Feeling bored? Turn your ennui into an advantage
"Every spare moment is to be optimized, maximized, driven toward a goal."
So writes Pamela Paul, in an op-ed for the New York Times, about the compulsion parents feel about keeping their children occupied. Any sign of boredom means they need to be stimulated, often by more activities But it’s not just parents who feel this way. Very few executives I know would disagree with that sentiment. But, as Paul writes, “Life isn’t meant to be an endless parade of amusements.”
While Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, intended her essay for children, there is much we adults, including managers, can learn from this piece. Paul, an author of five books, says that when she was young and working in boring jobs, she imagined stories about situations or people she encountered. Boredom, therefore, can be a creative exercise.
Likewise, it can be creative for those who don’t make their living by string words and sentences together. Boredom, while dull and yes boring, can be seen as the brain in a more relaxed mode. As Paul writes, “The ability to handle boredom, not surprisingly, is correlated with the ability to focus and to self-regulate.” For this reason, those with attention disorders often suffer from boredom.
Yet hyper-stimulation is not the answer. We need to find ways to manage boredom and, in return, use it to propel us to something more enriching. The ability to regulate our focus as well as our emotions is essential to healthy adulthood as well as producing meaningful work.
“When people are bored,” wrote author psychologist Eric Hoffer, “it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored.”
Albert Camus, the French existentialist author, wrote in his novel "The Plague," “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”
Exactly! So with Hoffer and Camus in mind here are some suggestions to do when you are feeling bored.
- Understand your boredom. Even the most exciting jobs have boring aspects to them, routinized components of a task that are necessary but not rewarding. You have two choices. One just gets through it and look forward to how satisfied you will feel when done. Two, approach it with a Zen-like feeling, focusing on the task, not the emotion, as a means of finding “perfection,” or at least being professional. (This is something I try when practicing scales on the piano: focus on technique and sound -- painful as they might be to listeners.)
- Imagine what you can do. Reflect on where you are now. Look back at what you have done. Think about what you will do in the presence. Does that prospect bore you? If so, you can imagine what you might do next. And as you imagine, keep these words by the legendary basketball coach John Wooden in mind. “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
- Mind your purpose. Those people who are most engaged with life, be it at work or outside, are those who love what they do. They know their purpose and find their activities embrace it. Knowing your purpose, the why of your life can help you navigate how you want to live a more fulfilled life.
None of these suggestions is rocket science. Use them as a foundation for creating your own anti-boredom tactics. It is important to understand that boredom is part of the human condition; even the busiest of us get bored. We need to realize it is part of us, and as such can be made to work for us instead of against us.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. Global Gurus ranked him No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”