You know the feeling. You’re sitting in a meeting; your boss is droning on endlessly about who knows what, and your brain is alternating between daydreaming about your favorite lunch and feeling like you’re going to jump out of your skin if this doesn’t wrap up soon.
You’re bored. Big time.
The 2 Reactions to Boredom
When our brains are understimulated, it’s uncomfortable, and we all go searching—- searching for interest, for stimulation, and for intrigue. But we don’t all do it the same way- in fact, research has shown that people tend to have 2 reactions to boredom:
Internal seekers tend to lose energy when they are bored, they disengage, and their mind wanders. They tend to look inside for solutions to their boredom- through daydreaming, problem-solving or fantasizing.
External seekers look outside themselves for stimulation. They tend to get irritated and feel a build-up of restless energy if they are not engaged. They look for activities, people, or substances to quell that agitation.
Why do I get bored so easily?
ADHD brains are both more likely to get bored and more tortured by that boredom. But before we can understand why- lets look at the 2 reasons why a brain gets bored in the first place:
2 Causes of Boredom
There are 2 main causes of boredom:
- Lack of Appeal: When tasks or activities are not inherently fun, exciting, or otherwise appealing, our brains disengage and get bored.
- Lack of Engagement: Even something appealing may bore us if it is not engaging enough. When our brains struggle to regulate our attention or effort on a task; we become unengaged by it and lose interest. Similarly, even if something is interesting, if it goes on too long, our mental energy fades, and our engagement fades as well.
Why are ADHD brains more prone to boredom?
- Depleted Reward System:
- Inconsistent Engagement:
- Novelty Seeking:
ADHD brains have less dopamine diffusion (i.e.: they have less dopamine movement from where it’s stored to where it’s used). This means that the reward system has less of its key currency to feel satisfied, happy, and rewarded by tasks—-like a kindergarten teacher without her gold star stickers. Without that boost of dopamine everyday tasks are less satisfying and therefore, less engaging and appealing- the 2 causes of boredom.
ADHD brains struggle to maintain attention. This means that they struggle to remain engaged with something, and when we aren’t engaged, our brains are less stimulated and we get bored.
ADHD brains are intrigued and stimulated by novelty, interest, competition, and pressure. That engagement feels really good. But as it continues on a task or activity, its novelty wears off and the motivation recedes. This is felt as a let-down and the ADHD brain goes off in search of something to stimulate it again.
Why does boredom feel so bad to an ADHD brain?
The ADHD brain doesn’t filter out extra information, feeling, and data. This means that it can’t “turn off” a negative feeling as easily as other brains might. This causes uncomfortable feelings to flood the system- and once a flood starts, it can feel imperative to make it stop.
How to stop being bored
It’s hard to re-engage with a task once boredom has crept in. Rather than turning boredom off, working to avoid boredom is often an easier solution. But it deserves a special note here- this takes planning, so don’t expect yourself to do this on the spot. Instead, think through it now (while this is still interesting and novel for you): Brainstorm how to make these principles work for you so that you have it to draw on later.
- Find your key interest factors: What are the things that interest you? What are the things that generate excitement and intrigue? Write them all down. Now, what are the common factors of these things that are the key interest factors? For example, I love running, hiking, and rock climbing- those are my big passion activities- they fuel me and bring me joy. The key factors are movement and the outdoors.
- Schedule key interest factors into your life: Because your brain doesn’t derive as much pleasure from everyday activities, it’s important to give it plenty of satisfaction and reward through interest elsewhere in your day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually happen naturally- this is where scheduling comes in handy. (check out my ADHD-friendly scheduling guide here). If you give your brain some shots of dopamine reward through at least one high-interest activity, it will tolerate the mundane more easily.
- Incorporate key interest factors into other parts of your day- We can’t spend our whole day in passion activities. Once you understand your key interest factors, you can work them into other activities throughout your day. For example, I incorporate my key factors of movement and outdoors by listening to work-related audiobooks while running, walking outside while on conference calls, and taking my laptop outside on beautiful days to work in nature.
Just like I always recommend avoiding distraction rather than resisting it- avoiding boredom is always easier than resisting it as well. Here are some suggestions for avoiding boredom in your day:
- Prepare for delays and lulls: Look forward in your day- where are the things that are likely to bore you to tears? What can do you bring to add some interest? Maybe it’s a book as you wait for the dr, or the scarf you are knitting that keeps you present while you sit through a webinar, or maybe you can walk during that afternoon meeting. What are the ways to add key interest factors into those lulls?
- Play games with yourself: Set up small areas of competition or games for mundane tasks. Hate doing dishes? How fast can you get them done? Can you beat your time from last night? Struggle to sit through staff meetings? Count how many times Darlean shakes her head, or Tom clears his throat, or Audrey shifts in her seat.
- Do More: Our brains want to disengage when we lose interest but disengaging from a task makes our disinterest stronger and therefore makes us more bored. Next time, try to ask yourself what MORE you can do. Is there an additional project you can take on, more skills you can learn, a question you can seek to find an answer to? The more engaged you are, the more interesting it will be.
- Make an activity menu: Remember when I asked you what your passion activities were? Make a list of them, now see if there are other things that you can add- maybe they are similar activities that share the same key interest factors, or maybe they are things that you have always wanted to try but you just haven’t yet. Keep this activity menu handy- because sometimes a bored brain is a brain that struggles to come up with options. Giving it a menu, set up in advance, dismantles this hurdle ahead of time.
What to do when you’re bored
As much as you may try to avoid boredom, it will still happen. Your brain will not always be able to stay engaged and interested all the time. So what do you do when boredom hits?
- Find your why: What’s your reason for doing this interminably boring thing? What keeps you going? Call that thing up - picture it- as clearly as possible to give yourself the drive and passion for sustaining your effort.
- Practice Mindfulness: Try centering yourself in your body and your experience. Can you sit with this? Can you tolerate it rather than push it away? Maybe it’s only for a minute, or 5 minutes, or—-heck- maybe it’s just for a second. But see if you can practice sitting with the discomfort of boredom rather than actively running from it and avoiding it.
- Multitask: I know- I’m not usually one to promote multitasking. But for activities that are rote and require less active concentration, multitasking is not just possible but often preferable. So watch a show while you fold laundry, listen to a podcast while you bang out those miles on the tread, talk with your friend while you sweep the floors. Any way to engage your brain while it is otherwise being under-stimulated will help both your satisfaction as well as your stamina.
Where is boredom a problem for you? What do you do to tolerate or avoid boredom in your life?
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