I cherish those moments in which I have the final say over how I occupy my time. (Which of us, honestly, doesn’t?) I have been that way for as long as I can remember, and the biggest reason I have for wanting to control my time has to do with boredom—and my attempts to stave it off by any means necessary. To be clear, I am rarely, if ever, bored when left to my own devices. I have so many interests that there is always some intriguing pursuit or another to captivate me at any given time. It is when I find myself in environments over which I have little to no control that I struggle against fits of boredom, including restlessness, frustration, and the bevy of negative emotions it fosters.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I think it’s got to be a fairly common problem among creative individuals—this struggle to make one’s mind fit within the necessary constraints of a situation when it desires ravenously to go elsewhere. And very often does go flitting off, far and fast, without consent. For those of us who are quite curious and are constantly seeking out new ways to test our abilities in multiple areas, I have a strategy that may be helpful. Over the years, I developed a practice for combatting boredom in uncontrollable situations which I will call “finding the challenge.” This strategy does, of course, exactly what it suggests: it helps me make otherwise mundane situations interesting by allowing me to either uncover an existing challenge with which to engage or to create a new one to keep me attentive.
I believe I first started “finding the challenge” (unknowingly) when I was in elementary school, and I used to get scolded for daydreaming in class all the time. I had to find ways to focus myself; so, I started, unbeknownst to anyone else, to play little games with myself. Rather than just reading and memorizing assigned material, I worked diligently on increasing my reading speed, on color-coding and memorizing lists, which I attempted to recall as quickly and accurately as possible, and on learning to spell words of increasingly length and complexity. The extra challenges I added to my schoolwork kept me engaged (and, to this day, an incredibly adept memorizer, I’ll have you know). They also kept me out of trouble. As an adult, the practice of adding or unearthing challenges looks similar, although it’s been revised and adapted over the years to apply to an array of work-related, academic, and even social situations. I decided to post about the idea of “finding the challenge” because it is effective, and for those of you who struggle similarly, I know how difficult a battle it can be.
Here are some ways to combat boredom by finding challenges in the face of mundanity:
Turn a struggle into an opportunity.
This process has two facets: the first allows you to turn an unpleasant situation into a more positive one, while the second allows you to engage your creative sensibilities.
About a year ago, I had a minor illness that kept me from doing major endurance training while I recovered, which didn’t sit well with me at first. But, endurance training is what I do. I’ll DIE if I can’t swim, bike, or run! I let myself freak out for a moment upon hearing the news and then flipped the switch. I can do some strength training. I can do yoga. Strength and flexibility are two aspects of fitness I have been neglecting a bit lately. Increasing strength and flexibility became the new challenge. Weights. Yoga. TRX. It was a whole new workout regimen and an entirely different test of my physical abilities. I was no longer bummed. I was excited to get started (and get my shoulders freshly toned for the summer season).
Maybe your obstacle is more dire than chest congestion. Maybe you have a problem for which no one has discovered a solution, or at least not one that’s widely available. It might be your turn to engage your entrepreneurial side, devise the solution yourself, and share your creative genius with the world.
Add a layer of complexity.
I’ve found this practice works best in academic settings and is less effective in work-related situations. Depending on your work, though, it may be applicable. If a project doesn’t interest you as it was assigned, then change it if you can. I used to do this all the time when I was a student (when I was allowed to, that is). Want me to write a paper on photosynthesis? Eeeewwww. Want me to write a paper describing photosynthesis and show how the process bears striking resemblance to a 19th century Neo-Baroque facade? Yes, please!
It doesn’t, by the way. And that would be a strange paper…but, that’s not the point. The point is to find a relationship, a concept, or some other dimension to add to a task to make it more interesting for you to complete. And complete exceptionally.
There will inevitably be times when a situation is as boring as it seems. The question then becomes, “Can you make anything new with what you’ve got?” How can you look at it differently? Is perspective-change itself the challenge? Engage your best instincts and see if your circumstances have any redeeming or useful qualities. (I guarantee you they do.) Toy with them. Just the process of delving deeper will keep you engaged.
In social situations, don’t zone out. It’s rude, it’s disrespectful, and no one likes it. Sometimes, however, we all need a little help paying more attention to other people than to ourselves. Practice listening. If listening isn’t your strong suit, then make that the challenge if you have to. Just make sure you’re not treating others like their words are unimportant. You’ll learn a whole lot more by listening, no matter who you’re talking to, than you will by staying stuck in your own head, anyway.