How to Overcome Boredom

Last week at work, I was experiencing a whole bunch of boredom.  The project I was working on amounted to little more than copying and pasting, and changing dates on documents to reflect that it is now January 2009, not September 2008.

83/365  painfully boring day

photo by riot jane

At first, I was able to keep myself engaged by making a game of it — how quickly can I get this document fixed? How many can I do in an hour? But that only lasted so long before I was avoiding checking my email, and could barely stand to look at the (seemingly ever-growing) pile of updates yet to do.

Fast-forward to today, and boredom seemed like a thing from the very distant past. I was in the groove, having a lot of fun working on a project and being excited seeing it all come together. I still wasn’t checking e-mail, but this time it was because I was so into what I was doing.

So what was the difference? What exactly is it that makes us bored vs. not-bored? As we’ll discover, the key is to understand challenge and skill — and find which one is your anti-boredom medicine.

Defining Boredom

I’m a firm believer that understanding something (like boredom) can make a big difference when it comes to overcoming it. So let’s start there.

Most of us would probably define boredom something like how the dictionary does:

The feeling of being bored by something tedious 

Oh so helpful, right? So, as I was taught when in elementary school, when a definition in the dictionary doesn’t help, try looking up other words from the definition. Which leads us to

Bored, adj. To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious

Well, now we’re getting somewhere. It may not be the world’s most detailed definition, but it is slightly more insightful. At the very least, the definition(s) match our emotional experience of boredom: the feeling of tedium, the feeling of being weary because of experiencing dullness and repetitiveness (repetitiveness… repetitiveness…)

But what a dictionary definition doesn’t tell us is what boredom actually is — it only tells us how we experience it. And while it might give us a bit of a glimpse into why we get bored, it doesn’t really help us all that much beyond what we already knew: we get bored because we’re doing boring things.

What Boredom Isn’t

Another technique we can use to understand what boredom is and where it comes from is to look at what it’s like when we aren’t bored.

For example, we could say that we’re not bored when we’re totally engaged with something, or when we’re curious and captivated, or when we’re being challenged. This would imply that boredom is characterized by a lack of engagement, challenge and/or curiosity. And this makes intuitive sense: it’s impossible to feel simultaneously bored out of your skull and completely engaged and interested in something.

This also aligns with research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted psychologist from Claremont Graduate University. I recently re-watched his TED Talk on Flow (which is super-interesting; I may write a post about it!); while the talk itself is about the state of Flow (ie. the aforementioned complete engagement) you can learn alot about boredom from it, too.

Boredom as Low Challenge, Low Skill


According to Csikszentmihalyi, there is a relationship between how you feel doing something (e.g. bored, relaxed, in control), how much you’re being challenged, and how much of your skill level you’re needing to do that task.

Let’s skip the “Flow” side of this diagram for now, which is where most people focus, and instead look to the topic at hand: boredom.

As shown in this diagram, Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that we tend to experience boredom when we are engaged in non-challenging tasks which use some of our skills, but not a lot. That matches up with our earlier definitions, in that boredom hits when we’re doing things that are dull and non-challenging.

Beating Boredom By Increasing Challenge

What’s more interesting, though, is that this diagram doesn’t just tell us what boredom is, it also tells us how we become bored — and in doing so, it gives us hints about how to get “un-bored”.

In short, if boredom occurs when we aren’t challenged and aren’t really using our skills, then the opposite ought to be true. Increase the challenge and amount of your skill you’re using, and you’ll move out of boredom.

Note, however, that just increasing the challenge on its own isn’t a guarantee that you’ll beat boredom and get into a better space; if I wanted to program a complex application, which would raise the level of challenge. Now, I am a competent programmer, but it’s been a while since I’ve written any serious code. In other words, it may be high challenge, but the skill level it would require is way beyond where I’m at — I’d feel worried about my ability to complete the task, since I perceive my skill level was far below what it needed to be.

So while an obvious key to moving out of boredom is to increase the challenge — with the added caviat that we also need to make sure that we have the skills to handle the new challenge.

Moving to New Skills

But since challenge and skill are related, it really ought to work both ways, even if this isn’t obvious. Let’s take the programming language example — what would happen if I decided to learn a programming language? By doing this, I am not so much changing the challenge level (as I’m a fairly competent programmer, and have a good understanding of programming languages) as changing the skill level involved.

In other words, just like you can overcome boredom by adjusting how challenged you are, you can also overcome boredom by adjusting the skills you’re using. Now obviously, changing skill and challenge levels are related: if you’re pushing yourself to acquire new skills, you’re creating an inherent challenge. But each individual will have different ways that work better for them.

Which Works Better For You?

Imagine what you would do in this situation: if you were totally bored with your current job, which approach would you be more likely to take to better your situation? All things being equal, would you try to find a new job in the same field, or would you try to change career directions entirely?

There’s nothing wrong with either direction — both will meet the same need and will help you move out of boredom — but one will feel intuitively more natural than the other. If you’d try to find a new job in the same field, you’re more challenge-driven. If, on the other hand, you’d rather change fields altogether, you’re more skills-driven.

Either way, that’s your anti-boredom medicine. Simply by increasing challenge or adjusting skill requirements, you can beat boredom.

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