The Obstacle Meter – 22: Boredom

22: Boredom

I often eat or drink (alcohol or other calorie containing beverages) because I am bored.

If you close your eyes and think of the feelings of boredom, what comes to mind?  You likely feel dull, lethargic, anxious, unmotivated, and in some cases trapped by your own inertia to find something more stimulating or trapped in a very uninteresting task that you are required to do or be a part of.  Oftentimes this uninteresting task is repetitive in nature, and you have to do it as part of your work of family life.

Boredom occurs when the brain is not even mildly challenged or actively engaged in an activity and is the exact opposite of pleasure and reward, which make us feel engaged, alive, energetic, vibrant, and happy.  So, if you think of boredom as being on one end of the spectrum and reward/pleasure as being on the other end of the spectrum, what is an easy way to manipulate this system to feel better?  Answer: Food and drink.

When you think of the other activities that bring us pleasure such as sex, talking with a friend, gardening, watching your favorite tv show or sporting event, listening to music or a podcast, hiking, working out, meditating, watching a beautiful sunset, painting, reading or writing, nothing is as easy or as passively consumed as eating and drinking food that has already been prepared for you.  All you have to do is chew and swallow and, in many cases, you do not even have to chew, all you have to do is swallow (i.e. alcohol or milkshakes).

If we stick with the idea of the spectrum (or line graph) boredom is on the far-left hand side of the line graph and pleasure/reward is on the right-hand side of the graph.  The maximal pleasure/reward that you can generate (without drugs) is known as –the state of flow–.

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, coins the term –FLOW– for a state of being in which you are actively engaged in a task that either matches your abilities or slightly exceeds them.  One hundred percent of your effort is required to complete the task at hand and your best is just good enough to meet the challenge.  This is FLOW and is the maximal amount of pleasure/reward/enjoyment that you can obtain through being actively engaged in a task.  On the other hand, when the challenge exceeds your skill sets and abilities, that is just regular old stress and we already have enough of that.

Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi has also found that out of the total number of hours we spend in the FLOW state, the vast majority of those hours are not spent doing our favorite pleasure inducing activities, the majority actually occur at work.  What?!! When asked if we would like to be at work or at home, 95% of us would likely state that we do not like being at work and would rather be home watching tv or doing ANYTHING else really.  However, these findings make total sense.  Work provides us with the opportunity to be fully engaged in a task that meets our abilities or slightly exceeds them stimulating us to use nearly 100% of our skills & abilities inducing a state of FLOW. 

Now, I doubt that many of us want to maximize our FLOW by working more hours nor are we probably that interested in constantly challenging our abilities to the maximum (100%).  Instead, I would suggest trying to alter or replace those activities that cause us boredom with those that cause us pleasure while also keeping our level of effort required in mind.


Identify Times When You are Bored: when does your boredom typically occur?  The first step to fight boredom eating is to first identify when your boredom occurs and what caused/led to it.  The best way to do this is to keep a boredom log in which you write down the situation and circumstances surrounding your boredom episode.  Knowing when and why you become bored will help you generate solutions to manage it.

Generate a List of Activities that Make You Feel Happy and Engaged: develop a list of activities that make you happy so that when you are feeling bored, you have a list of activities that you can go-to to break that spell of boredom and move yourself up the pleasure spectrum.

Find Passive Activities that Generate Pleasure: some of the activities that generate the most pleasure for us take a lot of time, energy, effort or money.  Try to find some activities that are nearly as passive as eating and drinking such as getting a massage, taking a bubble bath, hot showers, soaking in a hot tub, sunbathing or taking a nap.  Watching your favorite tv show, sporting event or movie also fit into this category provided you do not have to pay really close attention to the event, although the more energy you put into the event, the more engaged and pleasurable the experience is likely to be.

Plan: a vacation, birthday party, remodel or yard project to engage your mind in stimulating –what if– or –what would it be like to—scenarios.  Thinking about how amazing these events and/or projects would be is highly stimulating.

Clean & Organize: there is a never-ending list of house and yard projects that need to get done.  Although sometimes the thought of doing them may not get you excited, the satisfaction of having accomplished a task/project and having your house in order is a good one.

Embrace the Boredom: smart phones, 24/7 news, social media, cable television, and one million other distractions/amusements have stopped us from embracing boredom.  You should not always be stimulated, there needs to be times when we unwind and cool down.  Some of our best ideas come when we are bored and are forced to use your imagination.  We should not always need to hit the pleasure button at the moment that we are feeling down, dull or lethargic.  It is okay to feel those feelings.

Separate Your Pleasure Generators and Boredom from Eating: there is a temptation to maximize pleasurable by combining pleasurable events with food and drink (think Sunday football games). And this is perfectly fine provided these occasions are isolated, semi-infrequent, and are not interfering with the rest of your life.  For example, if your team is on three days/week or you are currently binge watching your favorite series and having 4-5 beers each night or a pint of ice cream, that is surely interfering with your diet goals and your life.

This is not to say that you need to lock yourself in a white-walled, padded room with no stimulation when you are eating pleasurable food but disconnecting other pleasurable events from eating will help you gauge and monitor how much you are eating.

To separate boredom (say at work) from eating you will likely have to use a combination of willpower, environmental reshuffling, and NUTRITION RULES but if you have the habit of drinking a soda and eating a bag of chips every day at work, you are going to find it nearly impossible to meet your daily diet goals.  The rest of your diet will need to be perfect to fit this many empty calories in.  Although much more nuanced and complicated to execute, on paper, willpower and NUTRITION RULES can be as simple as, I will not eat out of the vending machine and I will not allow myself to eat break room food that people bring in, unless it is a Friday.  To assist in following this NUTRITION RULE I would also suggest an environmental reshuffling, that is shape your environment in a way that supports your goals and reduces temptation.  Keep candy dishes out of sight, avoid the break room when you know there is tempting food there, do your best to keep vending machines out of sight, out of mind, pack your own snacks to avoid becoming excessively hungry during the day.