“Down time” is a true rarity these days. When we finally find it, many of us exude sighs of relief at the opportunity to sit back, relax and do absolutely nothing. However, it doesn’t take long for that wondrous feeling to transform into one of frustration and anxiety over our strangely empty plates — we are bored. And we don’t know what to do about it.
Everyone experiences boredom, the desire yet inability to engage in an enjoyable activity, from time to time. Considered the (less appreciated) “sibling of down time,” boredom feels inherently uncomfortable because we live in such a high-stimulus world that leads us to forget mankind’s natural inclination for this restful state. We become easily distracted by our sudden lack of engagement, our drop in mood and the sense that time is passing slower than we would like.
Instead of basking in our brief boredom, we feel that pang of anxiety hit our bodies over “not having anything to do.” It turns out that understimulation can be just as stress-inducing as the more common overstimulation, from waiting in line to sitting in traffic to coming home to an unusually quiet and empty house with no one calling upon our attention. Rather than being absorbed by our external environments, we are stuck with our inner selves — something many of us find disquieting.
When it comes to coping with boredom, we have three options available: avoid the issue by distracting ourselves with something else, take a critical stance on our feelings and change our environment to subsequently alter them, or think through the feelings to find the value they can offer in any given situation. While the first two strategies often prove more destructive than helpful, the final choice allows us to use our feelings of boredom for the better.
Here are eight ways to harness the positive power of boredom.
Put the phone away…
Today the common cure for boredom seems to be grabbing that smartphone and clicking into a favorite game, social network news feed or text message conversation thread. However, channeling those feelings of boredom into technology could be stressing us out more than helping us enjoy our relaxation time. According to a 2012 HealthDay report, our “relentless need to immediately review and respond to each and every incoming message, alert or bing” gets us more worked up than we’d like, and it’s even worse when our smartphone use is related to our work.
And read the phone book instead.
Psychology studies have revealed a strong correlation between feelings of boredom and new sparks of creativity. In fact, one particular study conducted by psychologist Sandi Mann required participants to perform an extremely boring task before attempting a creative one. The lack of stimulation experienced from reading and copying numbers out of the phone book, for example, led the subjects to some of their most novel ideas.
Take up an activity that helps you grow.
While your first instinct may be to peruse the remainder of your Netflix queue, passive activities like watching television do not boast the boredom-busting benefits you may think they do. Psychological research has shown that while television inspires an opiate response in the body, its effects are relatively short-lived, leaving you feeling even more bored and unhappy than before you grabbed the remote control. Instead, pick up a hobby that will teach you something for the long haul — cooking, playing an instrument or even practicing yoga. The satisfaction of learning a new life skill lasts far longer than the fleeting happiness associated with a reality TV binge.
Acknowledge the present moment.
Perhaps one of the best opportunities to test out a mindfulness practice is when you’re not already distracted by millions of other things buzzing through your brain. We often find paying attention to our internal selves less comfortable than focusing on the world around us, but it gets easier with each attempt. Embrace these moments of boredom with a little meditation — tune into your body, acknowledge your thoughts in the present moment, and simply let them be.
Tackle your to-do list.
Just because you’re bored doesn’t mean you’ve magically addressed everything on your plate, suddenly finding yourself without obligations, priorities or outstanding projects. Instead of allowing your down time to transform into procrastination, take this time to knock out a task or two. Forbes contributing writer Chrissy Scivicque suggests keeping a list on hand of projects that you think would be “nice to do” at some point when you have the time; that way, it’ll be a no-brainer to jump from bored to productive when the urge hits.
Consider your surroundings.
Obviously we don’t only experience boredom during life’s “take a breather” moments. Both college students zoning out during monotone course lectures and unengaged employees wandering off task prove that the “I’d rather be doing something else” thought not only invades the mind when we are supposedly occupied, but also acts a detrimental distraction. When grades drop, work performance declines and accidents increase, it may be time to consider what topics and environment do keep you engaged, and shift your time and energy towards them.
Be aware that there is such a thing as feeling “too bored.”
Often times the “symptoms” of boredom can look a lot like short-term components of depression, so it’s important to understand the distinctions between the two. According to York University psychology professor John Eastwood, while the discomforts of boredom and depression are related, people who are bored find problem with their external environment, whereas people who are depressed believe the problem exists within themselves. And those who are easily bored tend to be more prone to developing depression, not to mention anxiety, substance abuse issues and addictive behaviors in misguided attempts at coping with their feelings.
Remember: You’re never actually doing nothing.
At the end of the day, even doing nothing is something. You’re making an active choice to not engage with the world around you. You are breathing, blinking, and living in the moment with just your thoughts. Though it may not seem contrary, doing nothing is not laziness — it is an art form. So to master it, embrace the Italian idea of la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) and bask in this beautifully boring moment while you can.
The HuffPost Healthy Living team wants to see what “doing nothing” means to you.