The Evils of Partial Boredom

Two days ago, I argued that boredom is the enemy of success and productivity. Instead of trying to discipline yourself to push through boredom, you should be eliminating it all together. Boredom often masks a deeper fear of failure and risk that forces you to lead a safe, but uninteresting life.

One reader, however, pointed out the value of temporary boredom. Forcing yourself to be temporarily bored, can push you to take more creative and interesting actions. I completely agree. My article was a war against chronic boredom, the dull pain of a dull life. But acute boredom, can actually be useful if it pushes you to engage in truly worthwhile pursuits.

Half-Boring Pursuits

Watching television that you aren’t interested in is a half-boring pursuit. It isn’t interesting, but it also isn’t completely boring. It is, for example, more enjoyable than staring at a wall for hours. However, by removing some of the boredom, it also prevents you from engaging in pursuits that you actually care about.

In this case, actually staring at the wall and not watching television might be more valuable. By facing complete and total boredom, you have more incentive to stop and do more interesting things.

Working at a so-so job doesn’t give you pressure to find better work. Working at a job you truly hate, or being completely unemployed creates a vacuum in your life strong enough to demand action. Finding truly interesting pursuits often means, in the short-term, trading half-boredom for complete boredom.

Eliminating Distractions

Every few months I go on some type of distraction purge. Just a month ago, I committed to limiting my internet and email usage to only 45 minutes a day. In the past, I’ve done similar purges on television watching or computer games. I stick with the change for a month, after which I usually switch back to a more moderate level of usage.

The first noticeable thing when you take on one of these trials is the complete and utter boredom. If you’re used to watching 2-3 hours of television a day and it’s suddenly eliminated you aren’t sure what to do with your free time. This boredom isn’t chronic, evil boredom, but the acute boredom that forces you to rethink how you spend your time.

Taking on trials like these open up your schedule, and often result in seeking more interesting ways to fill the gap. Using time I freed up with these methods encouraged me to join Toastmasters, take dancing classes and read more books. Once the trial finishes, the new, more interesting, activities stick and the old ones get dropped.

Go from Partial to Complete Boredom

Partial boredom is similar to the mathematical concept of a local maximum. A local maximum is like a small hill next to a mountain. In order to climb higher, you first need to climb down. And often the way to go from partial boredom to complete engagement is by taking a short trip through complete boredom.

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  • Vlad Dolezal

    Last summer, I had a related experience, though it’s not quite the same thing you’re talking about.

    I would spend hours a day browsing mildly interesting websites, because I had nothing better to do. In other words, partial boredom.

    Then I went on a holiday where I had no internet access (the nearest WiFi hotspot was 30 minutes’ journey away). So when I had nothing to do, I entered the state of complete boredom. And it made me VERY creative, because I had to rely on my own mind to stop me from being bored. I would think of lots of writing ideas, and play around with tons of interesting maths.

    Complete boredom can actually be a blessing, because it drives you to do creative stuff. I remember hearing about some mathematician who did his best work while he was stuck in prison for 6 months for political reasons. (Though when he got a chance to get out, he got the hell out :p)

    That being said, you’re spot on. Like I wrote in my most recent blog post, humans are motivated by two things – avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Your approach increases the pain of doing nothing, so that it drives you to actually get out there and do something interesting with your life. Partial boredom simply isn’t that painful, so people can’t be bothered to change it.

  • Gary

    I’m loving this little thread of your on boredom. It’s such a temptation to fill gaps of time with stuff that is only mildly amusing, just to avoid boredom, or even any form of dissatisfaction. Our society is geared up for constant input, so that it is extremely challenging to face moments of doing nothing, waiting, or even the practice of meditation. I know all too well my tendency to jump from one website to the next, or one book to the next looking for answers, and finding life out of my grasp.

    So true, this pain is a great motivator for change.

  • Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Scott,

    Nice post. I got rid of cable completely, it was boring the heck out of me. Other than a few select shows I feel that it’s a wasteland and destroys productivity.

    I list out all daily tasks and assign a specified time frame to each one. Completing these tasks takes up the majority of my day. I have little room for boredom since I am busy working toward my goals.


  • andres jimenez

    I replied here with some links on boredom and different buddhism perspectives, are those pending? I have nothing to do with those sites of course.

  • Katie

    Maybe, it is even the other way round. Boredom is not something that happens. There are so many stimulating things that we pursue as kids and still did if we had not been stopped in the meantime. At school, and since then, we get looked at as the language guy/ sportsperson/ science geek. The effect is that one has to defend oneself if being interested in more things and secondly, if you do not happen to end up in any of the ‘special virtue’-boxes, you are discoureged to do something in that area as you are not good enough.
    Well, that causes boredom. Not being able to follow one’s interest in more than a few fields.
    Once, grown up, you either let other fill up your mind (as it is not being used otherwise) or you realise that there must be something else but you do not know how to get there.

  • Natasha

    theres times iv gone through a whole day on the computer, but i have depression aswell and other things. i think somethings wrong with me because complete boredom doesnt drive me, it just makes me depressed and angry and even more not wanting to get up and do anything, il stay in bed til 2 in the afternoon most days and miss everything even though i know im going to feel terrible, so i know im different from the usual pattern. at the moment i don’t seek pain but i also don’t seek pleasure, because there is none. sorry if this is a useless comment i just think i must have a different form or boredom i was wondering what it was.