis that boredom is associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. By extension, elevated cortisol levels that last beyond key moments of distress can cause inflammation and maladaptive coping mechanisms, as shown in a different 2014 study. That connection isn’t a smoking gun, and Danckert says there’s still much we don’t know, but chronic boredom certainly isn’t doing you any favors.
There’s nothing wrong with boredom, but left untreated, this feeling can do a number on the mind.
“We do know for people who are boredom prone that they have elevated levels of depression and anxiety,” Danckert says, adding that there are also links between frequent boredom gambling and alcohol abuse. A 2017 study shows that American college students who were boredom-prone were more likely to develop what the researchers called problematic smartphone use, experiencing anxiety and depression when their phone wasn’t readily available. This finding also indicates that the bottomless internet may not be the best way to pacify boredom, as it creates a crutch that becomes an aversion to boredom, with no acceptable substitute.
That’s not to say that going on your phone when you have free time is certainly going to harm your health. But if your phone is always your first stop, it’s worth paying attention to how you feel when you’re not scrolling. A red flag, Danckert says, is when boredom becomes an anxiety trigger. If you feel that sense of boredom coming on and immediately quash it by going online, you could end up feeling anxious whenever you’re not connected.
What should you do when you’re bored?
This is the million-dollar question.
A 2021 paper examined how to free your mind from boredom during quarantine. A sample of 1,455 participants was asked to address their boredom with awareness of their state of mind followed by actions to dispel it. While both the mindfulness and take-charge approach partially or fully assuaged boredom, the findings highlight that a crucial first step is objectively observing negative circumstances before taking action. Not every activity pursued is going to quell boredom, but observing monotony first can at least create some perspective.
In other words, expect boredom.
“This boredom thing, it's gonna happen,” Danckert says. “What are the four things that you could turn to that you think might make it work? If you have that plan already in mind, then that might really work well.” There may be a struggle because, of course, when you do feel bored, none of those activities sound appealing. But it’s worth a shot to try to do something for five minutes, and if you’re even more bored than when you started, maybe try something else.
So think of boredom as a call to action, as your primal brain saying that the status quo doesn’t suffice right now.