Our generation has an obsession with doing as much as possible, all the time. It’s like the more busy and stressed out you are, the more you’re “winning” at life. This coronavirus quarantine has got me thinking about the flaws with this way of thinking, why we should change it, and also how we can change it. I think the answer lies in boredom.
I’ve spent several years of my life trying to accomplish as much as possible, and have spoken before about the negative effects of overdoing things in this sense. I realised recently that whenever I overcommit, the logic tends to boil down to the same thing: fear of boredom. So I’m here to tell you not only that it’s ok to be bored, but that it’s vital in order to be in good mental health.
Growing up, being bored was my worst fear. I remember spending weeks feeling isolated, getting intense FOMO, and just wanting enough to do to feel like my life meant something. Of course, I have no proof others felt the same, but I do get the impression that many people try to fill their time with as many activities as possible for whatever reason. Perhaps they don’t want to confront their feelings, and so these activities are just “distractions”. Perhaps their life feels empty without them, and they help provide meaning and structure. Or perhaps it just makes them feel valued, needed, in demand – making them feel important. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it’s not a particularly healthy one. I’ve only recently started to come to terms with the idea of doing less and being ok with it – not having anything to prove, essentially, and just living rather than constantly grappling for the next step on the ladder of “success”.
What I tend to forget when thinking back to times in my life when I was bored is that often this resulted in me creating something new. I’d get bored, and end up painting or making pottery or sculpting. I’d get bored, and get an idea for a business. I’d get bored, and decide to write a song or a story, or practice the piano. I have realised that true “productivity” often starts with boredom, and never letting yourself get bored may boost productivity in the short term, but only hinders it in the long term. Additionally, being unable to get bored in my experience is synonymous with not being able to relax. A day at the spa feels “boring” if you’re stressed and you can easily end up thinking it’s a waste of time, whereas learning to enjoy doing nothing is almost a learnt skill.
The other thing to remember is that technology has massively changed how we view boredom. Now, in all those little moments in the day when someone would previously sit and be bored, they scroll through Facebook or check their emails. I think this is one of the biggest reasons that social media has been linked to an increase in anxiety; not allowing yourself time to just sit quietly is the same as not allowing any time to yourself. It’s more distractions. Even the TV can be at fault – this is why watching episode after episode of a show, all day, doesn’t necessarily feel very satisfying. We even fill our commute with the chance to learn more, listening to audiobooks on the tube or getting bits of work done. I say: enough.
Avoiding boredom can lead to burnout, or a feeling of being “trapped” or that you don’t have any control over your life.
So why is this the case?
In my opinion, the feeling of “freedom” is essentially feeling like you have full control over what you do with your time. Thus, the more things are already “locked in” to your diary, as it were, the less “free” you’ll end up feeling when it comes around to doing those things. They’re not something you chose to do in the moment, they’re something you planned in advance. Even if you yourself decided to do those things, they’ve still been scheduled for you (perhaps by an earlier version of yourself).
Of course, there are days when you just want a normal “work-day”, or a routine. I’m not saying every day should be filled with boredom. I’ve spoken about routines before, and I do think it can be beneficial to have a morning or evening routine on weekdays for example. It’s more that time in between things. Coffee breaks. Evenings. Weekends. Holidays. Even at work, sometimes. Humans need boredom in order to be healthy, happy individuals, in order to thrive. Even if you’re having a regular work day from home, you should give yourself breaks without the distraction of the internet or the TV. A break to just sit and think. It might be that during this break, you decide to read a book, or to read the news – but that slot should start off “empty”, as it were.
How can we change our way of thinking?
In order to let go of this way of thinking, we need to let go of our fear of boredom, and trust our future selves to make good decisions. Give yourself an entire week off, and see what you come up with. Decide to plan absolutely nothing in advance, and only do what you feel like doing in the moment. And most importantly, avoid technology, particularly scrolling mindlessly through social media or constant email-checking, at all costs. If you can’t think of anything to do, literally just sit there, in silence, until you think of something. That thing you think of can of course be technology-based. It can be “I’m going to watch a film”, or “I’m going to play The SIMS”, or “I’m going to post something to my Facebook page”. The point is, it should be a decision to do something, and once that thing is done, you should again end up in a state of silence, of thinking, of decision-making.
Below are my top tips for getting yourself into this state:
Put. Your. Phone. Away.
When at home, have somewhere your phone lives. This place should be out the way, in a room you don’t visit very frequently. Mine lives on one of the kitchen counters – I tend to spend my time sitting in the living room, or at the kitchen table, so the counter is always an effort to reach. In fact, I’ve moved my charger so my phone has to live there in order to be fully charged. I have more tips specifically aimed at using your phone less here, if you’re interested. I do recommend getting a phone stand – it makes your phone’s “home” feel more “official”.
When on holiday, don’t plan an itinerary until you get there.
Some people like doing lots of things and seeing lots of things on holiday, some don’t like it so much. I sit firmly in the second category, but I do still like to get out and see things now and then, or to get some nice photos somewhere. The most important thing, I’ve come to realise, is that you should wait to plan what you do until you’re actually there. Take each day as it comes; maybe have a rough schedule in mind, but be flexible with it and allow for change based on how you feel. There’s no point in going sight-seeing if you’re exhausted and not going to enjoy it – holidays are literally for recharging, not for ticking things off a list.
Turn Netflix’s “auto play the next episode” feature OFF.
It’s so, so easy to get sucked into episode after episode of a show, sitting in a zombie-like state without really considering whether this is what you actually feel like doing with your life. For this reason, I actually tend to prefer watching films to watching TV shows – the TV show can feel like a “to-do list” on it’s own! “I still need to finish that show” is quite an uneasy feeling for some reason. Maybe I just don’t like things that feel “unfinished”.
If you actually have things to do, do them straight away.
It’s really easy to end up semi-stressed all day because you have some tasks hanging over you, and end up feeling like you’ve been working all day when in fact you’ve been procrastinating all day. This is a fantastic way to do very little while still feeling busy and important. However, doing this for long periods of time is so, so unproductive and stressful (trust me, I know, I did a Ph.D.!) If you have a to-do list, take the time to actually write it out and tick things off as you do them – this will encourage you to actually get on with it. It’s much easier said than done, but there’s nothing I can recommend more than just getting your to do list out the way early, and then having some time left in your day to be bored. You’re never truly bored when things are hanging over your head. The other thing is that if you’re just sitting there, thinking about what to do, letting yourself get bored, you’re more likely to just get on with your to-do list in the first place, rather than finding that several hours have slipped away while you were falling deeper and deeper into a youtube rabbit hole.
Restrict email-checking to 3 times a day
I touch on this in my phone addiction post, but I highly recommend turning notifications off and making checking things like email an active process. Having said that, checking email every hour to make sure you haven’t missed anything is a pointless task, unless you literally have a job that expects you to do that because for some reason every email is urgent. In most jobs you can check your email at the start of the day, at lunch time, and towards the end of the day, and get back to everyone on time. No one is expecting you to answer your emails within the hour you’ve received them, and if there really was something that urgent, they would ring you. Limiting your email-checking is a great way to avoid feeling restless and out-of-breath all day.
Remember that everything you’re doing at home, you’ve chosen to do.
Do you post twice a week on your blog? Remember that you set those boundaries yourself, and no one is judging them except you. Did you decide to exercise every day while in quarantine? Again, remember that this was your decision and you can decide to change that system whenever you feel like it. The only things that aren’t a choice are the actual “to-do list items”, and we have already covered that topic earlier.
One thing I’ve noticed tends to happen when I do this: all those stupid things I used to do to procrastinate? Checking social media every 5 seconds, falling into an really weird internet hole, researching useless information? It all stops. As soon as you give yourself a little time and a little space, you realise what you actually want to spend your time on. Sometimes I really do feel like watching youtube videos, and if that’s the case, I do genuinely enjoy them. The point is that letting yourself get bored is a way of “checking in” with yourself, and asking yourself “what do I actually feel like doing right now?”
The more you do this, the more things stop feeling exhausting and start feeling fun. The more you do this, the less things feel like chores and start to feel like choices.
So let’s use this quarantine as an opportunity to get bored together – and to lead healthier, happier lives because of it.