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| January 29, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… That could be a good thing.

“I’m bored.” Now, that’s a sentence everyone has heard, or spoken, or thought many times in his or her life. And, in spite of what you may have been taught, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What might be bad is how you respond.
Wikipedia1 reports that the words “bore” and “”boredom” first appeared in the literature about 250 years ago. Formal study of the subject didn’t begin until much later, around 1885. How we use these words suggests that “boredom is an emotional and occasional psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in his or her surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious.”
Pinar Dursun, in her essay On the Nature of Boredom,2 writes that being bored is when an “individual does not lack something to do, rather he or she is unable to designate the type of activity to satisfy the supposed need for stimulation.” Others have different, sometimes more nuanced, thoughts about what boredom is. For example, Maggie Koerth-Baker, in her paper Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring,3 notes that boredom “seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant – a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioral and social consequences.”
David Robson4 notes that being bored can be dangerous and disruptive and may damage your health. Sandi Mann’s research “suggests that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats.”5 Further, Manoush Zomorodi, in his essay What Boredom Does To You,6 quotes Wijnand van Tilburg, a lecturer in psychology at King’s College London, as saying “Boredom makes people keen [really want] to engage in activities they find more meaningful than those at hand.”
The result then is that when we are bored and at a loss to know what to do, we may feel that we have little value, and have no place to turn. When we’re bored with our job, we are less likely to do it well, and we don’t know where to turn. We may also feel that we are losers. As a result, we may bury ourselves in surfing the web, in answering the flurry of email we receive, etc. What we need is a constructive way to deal with our boredom.
Last year at about this time, the Tuesday Reading focused on “solitude.” There I wrote: “In their book, Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown write:  ‘Sometimes simply working on a problem, even with great skill and expertise, is not enough. A familiar way of generating new concepts, ideas, or breakthroughs is the strategy of stopping work and doing something different, such as a walk in the woods, which serves to take attention away from the conscious efforts and allows more energy for activity under conscious awareness, with much greater capacity and access to a greater number of stored patterns or memories in different parts of the brain.’  This is our brain’s default network at work. It ‘allows creative thought to flourish by transcending the present moment and environment, to think outside the box.’”
What I want to note here is the importance of our activating our brain’s default network when we’re bored. Manoush Zomorodi6 says it this way: “Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming.” This couples with the thoughts reported by David Robinson4 on the importance of “curiosity” when we are bored.

So, what might you specifically do when you are bored? Here are a number of suggestions:

  1. Keep a list of things that you are curious about. Then, when you are bored, turn to the list and choose a subject and explore.

  2. Develop a sense of curiosity about things you and others are doing at work. For example, pretend you are the person who will use your work and ask yourself how your work will affect him or her. Ask how you might better take this individual’s experience and perspective into consideration. [The October 23, 2018 Tuesday Reading focused on curiosity and discussed a number of ways to become more curious.]

  3. Read. When you are working on a task, surround yourself with as much related information as you can, even if some of it turns out to address what you already know, or is not helpful. (For example, as I wrote this essay, I consulted at least 15 different papers and essays on the subject of boredom.)

  4. Make changes in your routine. Even small changes in what you routinely do will change your perspective and give you new insight. If you drive to work each day, or as you walk from one area of the campus to another, take different routes. It does make a difference.

  5. Make a practice of having and protecting time alone to read, to think, and to plan. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, among many others, schedule regular time alone to just sit and think. Steve Jobs is known to have said “I’m a big believer in boredom. … All this stuff [technology] is wonderful, but having nothing to do is wonderful, too.”6 I regularly suggest that leaders and managers find, and guard, at least one day each month when they can get away by themselves to sit, to think, and to plan. More time would be better if that could be possible.

  6. Find time to do something entirely different. This could be, for example, talking with someone you don’t know or someone you typically find annoying. Or, spending time at a museum looking at artifacts that you have not considered previously. “Different” enables you to see and hear ideas beyond those you usually consider.

  7. Don’t be a slave to your smartphone. It’s a tool you use and NOT a tool that governs your life. When you are doing your work, store it away where you won’t hear its incoming announcements. Take it out only at scheduled times.

  8. Take some time to do something, a random act of kindness, for a stranger.

  9. Take a step back and carefully examine how you go about doing your work. How could you make your doing of what you do better?

  10. And, finally, do nothing. Let your mind wander. As it wanders, you may want to note with a few words things of importance that you encounter so you can easily recall them later. 

Over time, I’ve learned to prize times when I’m bored as opportunities to think, to explore, to envision, to learn. Through this essay, I challenge you to look at these times differently and use them to learn and grow.
Do make it a great week for yourself and your team.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Wikipedia, Boredom.

  2. Pinar Bursun, On the Nature of Boredom, Mediterranean Journal of Humanities December 2016.

  3. Maggie Koerth-Baker, Why Boredom Is Anything but January 2016.

  4. David Robson,  Psychology: Why boredom is bad… and good for you”, December 2014.

  5. Sandi Mann, Does Boredom Bring Out Our Creative Flair?,, October 2013.

  6. Manoush Zomorodi, What Boredom Does To You, Nautilus, October 2017.