How boredom can help score your goals

Boredom is a fact of life—it’s that time when you reach for your phone just “because” and check Facebook. Of course, this raises the question are we more bored today or do we have more ways of alleviating boredom or some combination of the two?

Boredom the terror from within

Sounds like the name of a horror movie just for students cramming for finals or writing a term paper. The fact is people hate being bored: “…many of us would take pain over boredom. One team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.” (Stewart, 2017).

Being bored is unpleasant and is characterized as feeling restless, anxious, irritable, tired and listless.

“Boredom is an aversive state from which one seeks escape. During boredom one experiences feelings of weariness and frustration. One is disengaged from and dissatisfied with one’s situation. The situation does not capture the attention of, nor does it interest, the individual. Instead, the individual is moved to consider alternatives situations, goals, and actions.” (Elpidorou, 2018).

Alternatives—like self-administering shocks—are where we tend to slip up.

Avoid the dopamine hit of social media, the maximum strength boredom reliever

Unlike a hit of caffeine which may leave you jittery if you over-indulge, social media is an addictive time vacuum, an all-consuming productivity black hole. It so easy to grab your phone or open a browser when you’re feeling bored and jackpot! Dopamine release.

Variable rewards is what gets one addicted to slot machines and social media. Social media was designed to give us that reward (dopamine) to entice us to keep coming back, like lab rats after cheese. It works—too well for some involved in creating the industry.

Chamath Palihapitiya, a former vice president of user growth at Facebook, explains, “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs up—and we conflate it with truth.” (Wang, 2017).

The concept—as I’m sure you’re aware—is to entice you to “refresh” and see if you’ll be rewarded with a juicy bit of gossip, news tidbit, or funny video. It’s called “reverse chronological” design and is implemented by nearly every social media platform. Reverse chronological keeps you captivated in the “present” (Thompson, 2017).

Palihapitiya warns we’re being programmed, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. This is a global problem.” (Wang, 2017)

To avoid becoming “programmed”, the inconvenient truth is, we need to learn to tolerate boredom.

How do you build a tolerance for boredom? Exposure. There’s no escaping the fact that boredom is unpleasant; however, it has its benefits. Like waving your hand over fire causes you to feel pain, the sensation of boredom signals that your current situation is unfulfilling and unsatisfactory.

Rather than mindlessly jumping to that irresistible YouTube video, it’s beneficial to understand why you’re feeling bored, to find the cause of your boredom.

There are innumerous causes for boredom. If you’ve been focusing on a challenging problem for a long stretch, it could mean you’re not progressing anymore, and you need a change of focus. Perhaps, you’re doing something tedious, and you’re feeling bored because it’s not a stimulating task. Or you’re bored because you don’t have anything to work on at the moment.

Persistent workplace boredom is a good indicator that you don’t find your work fulfilling, and it’s time to dust off the old resume and find a new career that is a better fit with your desires and goals.

The hidden benefit of boredom is its positive impact on personal growth. “By moving us out of uninteresting situations, boredom motivates us to pursue what we already find interesting…it can help us realize and practice our talents…boredom can also contribute to the development of our projects and to the achievement of our pre-established goals. Furthermore, boredom promotes the pursuit of interest, and the experience of interests leads to openness to new situations and activities” (Elpidorou, 2018).

If we can delay instant gratification just for a moment and answer the question—“why am I bored?”—we can use the answer to make productive choices that will alleviate not only our boredom but also further our interests and goals and in doing so lessen the likelihood of future boredom.

Building a resistance to the internet

After learning to question why you’re bored, the next hurdle is building a resistance to distractions and focusing on important tasks. Social media and other news feeds were literally designed with the intentions of hijacking our eyeballs, so the question is where to begin?

Cal Newport, in Deep Work, suggests partitioning your day into blocks where you will use the internet—or give into distractions—and the blocks in between where you’ll disconnect completely, no internet or social media. You need to be rigid, absolutely no exceptions or the exercise won’t yield results.

It sounds difficult to fit into an office job, but it doesn’t have to be long chunks of time. Start with alternating half hour blocks: a half hour online, a half hour offline. In most cases, a half hour is a reasonable amount of time to wait to reply to an email. If you’re hesitant about being offline for that long, start with fifteen minutes. The point is it needs to be a long enough period of time to resist an urge for distraction.

We need to gradually wean ourselves off distractions and learn to maintain focus on our work.

Newport explains the goal is to take breaks from focus, not distraction: “…this training must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction” (Newport, 2016, p. 159).

The planned internet breaks should act as a reward for concentrating and working diligently during your offline blocks—think I’ve earned that Twitter check—it will also serve to put a time limit on how long you’ll surf the web because you’ll know you only have a half hour before you need to disconnect and refocus entirely on your work.

“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.” (Newport, 2016, p. 165).

Distractions are inevitable and offer us—at times—a much-needed release. Before you reach for your phone, consider why you’re bored—boredom is not your enemy—in fact, it can help you focus on what’s really important. After all, you only need to focus for ten more minutes, and you’ll earn that puppy video. Just a few minutes to go.


References

Elpidorou, A. (2018). The good of boredom. Philosophical Psychology, 31(3), 323-351. doi:10.1080/09515089.2017.1346240

Newport, C. (2016). Rule #2: Embrace boredom. Deep work (1st ed., pp. 155-180). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Stewart, J. (2017, June). Make time for boredom: The surprising benefits of stultification. The Atlantic, 319, 23.

Thompson, C. (2017, November 15). Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment. This Magaizne, November-December 2017 Retrieved from https://this.org/2017/11/15/social-media-is-keeping-us-stuck-in-the-moment/

Wang, A. B. (2017, December 12). Former facebook VP says social media is destroying society with ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’. Washingtonpost.Com Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/12/12/former-facebook-vp-says-social-media-is-destroying-society-with-dopamine-driven-feedback-loops/?utm_term=.69efa81a9b16