How to make boredom work for you

Exploring why you're bored can stimulate creativity and lead to a better understanding of yourself.


Image: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock

Most of us have had times when we couldn't find anything satisfying to do or couldn't keep our attention focused on a lecture or book. If we were asked to describe how we felt at the time, we'd probably have answered "bored."

Boredom doesn't necessarily arise from having nothing interesting to do. For example, you can probably remember sitting quietly watching the sun slowly set and being completely enthralled. Compare that to another moment in which you've also sat quietly—but in slow moving traffic—and felt terribly bored. "What makes the difference is whether during a low-stimulation moment, there are unpleasant feelings in the background. Many of us habitually distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings through entertainment or activity—like checking our smartphones, or watching TV," says Dr. Ronald Siegel, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Positive Psychology. "Sometimes when there is little to engage us, those unpleasant feelings bubble into our consciousness and we feel something unpleasant, which we identify as boredom. Other times we're content to just be present—like when enjoying a sunset."

How to beat the boredom

There are two broad approaches to beating boredom, according to Dr. Siegel.

Create your own distractions. Doing so can be productive. While you're poking along in the slow lane, you might want to try to remember a poem you learned in childhood or think about new places to explore on your next vacation. However, casting about for something more satisfying with which to occupy yourself can also be problematic. Some people may even overeat, drink too much, gamble, or shop compulsively to provide the distraction they seek.

Take an interest in your boredom. Explore your underlying feelings. The next time you're bored, ask yourself exactly what you're experiencing at the moment. Are you annoyed, anxious, fearful, or sad? Try to get to the source of your feelings. Why are you annoyed? What's causing your anxiety? What are you afraid of? Why are you sad? "Once you have turned your attention to these underlying emotions you'll find that there's actually a lot going on in every moment," Dr. Siegel says.

If you're chronically bored

If you find that you're bored often, you might consider practicing mindfulness. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are better able to form deep connections with others and better engage in the world.

If you just can't shake boredom, counseling from a mental health professional may help. Chronic boredom can be a sign of an underlying condition such as depression or attention deficit disorder.