7 Tips To Fight the Deadly Feeling of Boredom.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 tips for fighting boredom.

One of the patron saints of my Happier at Home project, Samuel Johnson, wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

One “little thing” that can be a source of unhappiness is boredom. Waiting in traffic. Waiting for the subway. Doing the dishes. Waiting in a doctor’s office. Listening to your thirteen-year-old talk through her different clothing options for the day.

Here are seven tips to re-frame the moment; even if you can’t escape a situation, by re-framing your emotions about it, you can transform it.

Put the word “meditation” after the activity that’s boring you. (This is my invention.) If you’re impatient while waiting for the bus, tell yourself you’re doing “Bus waiting meditation.” If you’re standing in a slow line at the drugstore, you’re doing “Waiting in line meditation.” Just saying these words makes me feel very spiritual and high-minded and wise.

-– Dig in. As they say, if you can’t get out of it, get into it. Diane Arbus wrote, “The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination and I think it’s true.” If something is boring for two minutes, do it for four minutes. If it’s still boring, do it for eight minutes, then sixteen, and so on. Eventually you discover that it’s not boring at all. If part of my research isn’t interesting to me — like the Dardanelles campaign for Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill — I read a whole book about it, and then it becomes absorbing. The same principle holds when doing boring or irritating tasks, like doing laundry.

Take the perspective of a journalist or scientist. Really study what’s around you. What are people wearing, what do the interiors of buildings look like, what noises do you hear, what do the ads show? If you bring your analytical powers to bear, you can make almost anything interesting.  Paradoxically, I found that understanding the theory of why waiting in line makes me crazy made me much more tolerant of waiting in line.

Find an area of refuge. Have a mental escape route planned. Think about something delightful or uplifting (not your to-do list!). Review photos of your kids on your phone (studies show that looking at photos of loved ones provides a big mood boost). Listen to an audiobook.

Look for a way to feel grateful. It’s a lot better to be bored while waiting in a doctor’s office than to be in an agony of suspense about your test results. It’s more fun to sit around the breakfast table talking about clothes than to be away from home on a business trip. Maybe the other line at the drugstore is moving even more slowly. Etc.

Consider: “Am I the boring one?” La Rochefoucauld observed, “We always get bored with those whom we bore.” I remind myself of this when I’m having a boring conversation with someone!

– And of course, always bring a book (in physical or virtual form).

What strategies do you use to combat boredom?

  • Sheri

    Knitting, I NEVER leave home without it.

  • Bobsgirlz

    I agree I bring my knitting everywhere … I even wish I was waiting longer so I could keep knitting sometimes !

  • I’m going to have to third the knitting suggestion! I’ve only just begun teaching myself to knit, and it was exactly what I did the last time I had to wait at the unemployment office. I just pulled out my needles and got going.

    My town is really small, so there’s really not that much waiting in lines to be done. The last time I was in a line, I was with my sister, and before I could get bored, I just switched into shameless dork mode. I talked, I joked around. I stretched by bending over and touching my toes. I twirled. Actually, I do the stretching bit a lot while waiting at the post office – I find it helps it feel less like I’m waiting and more like I’m doing something useful with my time.

    If it’s a really long wait and it’s the calling-out-numbers type rather than keeping your place in a line, I just go off and run other errands. Or, if I’m dressed for it, I have a little photoshoot.

    In hindsight, maybe there is no switching into shameless dork mode to be done. Maybe that’s just my default. :p

  • Stephen

    I love to ask myself great questions in cases like mentioned. Some of these are “What’s great about this?” or “What is most interesting about this?” or “What can I create/do right now that will amuse me?” The great question trick works anywhere, any time, every time. Take care, stay well, have fun!

  • Sadye

    You’ve got my two go-to strategies — look at photos on my phone (though I have cats, not kids!) and always have a book handy. Not looking at the time can be quite helpful, too.

  • Dig in! My boyfriend’s been really into hockey lately.. something I have never been interested in. We were watching a game the one day and I decided to look up why fighting is allowed in hockey when it’s absolutely forbidden in all other sports. Twenty minutes later, I was actually interested in the game.. and explaining things to my boyfriend. I think that’s a much better approach to boredom than distracting yourself with a book or something on your phone (although I totally do both of those things).

  • Annette Gendler

    When I saw this post’s title, I thought to myself, “I’ve never been bored.” I see that you associate boredom with waiting; I don’t. For me waiting is its own thing and can be highly annoying, but over the years I’ve learned to be prepared. If I know I’ll be waiting I’ll bring something to work on, or to read, and I always have my notebook with me so I can write. I make sure I have great music to listen to in the car. I knit while I supervise my son’s homework, which again I associate less with boredom and more with annoyance.

  • April Maura

    Your right about putting meditation in when we are waiting. I like to take those perfect moments to pray and spend more time with God. It’s even an opportunity to pray for others around you. I like what you said about making those moments also a learning opportunity by people watching. You can learn so much by analyzing your surroundings like a CIA.

  • Melissa

    My favorite literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” Keeping this in mind I’ve come to think of boredom as a luxury. With all of the rushing around we have to do, there’s little time to reflect and reconnect with our selves or with others. It’s often in moments of boredom that we can stumble on to our greatest insights. So when I feel myself getting bored, I really relish it!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is an excellent point.

  • Anita

    Praying. I had a chance to meet Mother Teresa many years ago with my grandparents. My grandmother was suffering from Alzheimers’ at the time and my grandad asked Mother Teresa to pray for her wellbeing. Mother Teresa, who knew my grandmother for almost a decade as an active supporter, spoke to my Oma saying, whenever you forget anything else, remember that Jesus loves you. She transformed every moment of Oma’s forgetfulness into an opportunity to remember God. Perhaps it’s another version of counting ones’ blessings. But since then, when I’m stuck in a waiting situation, I try to deflect boredom by using the opportunity to say the rosary in my head. It helps pass the time and I know that good words create good resonance and that enhances the chances of us doing good deeds. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      What a beautiful story.

    • Aspiring Author

      Anita, I want to thank you for sharing such a heartwarming story of the great Mother Teresa’s reminder to your Oma to remember that Jesus loves her each time she forgets something in the throes of her dementia. If only every dementia patient had someone as wise as Mother Teresa to tell them to do so! It is something I will remember the next time I meet someone suffering from dementia, and I will be sure to credit Mother Teresa when I share her wisdom. God bless you for having the courage and the faith to tell your inspiring story.

  • s_ifat

    Wonderful post! I love it that you are so knowledgeable, and we get to know those things in an instent after you read so much to give us just the pearls 🙂 I am going to adopt the “bus meditation” or in my case “waiting for my kids to come out from school meditation”.

    I cant stand being bored, that’s why I listen to audio books during so many parts of the day especially during house work. now I’m listening to “Father and Son” you recommanded (thank you). great idea audio books, I enjoy folding laundry so much better that way.
    so yeah, great post.

  • Kamala

    Gretchen, I had forgotten that the “… meditation” idea came from you! I use it frequently and recently shared it with my Spirit in Practice group. Like others, I have knitting and other hand work with me, take a book, etc. But, I also find that leaving time unfilled is important to a feeling of spaciousness in my life, and that what could be boredom time can give that opening.

  • bill

    Boredom is a very interesting idea in that you don’t feel bored until you need to find something more interesting to do.For me,I don’t feel boredom when I am engaged in doing something.I felt boredom yesterday and I said to myself how about playing that computer game,which I have already played it before and got bored by it.But I went ahead and played.It turned out the old boring computer game is interesting and challenging again.So I’ll never say boredom again.

  • Mary Witt

    Sometimes when bored or when cold as I pump gas, I will pretend I am sitting at the beach or standing in line at the beach waiting to buy a Diet Pepsi. I imagine the sun beating down, the waves crashing on the sand, etc.

    It really helps.

  • BKF

    follow your breath ( mindfulness meditation)
    Pay bills/ write notecards ( I always carry some blank cards in my purse)
    Carry a notepad and pen and do The Work or Inquiry ( 4 questions and a Turnaround to end your unhappy automatic thoughts)

  • Megan Gordon

    I love the meditation idea; it’s amazing what simply shifting the way you think about something can do.
    Barring that, I read, I write (always have a pocket notebook handy) and I daydream. When possible I also people watch. I can’t remember where I read, saw or heard this, but when you are people watching it’s fun to give them a backstory. The bonus is that it exercises my writing muscles.

  • I find that I am more patient when I am well rested and tend to get bored more when I’m tired, sometimes if I have to wait on something but sometimes even when I’m at home with all the things in the world to do!

    After your dedication to NOT meditate or try meditation, it’s a little funny that you are now promoting meditation as a solution to boredom, don’t you think? My husband is also disinclined to meditate or consider meditation– but he thinks I ought to do it. “Instead of calling or texting me during the few minutes of waiting when you are on time and everyone else is late to the meeting, you could meditate!” he gently suggested. 😀

  • Diane

    Always have a small sketchbook and pen with you and you will Never be bored.

  • Great tips!

    I’ve always cringed when I hear someone say, “I’m bored.”

    Can’t remember where I heard this, but it changed my perspective forever:

    “When someone says, ‘I’m bored,” what they’re really saying is ‘I’m boring.'”

    So true! I have made it an unwritten rule that we will not say that in our house. Once our little guy is old enough to say it (as all kids do at some point), I’ll explain to him why “boredom” = ” an opportunity to get creative.”

    There’s always something new we could do or learn, even if that’s just quiet time for prayer and reflection, as you referenced.

    Think I’ll bookmark this post for a few years from now 🙂

  • SadieJane

    “Doing the dishes. Waiting in a doctor’s office. Listening to your
    thirteen-year-old talk through her different clothing options for the

    Had to laugh out loud, too funny!

  • Severe boredom usually strikes at me on weekends especially if I do not have anything to do or anywhere to go. Boredom usually lulls me to sleep and I would end up disappointed in my self. If I am bored during travel I usually examine people and create conclusions about them. Is this healthy? I do not voice them out though.

  • Kelly K

    I practice “waiting in line meditation,” too! And, oh my, how I’ve noticed how easily irritated the other waiting customers get. (I’m sure I do it too when I’m in a hurry.) We really need to chill out, people.

  • HDM

    I completely agree that when people around you are often sighing and complaining, “I’m bored”, these are the people that are boring ~ not you. I’m never bored. I have an endless ability to keep myself entertained despite what’s going on around me.

  • kathybezy

    Meditation could substitute for re-evaluation. Just a thought, but in those ‘boring-waiting’ moments I borrow a thought from Jesuit traditions, and evaluate how my day is going so far, and how can I enhance ‘other-centeredness’, which is my main key to happiness. I try to re-evaluate several times a day…for a minute, few seconds, or however long the grocery line may be….Just finished a good book by Lowney, called Pope Francis. Great ideas there, actually addressed to non-spiritual people, as well as faithful.