By Jena Pincott
If you ever find yourself waiting idly for the proverbial grass to grow, we offer these 7 research-backed solutions to treat your boredom.
Embrace the Random Scribbles
Doodling offers two big benefits: It entertains—and, even better, keeps us focused, finds an experiment at the University of Plymouth. <a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.1561/abstract" target="_blank">Doodlers listening to a long-winded recording of names and places remembered <i>nearly 30 percent</i> more of the information than non-doodlers</a>. The explanation: Scribbling keeps us from daydreaming. An uninterested brain usually stimulates itself by thinking about <i>anything</i> but what’s going on at the moment—which drains our executive resources. Because doodling isn’t nearly as cognitively demanding, we concentrate more on the task at hand.
Shush the Murmurs
Beware barely noticeable noises (quiet radio chatter, whispers in the next row, faraway applause). In a Cornell University study, volunteers felt somewhat bored listening to (an objectively) engaging lecture, and didn’t know why. The reason: <a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/?fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1995" target="_blank">a TV was left on in another room with the volume so low <i>they weren’t even aware of it</i></a>. On a subconscious level, subtle distractions hijack attention—which makes our slightly-less-focused selves feel more-than-slightly-less interested in whatever we’re doing.
Rack Up the Points
For inherently dreary things (calorie-counting, closet-clearing, tax prep) try a techie strategy: “<a href="http://neologisms.rice.edu/index.php?a=term&d=1&t=11245" target="_blank">Gameify</a>” it. Using apps on your smartphone or other gadgets, you can earn reward-redeemable “points”—for tedious activities like rep-counting (<a href="http://www.nexercise.com/" target="_blank">Nexercise</a>) or housecleaning (<a href="http://www.chorewars.com/" target="_blank">Chore Wars</a>). Even ticking off to-do-list items can be fun when you beat your own time—or make it into a contest (<a href="http://www.focusboosterapp.com/live" target="_blank">FocusBooster</a>).
Move to Your "Less Unhappy" Place
Even “futile busyness” beats boredom, report researchers in a University of Chicago Booth School of Business study. Volunteers who ran an unnecessary errand for 15 minutes (voluntarily or not) <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20548057" target="_blank">felt much happier than those who simply waited around for the same amount of time</a>. Similarly, we’re happier (okay, <i>less unhappy</i>) walking a long way to the airport baggage claim than waiting there the whole time, the researchers say—or taking the winding back roads instead of the jam-packed highway (even if we don’t actually get home faster).
Remember the 120-Second Solution
The key to staying engaged when we're stuck, say, reading an insurance policy or doing our taxes: <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002994" target="_blank">two-minute refreshers</a>, finds a study published in <i>Cognition</i>. When volunteers took two short “mental breaks” during a 50-minute demanding task, they stayed focused (and performed better). The brain is built to respond to change, the researchers say. So switch it up a little <i>before</i> you feel blah.
Manage Those Palm Tree Daydreams (Part One)
Blissful daydreams of holidays on glittery beaches, wind in the hair -- sorry, they actually <i>intensify</i> boredom. Let your mind drift to idyllic thoughts, as volunteers did in a study at the University of California at Berkeley, and whatever you’re doing in real time (for them, jigsaw puzzles) <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20625177" target="_blank">will seem less interesting than if you hadn’t been out to sea</a>. The problem: When we catch ourselves happily adrift, we tend to interpret the lapse as a sign that the task we are trying to do is dull -- even if it isn’t -- which only perpetuates the cycle.
Manage Those Palm Tree Daydreams (Part Two)
But for those scrubbing-the-grout moments when you don’t really need to be present, daydreaming can be one of the <i>best</i> things to do. The mind-meander may actually <a href="http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=127365&CultureCode=en" target="_blank">spur creativity</a>, found a study at the University of Lancashire. Volunteers who had been tasked with reading names out of a phone book -- and were bored stiff by it -- later came up with more innovative uses for Styrofoam cups than those who had been spared the phonebook chore. Note: The more passive the monotonous task (for instance, reading or listening instead of writing), the stronger the creative ”surge” afterward.