Tedium sounds like such a minor emotion, lacking the passion of anger or fear. Yet it can be a major trigger for alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, emotional eating and problem gambling.
If you’re working to change one of those behaviors, you need healthy ways to handle boredom and relapse risks.
Beyond helping with recovery, handing boredom may also boost your overall longevity. As part of a large study detailed in the International Journal of Epidemiology, more than 7,500 British civil servants answered questions about how often they felt bored. Over the next 20-plus years, those who said they were bored a lot were more likely to die than those with a zest for life.
Bored to distraction
The first step toward vanquishing boredom is understanding what you’re up against. Imagine how you might feel after waiting in the DMV line for an hour. Time drags when you’re having a dull time, and all you can think about is how much you wish you were doing something—anything—more exciting.
But have you ever considered why you feel this way? John Eastwood, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, has given it a lot of thought. After scouring the scientific literature on boredom, his abstract in Perspective on Psychological Science identified three core characteristics of the emotion:
- You’re unable to engage your mind in a satisfying way
- You’re aware of the situation and consider it a problem
- You blame the environment (“this is so boring” or “there’s nothing to do”)
Never a dull moment
Based on these characteristics, there are three sure-fire ways to beat boredom:
1. Learn how to engage your mind in a more satisfying way — When you’re bored, you aren’t able to focus your mind on something that interests you, and that leaves you feeling dissatisfied.
Regaining your focus can help. Here’s how:
- Practice mindfulness. In a nutshell, mindfulness involves being fully aware of your moment-to-moment experience. You notice sensations, thoughts and feelings without judging or resisting them, and then you let them go as your focus moves on to the next moment. With this mindset, you’ll feel more engaged in whatever you’re doing — even a mundane chore such as folding laundry — and less preoccupied with wishing you were doing something else.
- Turn off the screens. Your smartphone, tablet, computer and TV provide nonstop access to texts, tweets, shows, news and games, not to mention hilarious cat videos. So why are you still getting bored? Being bombarded with rapid-fire images and information can overload your capacity to pay attention, and constantly switching from one app or screen to another just magnifies the problem. Soon, your ability to focus on anything for long is shot. To prevent this, try to do just one e-task, such as answering emails or searching the Web, at a time. At home, spend at least an hour every day unplugged from your devices.
2. Redefine the situation so it doesn’t seem like such a problem – From time to time, everyone has to do routine or repetitive tasks, from entering data to washing dishes.
Putting a positive spin on the situation helps keep boredom at bay. Here’s how:
- Make it meaningful. Remind yourself of the value in what you’re doing. For example, if you’re raking and weeding in your backyard, remember the fun times you’ve spent there in the past, or imagine the good times to come in the future.
- Call it an opportunity. Rather than describing a less-than-thrilling activity as “monotonous,” tell yourself it is “meditative.” Think of it as your chance to take a mental break — a welcome respite from any pressure to make tough decisions or come up with clever ideas. (Ironically, I find that some of my most creative ideas bubble up unbidden at times such as these.)
3. Stop blaming the environment, and start taking charge — The interesting thing about boredom is that it comes from within. Taking the steps outlined above won’t rescue you from sitting through a dull meeting or standing in a long line, but it can help you feel less bored while you do so. If you still feel your eyes glazing over, shake off the sluggishness in a healthy way.
Depending on the situation, you could:
- Imagine that you’re a detective, journalist or anthropologist who is investigating the situation, noting every detail with great interest
- Entertain yourself by daydreaming or doodling
- Go for a quick walk or climb a flight of stairs
- Call a friend who’s a good conversationalist
- Listen to a song that makes you feel energized
- Make a list of fun things to do this weekend
Watch out for the urge to reach for a beer, cigarette or candy bar when you’re bored. Dulling the pain of dullness never works for long, and it can set back your recovery from addiction or your progress toward healthy goals. Instead, be ready with strategies for managing boredom effectively and constructively.