How to Tame the Wandering Mind and Conquer Boredom to Achieve Meaningful Goals
Boredom gets a bad rep. We hate it more than some tortures. Indeed, we see it as torture itself.
But what about boredom makes us flee it so? What drives us to distraction and escape? What explains the constant scrolling and email-checking that shields us from boredom’s grasp?
Here’s a theory:
We’re uncomfortable with our wandering mind
When we’re bored, a specific part of the brain’s hardware is switched on. It’s called the Default Mode Network (DMN), made up of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Medial Parietal Cortex.
The DMN is most active when we’re doing nothing, biding time, or in a ‘resting state’. That’s why it’s called the default mode network. When we’re bored, we’re in default mode.
The DMN correlates strongly with the wandering mind — which produces ‘stimulus-independent thought’. In other words, the DMN projects the inner voice running commentary as we go about our day. The less we’re doing, the more prominent the commentary.
Now, a study in Science found that, when randomly prompted throughout the day, people consistently reported being less happy when their minds wandered.
This conclusion rings true. I had a long day yesterday and woke up tired. My mind wandered as I brushed my teeth, and the thoughts darting through it were stressed out. It’s not pleasant. My first reaction is to do something to escape.
That’s half the equation of our addiction to waterfalling down endless media feeds. On the one hand, social media hacks our primal drivers— like the dopamine system — to keep us locked in (see Tristan Harris on this). On the other, our discomfort with drifting thoughts drives us to distractive relief.
Those drifting thoughts may be more of a challenge for those of us who got neuroticism in the personality lottery. In this case, the wandering mind can be harsh and fearful — driving more motivation to be constantly busy. But if this applies to you, remember that it’s not your fault. It really isn’t.
A whole host of prior internal causes and external conditions tie together to produce the next thought that comes to mind. And you are not that thought. Recognize that a wandering mind that punishes is not you. Understanding that is a first step to coming to peace with the wandering mind and learning how to be bored.
The Importance of Boredom
We have good reason to end our fear of boredom and the wandering mind. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, discussed boredom’s importance at length. In his view, it’s an important component of productive work and a flourishing life:
“Constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a [person’s] mind if he is living a life of distractions…, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement.”
We can’t achieve long-term goals without boredom. We need long periods of uninterrupted focus and struggle to move closer to the goals that mean something to us.
Take writing on Medium, for example. No one succeeds on this platform without honing their skill through thousands of hours spent writing bad articles. That’s boring as hell, and it’s demotivating. But it’s an absolute necessity for success.
Or take any cathedral built anywhere ever, and marvel at what boredom can create.
We need to learn to be comfortable with boredom if we’re going to achieve meaningful goals. But to do that, we first need to tame the wandering mind.
How to Tame the Wandering Mind
There are two ways I’ve learned to tame it. Both methods reduce DMN activity, but only one helps us become comfortable with the mind as it wanders, even as it reduces that wandering.
Method 1: Action
The first method is to exit ‘default mode’ and do something — ideally something productive. This study confirmed that outward focus correlates with reduced activity in the DMN and limits the mind’s wandering. It’s what gives rise to the experience of ‘losing ourselves in work’.
But we can’t be doing something all the time. We’ll die. We need to find a way to be comfortable in default mode or reduce activity in the DMN even while ‘at rest’.
Method 2: Mindfulness
The second method achieves both these ends. It’s meditation.
This study found that mindfulness and metta (loving-kindness meditation) decrease activity in the DMN. The effect was stronger for experienced meditators. Further, experienced meditators had reduced DMN activity while meditating and while at rest.
Meditation cuts activity in the DMN at work or at rest, quieting the wandering mind from the brain up.
But meditation goes further. It teaches us to be comfortable with our mind as it wanders inside consciousness. It teaches us to be with thoughts, emotions, and everything else that arises in our field of view — whatever their temperament. Because it teaches us that we are consciousness, not the mind that wanders within it.
Take for example Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who learned how to be with his panic attacks to handle them. Now, he’s the most chilled guy — and remains friends with his panic.
End — Meditation and Boredom
There’s a relationship here:
Productivity needs boredom needs meditation.
Meditation is the first step. It helps us quiet our wandering minds from the brain up, and teaches us to be comfortable even as our minds wander.
This helps us to sit with boredom. And we need long stints of it to be productive, do Deep Work, and achieve meaningful goals.
So start with your mind. Start with meditation.