With attention spans growing smaller, impatience is increasing. The more you feel stuck in the situation—listening to a co-worker’s weekend escapades, waiting in line for a cup of coffee, sitting in a meeting you could care less about—the more agitated you feel. If you can’t access the email on your phone, your increasing anxiety with the slow passage of time can feel painful. What can you do?
First let me differentiate temporary tedium from chronic dissatisfaction. Temporary tedium is episodic. Hopefully, you won’t experience having to wait for something or tolerate a waste of your time more than once a day.
Chronic dissatisfaction comes from feeling totally bored with your job, your relationship or your life. Finding contentment and joy with your work, your partner or your everyday existence will require a number of internal and external modifications.
In a recent article Descent from the Doldrums (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2013), James Danckert cited studies that indicate the negative effects of boredom ranging from harm to your health to your ability to perform at school and work. The lack of external stimulation can also lead to drug and alcohol abuse, depression and other maladies based on the desire to check out of a meaningless or undervalued life. So besides feeling uncomfortable, there a many reasons you should try to limit your bouts of boredom.
The best cure for boredom is to make sure you have regular new challenges and interesting things to do so one incident won’t throw you off too much. However, if you have planned your life well enough so that your work and hobbies are stimulating and fun, you still need to make sure you maintain an emotional balance. You need some down and “boring” time to rest your mind and nervous system. If you are overwhelmed with challenges and interesting things to do, your patience level for “time wasters” will be slim.
If you find yourself uninterested more often than you like or irritated when you have to wait or listen to things you don’t care for, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you surprised by the delays or distractions? Making a concrete plan in a world full of other people with plans is a sure way to be disappointed. If you had a plan or expectation for how you were going to use were time, the disruptions or disappointments are bound to be more annoying than if you suspect there will be delays.
- Could you have planned ahead for the dead zone? Take charge of your time by planning for delays and distractions. Carry something to read or do with you at all times to deal with the lines and waiting rooms. Have your car radio set to an interesting station or soothing music to cope with traffic jams. If stuck in a boring meeting, what can you notice about the people in the room? If you have a piece of paper, plan how you will make your next meeting more interesting. Or map out your three-year career plan.
- Are you taking the delay or distraction personally? You might be feeling disrespected or that someone else has control of your time, which increases your agitation. Is it true they are intentionally disrespecting you or are they doing what they always do? If no one has the intention of making you feel less important, find something else to do with your mind and time. Your anger only makes the situation worse.
- What can you gain from the moment? Is this a good opportunity to practice curiosity? Does the person who has a hold of your time need some compassion? Is this a good moment to breathe and relax so you have more energy when you regain control of your time? There is often a gem of wisdom in the moment that you can’t see when you are impatient, irritated or bored.
- Has life become meaningless and hollow? Is it time to work with a coach or counselor to recover your sense of purpose? Have you disengaged with your work or people because you’ve been hurt or disappointed? What do you need to let go of and allow to disappear from your life so you can begin to formulate what is next for you? Your boredom may be a sign that you are in a transition. Acknowledge what is changing so you can move on.
Extreme agitation and the inability to focus could be symptoms of a deeper issue you may need to explore with a professional. And if your disconnection with your relationships and your life leaves you feeling more and more depressed, you should reach out for help to assess what you are able to do for yourself.
Recognize your boredom. Then when you sense ennui settling in, you can mentally shift as soon as you can. It’s easier to shift your emotions and focus if you catch yourself drifting into boredom before the cloud blankets your brain.