5 fascinating things I discovered by making myself bored for a month
Takeaway: For one month, I chose a different task to deliberately make myself bored for an hour each day. I discovered a ton from this experiment, including that not all bouts of boredom are the same; our mind wanders to fascinating (and surprisingly productive) places; that leaving space between tasks lets us defragment our thoughts; that boredom is not worth experiencing (but mind wandering is); and that mindlessly stimulating ourselves is fun in the moment, but comes with pretty large costs.
Estimated Reading Time: 17 minutes, 22s.
I’ve been feeling a bit bored lately — only, I’ve been making myself bored on purpose. Recently, I spent 30 straight days making myself bored for one hour each day. This may sound familiar to my newsletter subscribers — I put a call out asking for the most boring activity they could think of, and soon, hundreds of suggestions poured into my inbox. For the experiment, I picked the 30 most excruciatingly boring activities that were actually doable (listed later in the article).
Before we get on to the experiment, let me answer the question “why” — why would anyone want to make themselves bored, not to mention someone who calls himself a productivity expert?
It goes back to the day I realized I was experiencing significantly less boredom: Saturday, August 29, 2009. I had just finished a lunchtime shift waiting tables at the restaurant I worked in as a teenager. Walking around in the middle of a split shift, I saw a popup shop for the Canadian phone carrier, Fido. They were advertising the brand spanking new iPhone 3GS, coupled with a phone plan that came with a whopping 6 gigabytes of data for $60 a month. In 2009, this was an insanely great deal.
I traded my Motorola RAZR for a shiny new iPhone on the spot.
I remember spending an inordinate amount of time on that thing from the start. It was fast, held every song in my music library, and had even more fun stuff after I jailbroke the phone. I’d pull out the phone whenever there was a gap in my schedule, stimulating my mind until I had to do something else. In the years that have passed, I’ve hired my phone to do more and more things. If you’re like me, over time your phone has become your:
- Alarm clock;
- GPS navigator;
- Video game console;
- Email and messaging machine;
- Boarding pass;
- Music player;
- Subway pass;
. . . and so much more.
In a way, it doesn’t feel fair to criticize how much time we spend on our phone. It does the job of countless devices that came before it — and on top of helping with those tasks, we’re able to fit the entire world in our pocket. We can become more productive, and connect with any person at any time.
But we also experience significantly less boredom with all these devices in our lives. We’re more stimulated than ever before; overwhelmed by a barrage of email alerts, Facebook notifications, and news updates. Glowing rectangles of various shapes and sizes seep into the gaps between our tasks like water — there is a device to fiddle with whenever we’re switching tasks or resisting work. The more we mindlessly stimulate ourselves, the less boredom we experience. If you’re like me, these devices might mean you never feel boredom at all.
This comes at an obvious cost — you don’t need an article like this one to tell you that. For one, constant stimulation can be mind-numbing and tiring.
But how large are these costs? And how valuable is boredom, if it’s of any value at all? Should we make an effort to experience it every once in a while — or should we try to experience as much of it as we possibly can?
I aimed to answer these questions through my experiment. As I mentioned earlier, here are the 30 boring things I chose to suffer through for one whole month:
At random intervals three times throughout the hour, I sampled:
- What was on my mind;
- Whether those thoughts were positive, negative, or neutral;
- Whether those thoughts were constructive;
- Whether I was thinking about the past, present, or future;
- How much time I thought had passed;
- How I felt;
- Whether or not I was bored.
For the record, I didn’t allow myself to practice mindfulness during these hours. I have a daily 30-minute mindfulness meditation ritual, and usually have a habit of practicing mindfulness in the absence of external stimulation.
Instead, I captured any observations, while simply allowing myself to do the boring things above.
By the end of the month, I had not only gathered countless observations from the experiment, but had also started to think differently about the value of boredom.
The Curious Things I Learned
Our minds are averse to boredom — and rightfully so. Boredom makes us feel anxious, uncomfortable, and impatient, and there are much better ways to relax and recharge. But as I found, the state is not without its perks.
Let’s get right into it. Here are the top five most fascinating things I discovered.
5. There are two kinds of boredom
The first curious thing I discovered is that there are two types of boredom: active boredom and passive boredom.
Active boredom is when you have something to focus on and accomplish, but the task isn’t engaging. I experienced this type of boredom while reading the iTunes Terms and Conditions, peeling exactly five potatoes (and making the task last an hour), and counting the zeroes in the first 10,000 digits of pi (I managed to get about halfway). Active boredom presents a clear goal, but a frustrating task. I found these activities largely unpleasant, and they led me to feel anxious, impatient, and restless.
Passive boredom is more fun, and as I’ll get to, more productive. You don’t have a clear goal in mind with passive boredom. This type of boredom happens when you’re lying on the couch thinking of things to do, or when you’re waiting for someone (and you’re lacking something to distract yourself). I experienced this type of boredom largely while observing things without a clear intention: starting at a single cloud (in case you’re curious, it did not evaporate), observing grass grow, or watching the fan in my bedroom slowly rotate around and around and around and arou…
By the end of the month, I began to prefer passive boredom. My mind felt free, I wasn’t forcing myself through a pointless, mundane activity, and my thoughts wandered to some curious places.
Instead of thinking about my boredom frustrations, my mind had the space to plan, think, and process ideas.
4. Our mind wanders to fascinating (and surprisingly productive) places
While the experiments I conduct for this site are all fun, hardly any are purely scientific. I doubt an ethics committee would approve most of them. I love conducting them for two reasons: first, because they’re fun, and second, because they give me a chance to look — and test — the prevailing research about whatever topic I’m studying. This experiment was no exception.
Some of the most fascinating research I discovered in this experiment was about where our mind wanders.
Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler from the University of California, and Jonathan Smallwood from the University of York, recently studied where our mind wanders when we let it roam free. They found it wanders to three important places: the past, the present, and the future. ((Source: Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering.))
While we tend to remember when our mind wanders to negative thoughts, curiously, our mind thinks about the past just 12% of the time. (Of these thoughts, 38% relate to memories of earlier in the day, 42% relate to yesterday, and 20% relate to last month and year.)
Our mind wanders to think about the present 28% of the time. This is when we think about what we’re working on in the present moment; considering alternate approaches to the work we’re doing, and how we can do it smarter.
Most importantly, our mind wanders to think about the future 48% of the time. ((If you’re quick with math, you may have noticed these numbers don’t total 100%: we’re thinking about ideas or our mind is dull or blank the rest of the time.)) These periods of future thinking are when we set our intentions, plan our day, and diagnose what we can do to achieve our goals. We’re usually thinking about the immediate future: 44% of our future-related thoughts have to do with later in the day, and 40% have to do with tomorrow. Our mind wanders to the future so much that researchers have named this our mind’s “prospective bias.” ((Source: The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness))
When you crunch the numbers, most of this mind wandering is pretty productive — we’re thinking about the present and the future 76% of the time. Even better, we become more creative when our mind roams free, because we can connect the past to the present to the future. For example, letting your mind wander in the shower might lead you to think of how you resolved a past work dispute, and how you can use the same technique on a conflict today. Mind wandering also lets us connect ideas we’ve processed in the past — this is one of the reasons we have so many great ideas in the shower, and struggle to come up with them when we’re focused.
Through the experiment, I noticed my passive boredom episodes were significantly more productive. Contrary to an active boredom state, passive boredom was when I was doing something without a clear goal. A lot of my thoughts in active boredom related to how frustrated I was by the activity at-hand.
My mind roamed free in passive boredom. This let me process, as well as connect, the past to the present to the future.
3. It’s in the spaces between tasks that we defragment our thoughts
You’ll notice something interesting if you watch traffic flowing down a highway. It isn’t the car speed that allows traffic to continue flowing — it’s how much space exists between the cars. Our work tasks are the same: the more attentional space we leave between them, the more we’re able to accomplish. It’s in this space that our mind has a chance to wander. This lets us decompress, reflect on what we’ve accomplished, and plan what to work on next.
Maybe you remember the Disk Defragmenter program that used to ship with Windows. The app would dutifully rearrange the discontiguous blocks of data on your hard drive, speeding up how quickly you could access files later. While I’m still not entirely sure how the app worked, it was oddly satisfying to use: ((Something else that’s oddly satisfying: power washing before-and-after pictures. You’ve been warned.))
I felt as though my mind had the chance to defragment during this boredom experiment — especially in times of passive boredom. Carving out space between tasks allowed me to process what I was working on prior to entering a state of boredom, as well as plan what to do next. It also created space to let my mind rest and recharge. Watching my turtle swim around her tank, I noticed my mind automatically process thoughts and ideas. Looking out my office window, I noticed the birds chirping outside my office window for the first time since moving into this house over a year ago. I was able to think more clearly, and work smarter.
2. Boredom is not worth experiencing — but mind wandering is
This is perhaps the largest discovery of this experiment: boredom is not worth experiencing, but mind wandering is.
I probably experienced more boredom this month than I have felt in the last 10 years — and this is not something I’d wish on anyone.
Boredom is helpful when it leads our mind to wander, but it’s not a desirable emotion in the slightest. Here are some common words dictionaries use to describe the state:
Who the hell wants to experience any of that?
These descriptions mesh with how I felt during the experiment. The top five adjectives I used when I randomly sampled myself were: restless, anxious, impatient, dull, and, finally, bored.
But there is something to be said about mind wandering. When we wistfully long for the days when we got bored more often, it’s not boredom we’re yearning for — it’s the mind wandering time we had between doing things. Mind wandering is what allows us to remember the past, plan for the future, and reconsider how to approach the present. It’s something we experience a lot less when we drown the gaps in our schedule with mindless distractions.
This insight led me to explore the research surrounding mind wandering. After digging through the research, I’ve become convinced that one of the most productive things you can do is purposefully let your mind wander. Better yet, there are ways to let your mind wander more productively.
The less focus a task requires, the more our mind wanders. Imagine repeatedly tapping your right index finger on a table. Your mind will wander while you do it, since this is something you can do out of habit. Sex is another example. Out of all activities, sex has been shown to make our mind wander the least. ((Source: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind)) Sex, or any other activity that leads us into a flow state (we become totally immersed in what we’re doing), doesn’t let our mind wander. In a flow state, we become one with the task at hand.
Our mind wanders only when we have attention to spare. I call this intentional form of mind wandering “scatterfocus” — largely because the term has a nice ring to it. We enter this mode whenever we scatter our focus to let our mind wander with intention.
The research suggests that the most productive way to scatter your attention is to do something enjoyable and habitual. This is the case for three reasons:
- Scattering your attention will actually be fun. This important statement is easy to gloss over. Enjoying scatterfocus — as opposed to feeling dull, weary, impatient, and all of the other negative emotions associated with boredom — is key. By doing something enjoyable and habitual, such as going for a run, sipping a cup of coffee while listening to music, or taking an extra-long shower, you experience all of the benefits of boredom, without any of the downsides.
- You experience more creative insights. Research suggests that by doing something habitual you enjoy, you generate more creative ideas, much like as you do in the shower. ((Sources: The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review; Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation)) Try entering scatterfocus mode if you’ve hit an impasse with a problem — you might be better able to find the solution you’re after.
- They guide your mind to continue wandering. Going for a run without your phone, relaxing on the couch while listening to music, or walking to grab a coffee, will make you want to continue the habitual activity until you follow through to completion. Habitual tasks act as an anchor that motivate you to continue letting your mind wander until you’re done whatever task you started.
Scatterfocus is a powerful mental mode when doing these enjoyable, habitual tasks. Too often our boredom leads to stimulating distractions, rather than us experiencing the immense benefits of mind wandering.
1. Mindless stimulation is only fun in the moment
By the end of this experiment, I came to realize that boredom is a restlessness with the present moment.
Our mind craves stimulation — our prefrontal cortex, the logical center in our brain, even has a built-in novelty bias. It rewards us with a hit of dopamine, a pleasure chemical, whenever we focus on something that’s novel. ((Source: Why the modern world is bad for your brain.)) We get a hit each time we check Instagram, watch the news, or glance at the TV. We crave stimulation, especially from our devices. It’s no wonder: our brain rewards us with fun chemicals whenever we focus on something novel!
But this compromises our productivity. Take, for example, what sometimes happens after you wake up. Your phone alarm dings, and you see you’ve received three emails overnight. After you glance at those messages (you can deal with them later that morning), you bounce back to your home screen, and see you have Facebook and Instagram notifications waiting. Before you know it, you’ve checked the news, played a quick game, and done one or two other things, burning through half an hour in bed. Your brain’s novelty bias won out, and you’re not even out of the bedroom. Unfortunately, I’m writing with some personal experience: I’ve often stumbled into this productivity black hole. ((The best solution I’ve found is to put my phone on airplane mode between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.))
It’s only after we’ve bounced through our apps, tended to alerts, and cleared every notification, that we begin searching for other stimulations. In cases when we find nothing — like when we’re lying on the couch on a Sunday afternoon — we experience a rare, restless bout of boredom.
Curiously, while I felt the desire to stimulate myself during my hours of boredom, I didn’t feel that same craving after the hour finished. I had adjusted to a lower level of stimulation, and my mind had gotten past the craving.
We notice — and act on — stimulating distractions because our brains are wired to see these novelties as more attractive than what we want to be doing. After all, stimulating things cause our brain to release more pleasure chemicals.
There are costs associated with this. Mindless stimulation is only fun in the moment, and sacrifices the future for the present; trading productivity for mindless, meaningless stimulation. We often do this in the time we would otherwise let our mind wander. Letting our mind wander is always more beneficial than pacifying your attention into submission.
Cheating on this experiment was a serious temptation. As my mind restlessly adjusted to a new, lower level of stimulation, I instinctively looked for something — anything! — to stimulate myself with. Something to clean in my office; a device to fiddle with; an app to tap around in. Time passed more slowly (by my calculations, I perceived time to move around 15% slower, which was actually less than I expected). ((Take these calculations with a grain of salt: not only was the experiment anything but scientific, but the end point to these activities made them more tolerable than if the end time was nebulous.)) While my mind often wandered, I didn’t enjoy this experiment in the slightest.
Stimulating our mind isn’t always a bad thing. But mindlessly stimulating our mind is. We’re the most productive when we work and live with intention. Devices exploit our brain’s novelty bias, and pull us into autopilot mode. This traps our attention and takes up time we’d otherwise be using to let our mind wander.
These costs are not worth it.
A while after finishing this experiment, I was home alone on a Sunday. I woke at my usual time, went to the gym, cleaned the apartment, and did my maintenance day chores, all while listening to six hours of an audiobook. I didn’t feel like doing anything else after that. I lay down on the couch and let my mind wander. My thoughts went to a number of places: I planned a talk I had to give the following week, mapped some of this article in my mind, and let my brain rest, and defragment. I experienced a bit of boredom as my mind ratcheted into a lower level of stimulation. But because I was enjoying the moment, the feeling was fleeting.
It was oddly nice to lie down to decompress and recharge. I still felt a bit restless, uncomfortable, and uneasy. I wouldn’t want to experience the feeling at all times; I wouldn’t even want to experience it every week. Boredom is by no measure a pleasurable emotion — but it does have its perks, particularly in how it leads our mind to wander. Even though I only felt bored for a minute that day, the benefits of letting my mind wander lingered. I worked more intentionally the rest of the day, and had the chance to set a few future intentions.
This scatterfocus is a good thing. Deliberately letting our mind wander leads us to think about and connect the past, present, and future. It lets us unearth ideas. And it lets our mind rest and defragment. Doing something habitual and mind wandering with intention is key.
You may experience a tinge of boredom when entering scatterfocus. Don’t panic, this is just your mind adjusting to something habitual — going for a run, washing the dishes, or drinking a cup of coffee.
Put up with it. You’ll quickly find it’s worth it.
Illustrations by Sinisa Sumina.