When You’re Stumped, Try Boredom

There are times in life when I know exactly what to do. I have a path in front of me, and I walk it confidently. I know the job I need to complete, the errand I need to run, or the problem I need to solve and how to solve it.

Other times, I have no idea what to do. I don’t know what job to tackle next, or how to complete it. I don’t know what I should do first. I don’t know how to fix the problem in front of me.

In this day and age, when a person isn’t sure what to do next, they often take one of two approaches:

One, they attack the problem head-on. Sometimes this works. Sometimes, by redoubling one’s efforts, a person unearths a solution that they couldn’t find before. Or, at the very least, they come up with a solution that, if not perfect, is at least something. After all, the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good, right?

Two, they seek escape. Some people, rather than attacking a problem, retreat from a problem. Sometimes this can work, too, especially if panic or stress is clouding judgement. A few minutes doing something else can be a way to unlock what to do when one is at an impasse.

But sometimes neither of these approaches works. Sometimes one attacks the problem, but all they have to show for it is rising blood pressure and a mess of hair they’re about to pull out. Sometimes one seeks escape watching TV or surfing social media but instead just feels that gnawing sense that the problem still isn’t solved.

What now?

Well, sleep is always an option, since that’s one way to process things. But there is another weapon that we have in overcoming a mental obstacle.


A Brief History of Boredom

The word “boredom,” interestingly enough, didn’t even exist until the 19th century. Why? Because those empty spaces in time when there was literally nothing to do was, for most of human history, not something people thought a lot about. Boredom — or tedium, as it might have been called — was just an accepted reality, something that couldn’t really be “conquered” any more than the realities of food, sleep, and death. Humans just dealt with it.

That all changed in the 20th century. With the dawn of modern technology and entertainment, businesses waged a great war on boredom, seeking to provide entertainment that wasn’t just temporary but was capable of eradicating human boredom. Radio sales skyrocketed during the 1920s and 1930s, even during the Depression, as Americans flocked to score a device that could keep them regaled throughout the evening. Television hit homes after World War II, and by 1979 the vast majority of homes were tuned in for prime-time television every night. Video games and cable TV crept into homes in the 1980s. The internet, once a domain for the government and academics, became an entrepreneurial playground in the 1990s, and it was amplified by the rise of smartphones in the 21st century.

Today, not only do we have tools to “fight” boredom, but we can take those tools with us. We’re never without the means to entertain ourselves.

Not everyone has access to those tools. Boredom is a daily reality for many homeless people in this country, and that endless loneliness and lack of stimulation — combined with a loss of hope — is what can lead to such vices as drugs and alcohol. But even most lower-income people in the U.S. now have access to many of the same “boredom-fighting” tools that more affluent Americans do, using them to escape life’s problems or otherwise alleviate what used to be called the “empty times.”

The Virtues of Boredom

With boredom as we know it now in decline, researchers have started looking closer at boredom. And what they’ve found is that, while it has its drawbacks, it can also be an incredibly effective discipline, especially in a noisy world. In particular, when you’re stumped with a problem, boredom can be one of the triggers to help you solve that problem.

Here’s why. When you face a difficult problem, but then either attack it or escape from it, your brain doesn’t necessarily have time to process it. Instead, it’s filled with more, either from work or play … which might not feel like play at all, if you’re still stressed.

But when you take away all the stimulation and embrace boredom, your mind has a chance to drift. This doesn’t mean the mind is idle: in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s still active, but it’s in a “default state” where it untethers itself from stimulation and begins to wander in new directions. Out of that drifting can come creativity, which can be the first step toward solving a seemingly unsolvable problem.

How to Be Bored

If boredom is one way to tackle a problem, how does one get there? (It’s sort of funny that we’re at a point in history where we actually have to figure out how to be bored.) There are a few steps one can take.

  1. Turn off the technology. The phone, the computer, all of it. Turn it off. Silent is good, airplane mode is better, and off is best. Better still, put it away and go somewhere where the tech is not.
  2. Go somewhere unstimulating. To a park. To a trail. Even your backyard will work. Somewhere where there isn’t music, or talking, or anything more than the sounds of the wind and maybe animal life.
  3. Stay there for a while. This is actually the hard part. There’s a good chance that, after about five minutes, you’re going to get the itch to leave. Boredom can be harder than you think. (If you really want to test yourself, try sitting in an empty room for 10 minutes just staring at a wall.) Walking is not a bad thing to do here, although standing can work, too.

It might take a while, but you’ll discover, after time has passed, that your mind will begin to uncoil, like water pouring out of a bucket. You’ll find yourself drifting in all sorts of new directions, thinking about things in a sort of scattershot way that is just the opposite of what you’re supposed to do when you’re working.

But, chances are, you’ll also start to see puzzles being solved in your head. I’m not talking real puzzles (although I could be) but the obstacles that stand before you. Or, at least, you’ll begin to start processing some of the ways in which you might try to overcome a problem.

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