1n to “I’m SO bored!” Jesper, my bonus son looks at me pleadingly with his big puppy eyes: “Can I get some more screen time?”

I hate being the evil stepmother (though after nagging the kids for hours straight about their homework I do begin to see what made the stepmother evil in the first place), but if he gets his way he spends 24/7 behind a laptop, mobile phone or television. And tempting though that may sound to me, it’s not exactly in his best interest. So I take a deep breath and tell him to do something that doesn’t involve a screen. “But I can’t think of anything! Everything is boring!”

If you’re a parent – odds are I just described your everyday life (or not, in which case I’m jealous). Especially as kids near their teenage years, they tend to lose interest in the simple joy of playing. Screens offer them the stimulation their brains crave – without requiring much effort. In the progress, their dopamine levels are boosted (dopamine is this cool ‘reward’ hormone that makes us feel amazing; it’s released every time we accomplish something). Pretty much like with drugs.

I wish I could blame it on their age, but truth be told – when my partner or I are bored we do the same thing: we turn on our laptops or check our phones. There, we have an endless world of entertainment to our disposal: books and articles, videos and games, not to mention social media. All helping us keeping our brain busy. All the time. Hell, I wouldn’t be the only person reading the texts on the hand soap in the toilet just to have something, anything, to do. So what is boredom, why do we hate it so much and what’s a healthy way to deal with our inner bored child?

What is boredom?

Many scientists took a shot at understanding boredom. Erin Westgate describes it as: “(…) when we are not able to pay attention or cannot find meaning in what we are doing.” Boredom, according to her, is what happens when what we’re doing doesn’t align with our goals, or when it’s either too easy or too hard for us, because that makes it harder to pay attention. And whether something is too easy or too hard? Well, that depends on how much ‘cognitive capacity’ we have – whether we have enough mental skills and energy to do something.

The opposites of boredom can be two things. Either it’s enjoyment or it’s interest. The more challenging something is, the more – according to Westgate – the activity gravitates from enjoyment and to interest. Of course you can still enjoy interesting things: facing challenges is its own reward. But it’s a different type of enjoyment. One that’s deeper and less instantaneous.

Either way, what’s required of us has to match with what we’re able and willing to give. If you’re tired and low – a simple game on your phone or scrolling through Instagram might just do the trick. But if you want a challenge, browsing social media all day will just leave you feel depleted. Instead, a personal crafts project might just do the trick!

When is boredom bad for us?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Boredom isn’t always a bad thing (and we’ll get to that later). But it can be.

When you spend every day doing the same trick at your job – you quickly grow disengaged. Your brain is simply not challenged. Ever wondered how it’s possible that someone who’s clearly very capable makes the dumbest mistakes in their work? Odds are their brain simply stopped paying attention because the work is so simple. It’s totally possible that the same person would perform brilliantly in a role with much more responsibilities, even in a leadership position.

The same goes for kids in school. Many dropouts aren’t struggling with school because they can’t keep up. They struggle because the school can’t keep up with them. More than once have I heard my bonus kids sigh: “Why do I have to do 40 of these exercises? It’s so simple!” Hell, I was that kid myself when I was in school. Then, I would end up reading the questions wrong and making mistakes that could easily be avoided. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to challenge kids at their own level and get behind the reason for their mistakes.

School and work is not where it ends. Boredom is also linked to self-harm and criminality. All the more reason to deal with it in a healthier way. 

Can it be good as well?

Does that mean you’d better avoid being bored at all costs? Nope! Boredom can actually be very healthy! Boredom happens if we lack purpose, mental capacity or reward. And what happens if you feel bored and just sit with it for a while? Your mind – lacking stimulating input – will go in search of things that would fulfill you. That’s when creativity happens! Let’s call that your QBT: your Quality Boredom Time!

That’s why you might come up with your very best ideas when your brain is wandering – for instance when you’re doing the dishes, taking a shower or driving a car. And… have you ever noticed how when you lie awake at night your thoughts fervently jump all over the place?

The key here is to just be present with your boredom, instead of trying to still the Boredomonster’s hunger with addictive or otherwise destructive behavior. 

5 tips for dealing with boredom

Sure, boredom isn’t necessarily fun, but if you do it right it can help you tackle problems and spark all kinds of creative projects and ideas. Want to help your inner kid (or your real kids) harness the power of boredom? Try these tips!

  1. Create some QBT: Do a simple activity that doesn’t engage your brain but keeps you occupied, such as going for a walk or a ride or weeding the garden. Meditation doesn’t qualify – trying to keep your mind blank is not the same as allowing it to roam freely.
  2. Limit your own screen time. Your phone is a great way to keep boredom at bay, but it’s also a great way to get stuck in low-quality enjoyment. Do you feel like you’ve just wasted hours of your day? Screen time tends to do that…
  3. Doodle! Doodling is another great way to keep yourself busy while still giving your mind some freedom to move around. But the best part about doodling is that you already have a pen or marker ready to scribble down all the awesome ideas your creative brain comes up with.
  4. Bored at work or at school? Sure, we all get bored sometimes, but if you’re bored with your daily responsibilities it’s probably time for you to find new challenges.
  5. Find a passion project! The bigger the project, the more things you can come up with to work on it. You can start your own website, blog or vlog or community project! Bored? Ask yourself: “How can I make this project even better?” and start there. (Don’t know the answer to that question? Give yourself some quality boredom time!)