The Cure for Boredom (You May Not Like It)

I’m not an incredibly patient person. I have a short fuse and I bore easy. It’s bad. I think it makes me good at a few things, like keeping people entertained and engaged, but makes me bad at other things, like coping with slow restaurant service.

Over the holiday break I turned away from the world a few degrees. I didn’t call anyone; no one called me. It was wonderful for a while. And then I thought: Why don’t I have anything going on? Why isn’t this person wondering what I’m doing or why does that one not seem to be interested in seeing me? There’s an underbelly to boredom that’s ugly indeed, because it reveals our neediness, our impatience, our hunger for attention.

But here’s what scares me most about boredom, and should scare you, too:

That I’m letting it dictate what I do. I get bored, restless, worried, anxious, and then I bail—not just on people, but on projects, situations. I lose interest and wherewithal and wander away. I make assumptions about it that aren’t true, all in the name of giving up because it fails to keep my interest. Right. If I subscribe to this theory, I’m saying that boredom shouldn’t happen, and that life only has meaning if I leap from peak to thrilling peak.

We give boredom perhaps a little too much power: We end up leaving instead of sticking around. Do something easy instead of something hard. Write off people who shouldn’t be written off.

Boredom has a role, no doubt. (Read what Bertrand Russell says about it in this piece on his book on Brainpickings). We need to get bored, to tolerate boredom, in order to appreciate real highs, real moments of deep, soul-filling satisfaction. But more than that, we need to wait out boredom for what’s on the other side.

On the other side of boredom is not just thrill and excitement. and it’s not busy. In fact, busy is not the opposite of boring, even though at first glance you think it is. And yet busy is what we do to combat it.

Sometimes to get past boring, you have to be the opposite of busy.

Our problem is not that we get bored (which our culture of distraction seeks to eliminate), but that we let it unseat us so easily. It’s that we aren’t willing to wait it out.

In Big Magic, a powerful and moving missive to creative souls, Liz Gilbert cites the wisdom of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who says that the biggest problem with people’s meditation practices is they quit too soon, or, “just when things are starting to get interesting.”

Gilbert writes, “they quit as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part–the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.”

What’s happening is that we’re not hanging in there long enough, past the breakers of inhibition and self doubt. I’m guilty of this, and likely you are, too. The mistake is believing that interest, like an iPhone, starts to depreciate the moment you walk out of the store with it.

Not true. Interest is the opposite of depreciation. You pay back a loan with interest. And what Gilbert is saying is that it can grow in your own life, if you hang with it long enough. We have it backwards, just as we have passion backwards (a point I make in my TEDx talk, “Stop Searching for Your Passion.”)

You can’t “busy” away boring; you can’t distract away boring. Boring dissolves in the unblinking eye of attention…it’s just that we usually aren’t willing to wait that long.

Do you know how many times I’ve started to write a book, and got all excited about it, and then got bored? My problem was I burned up all my energy in the prospect of it, instead of allowing it the slow, steady burn of attention to ignite.

But I’m starting to change that. I’m not looking at just the goal, the prize, the finish line. I’m looking at the road. The road is far more interesting. It really is.

I am not trying to “finish” a book. I’m simply writing one. Don’t ask what it’s about, because I don’t know yet. And I find the most interesting part isn’t talking about or imagining, but doing it. Writing it. And seeing what happens.

So consider making yourself that promise this year:

That rather than flee from boredom too quickly, see it for what it is: discomfort, internal conflict, fear. Decide instead to wait it out, to stick it out. To stoke the fire of your energy enough to keep you going. Take a cue from Pema Chodron and be willing to see what happens after.  Because that’s what’s most interesting of all.