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“And I’m bored.”
Three words from the classic rock song “It’s So Easy,” by Guns N’ Roses.
If we’ve learned anything since March when quarantine began, coping with boredom isn’t so easy. (For those with little ones they had to homeschool, I don’t blame you if you stop reading, but please hang in there).
Being bored goes against the norms of how we’ve conditioned ourselves in the ultra-productive rat race of life.
If we’re bored, it means we’re not striving towards a goal.
If we’re bored, it means we’re not important since our outlook calendar isn’t full.
If we’re bored, it means we’re feeling guilty for not finding something to cross off the list.
But maybe some boredom is a good thing. And the great ideas you have might not present themselves unless you have nothing to do.
Bored to fears
In 2017, Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC podcast Note to Self, wrote Bored and Brilliant a decade after she gave birth to her son. She remembers going from busy professional to isolated mom in the blink of an eye. And she also remembered being bored and fearful. Fearful for not doing or accomplishing more. An ironic statement, considering mothers do and accomplish more than just about any ‘busy’ professional.
Manoush asked herself, “Is there really time to let the mind wander, and if so, is it helpful in any way?” I decided to give it a try.
The mullet method to mind wandering
Before quarantine started, I always struggled at two things: Getting outside and walking around my neighborhood (Downtown Cleveland, OH). I’d go from the parking garage in my apartment to the parking garage at my work. I’d work out at the company gym mostly on the dreadmill, finish work, and head back to the work garage, then straight to the home garage. Then dinner, couch, sleep.
Then two things happened to flip the script. My wife and I got a dog, and I started working from home.
Since most gyms were closed, I had no choice but to walk the dog, accomplishing much-needed exercise for both of us. Remembering Zomorodi’s book, I decided that on these walks I’d keep my phone with me but put it out of sight to focus on the walk ahead. Hence the mullet method:
Business of mind wandering upfront, phone in the back…pack.
I’d enable the ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature before I would put Dori (my dog) on the leash. A phone in your pocket, even on silent, is still distracting. So out the door we went, phone in the backpack and my four-legged daughter leading the way.
Tapping into the imagination network
Zomrodi points out in her book that although we may feel we’re doing very little when folding laundry or waiting for a light to turn green, our ‘default mode’, or the ‘imagination network’ is hard at work.
“My boredom time is my creative time,” says Stephen Scoggins, and entrepreneur who started Custom Home Exteriors, and later launched the Journey Principles Institute.
“The picture gets a lot clearer when I can pause and reflect. Better questions seem to form, too.” Some of the questions Scoggins comes up with while brain wandering include:
- What are others missing that my team and I could innovate and benefit from?
- What talent can I pick up from another person’s layoffs?
- What can I do to help eliminate fear in my people, and how can I keep them motivated to push through the hard stuff?
One of the benefits of mind-wandering is exactly what Scoggins embraces. Asking questions.
While walking the dog, and freeing my mind from looking at the phone, or listening to headphones, I found myself asking more questions about what was around me.
- How tired is that construction worker when he gets home, working out in the sun all day? What time did he start his shift, and how did he end up in his chosen line of work?
- What will eventually end up at that empty storefront? And what happened to the business that was in it before?
- Why is that individual sleeping on the street? How did they end up there, and what choices or events led to this way of living?
This last question is one Scoggins knows well. What’s more surprising is he knows the answers, too.
How boredom helps you take inventory
“I spent time a two-month period living either on the streets or out of my car,” said Scoggins. In truth, the homelessness I faced came down to my stubborn heart of not admitting my wrongs.”
Scoggins says limiting beliefs would snowball on top of each other, but thankfully, all that boredom eventually led to a breakthrough.
“During this time, I was able to look at my situation and realize I needed to make a big change. As my opinion of myself changed, my ability to think of bigger ideas and a bigger life became clearer.”
Zomrodi details this exact thought process in her book, describing how boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing, and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.
So, how do we discipline ourselves to be bored?
For Stephen Scoggins, he had to hit bottom to get bored and revaluate. Luckily, for many of us, the chance to let our minds wander are far less frightening.
I’m no expert by any means. I still scroll on my phone before bed and binge watch Netflix all the time. But the time I spend walking my dog is 45 minutes each day is a chance to be outside and observe what’s around me. Here’s what’s worked for me and might work for you.
- Put your phone in a drawer and turn on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature for 1-2 small tasks each day. It could be vacuuming a room, writing a status report, or even unloading the dishwasher.
- Aim for 30 minutes of outdoor time with your phone in a backpack or left in your car (some people need to keep it on for emergencies, so be sure the ringer is turned all the way up if you decide to travel with it).
- Drive somewhere without the radio or music playing twice a week.
I used the lyric “And I’m bored” from the song “It’s So Easy” in the beginning and it’s worth restating how easy it can be to let your outlook calendar determine your productiveness. Or how easy it is to feel guilty for not crossing an item off your to-do list.
It’s not so easy to let boredom have its place in your day. But before you know it, many of us will be back in restaurants, arenas, and stadiums. What we’re getting right now is a master class in patience, restraint and adaptive capabilities.
And of course, it reminds me of another lyric. This one coming from Van Halen’s “Best of Both Worlds”:
“Just tune in to what this place has got to offer, ‘cause we may never be here again.”
Actually, don’t tune in, tune out. Feel grateful this is the most boring time to be alive.