What to do when you do not know what to do

Class math girl bored Boredom
Figuring out the root cause of our lack of inspiration can help us make better choices in how we spend our time, experts say. (Photo: Freepik)
At least once every weekend, one of my kids — ages 8 and 11 — lumbers over to me and moans: “I’m boooooored. There is nothing to do.” When I remind them of all the things they could try (read a book, make an art project, play the piano) they glare at me as if I have just asked them to do 150 burpees, and then lope off, shoulders slumped.اضافة اعلان

It is not just kids, of course. Many adults also frequently feel bored. Boredom may also be contributing to the lack of engagement many feel at work now. Some research suggests that teenagers have been experiencing more boredom recently than they did in the past.

Boredom is no fun, but it can be a source of useful information.

“It arises when we’re doing things that don’t seem engaging or satisfactory, and it pushes us to want to be doing something else,” said Andreas Elpidorou, a philosopher who studies emotions and consciousness at the University of Louisville.

Research suggests that boredom can arise for a handful of reasons, and that figuring out the root cause can help us make better choices in how we spend our time — or at least rejigger our experiences so they are more rewarding.

Understand the causeErin Westgate, a researcher at the University of Florida, has spent years digging into the various drivers of boredom and found that it arises in a few kinds of situations.

First, we can feel bored when we are in a position where we cannot pay attention, either because the task we are doing is too easy or too hard.

“For you to be able to pay attention and maintain attention on something, you need cognitive demands and cognitive resources to be balanced,” Westgate explained.

In other words, the demands of the task need to match what your brain can bring to it.
“It arises when we’re doing things that don’t seem engaging or satisfactory, and it pushes us to want to be doing something else,”
When what we are doing feels too easy, we often cannot focus, and our inattention gives rise to boredom. This could happen when your child makes you play Candy Land yet again or “when you are at a meeting where your boss discusses the same issue for what seems like the hundredth time and you just tune out,” said Karen Gasper, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies how feelings influence people’s lives.

We can also feel bored when the thing we are doing feels hard and overwhelming — for instance, when there is a work memo we must write and we are not sure where to start. Likewise, boredom might happen “when you are watching a movie with a complicated plot, and you are just lost,” Gasper said.

You may also experience boredom when an activity does not feel particularly meaningful. When activities do not align with our goals or values, they often make us feel bored and unfulfilled.

And then, of course, there are situations in which you are not really doing anything and you feel listless and bored — which sometimes happens to my kids (and me!) when we have downtime. Westgate suspects this happens because we have no goal in mind in those moments, which makes us feel lost and uncomfortable.

If you are feeling uninterested, Westgate suggested thinking through the various causes to figure out what’s inducing your boredom. Is the task you’re doing too hard or too easy? Do you not find it meaningful? Do you just not know what to do with yourself? In her experience, she said, people can easily determine which of these issues is driving the problem.
Research suggests that boredom can arise for a handful of reasons, and that figuring out the root cause can help us make better choices in how we spend our time
Tweak a hard or easy taskIf the task you are doing feels too easy, try something new or challenging if you have the option, Gasper said. Maybe your daily walks are starting to bore you and you should consider hiking or rock climbing instead. If you have no choice but continuing to do the task, brainstorm ways to add complexity to it.

Elpidorou said he once interviewed a UPS employee whose job it was to unload and scan boxes all day, but who said he never felt bored because he and his co-workers played games to make the work more challenging. Playing music can also help, Westgate added, because listening to music “soaks up those extra attentional resources you have, so that you can, paradoxically, focus better on that understimulating thing that you’re doing.”
Boredom is no fun, but it can be a source of useful information.
If you are bored because what you are doing is too hard, Westgate suggested breaking up the task into smaller parts so that it feels more manageable. Set a goal of writing just one section of that work memo before lunch.

Look at the big pictureWhen a required task is not engaging because it does not feel worthwhile, it may help to consider the task’s utility, including how it could help achieve bigger goals, Westgate said. For instance, if your child does not like math, encourage her to think about how math might serve her interests down the line: Could it make her better at her dream job? Research has shown that this kind of framing helps to keep students engaged and do better in school.

It may also help to think about how a seemingly thankless task serves others or builds community. When you go to the grocery store, Westgate said, you can think of it as a pointless time suck, or you could think about it as a task you do to keep your family healthy and nourished.

“Frame it to yourself in ways that matter,” she said.

All this said, if you find yourself consistently bored with what you are doing, it is smart to ponder whether there are ways to avoid those tasks, Westgate said, perhaps through delegation or a career change.

Frequent boredom can also be a sign of depression, she added, so if you find yourself rarely enjoying the activities you do — especially if you used to get joy out of them — you may want to talk to your doctor.

Do not scroll endlessly on your phoneI could not help wondering what role smartphones and social media play in boredom. Do I scroll through Instagram so much because I am bored? Could the instant gratification I get cause me to feel more bored when I’m trying to do mundane tasks? No one knows for sure, but some research does suggest that although we reach for our phones to alleviate boredom, technology may also cause us to feel more bored. Westgate said she worries that technology may also prevent us from constructively responding to our boredom.

“If you’re constantly soothing away those feelings of boredom with something like a phone, instead of engaging with them, I think it’s taking away a really useful signal,” she said.

It may help to keep a mental list of activities you usually find fulfilling that you can turn to when you cannot figure out what you want to do, Elpidorou said. This could include reading, playing an instrument, drawing, knitting or any other kind of hobby. (If your phone allows you to do something you find meaningful, like connecting with a friend or doing a crossword, that is OK too.)

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