Muuuum, I’m bored!!!!

Has anyone heard that or a variation of it recently? I’ll bet you have! Many years ago, before I had kids of my own, I used to hear my brother-in-law saying to his bored and whining kids “Come on then, I’ll give you a job. I’ve got plenty for you to do.”

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It was always amazing how quickly they found something riveting of their own to do to when offered the option of  mowing the lawn, vacuuming the loungeroom or doing the washing up.

It may not be quite your style or the modern parent’s way, but my brother-in-law had a point. When faced with a less attractive task a bored person will likely engage with creative ways to solve the boredom problem for themselves.

That’s one of the positive aspects of boredom. It stretches the mind and turns on our creativity to help us find ways to combat the discomfort we feel when we are bored.

Some of us are more easily bored than others. Some of us have learnt to depend on constant external stimulation. The rest of us are more likely to become bored when we are tired or when we are hungry, so there’s part of the solution right there!

It’s not just being tired and hungry that leads to boredom. Nor is it having nothing to do. In fact, you know yourself that when you are bored you can usually identify lots of things you need to do, you just can’t motivate yourself to do any of them.

We are all aware of boredom that comes from too much repetitive activity – so maybe we need to try to mix things up a bit and do that repetitive activity intermittently, taking regular breaks to do other things. People who run large organisations like factories or supermarkets know this and they keep their workers happy by rotating them through different tasks - stacking shelves for an hour then working at the register for another hour then supervising the self-serve aisle for another hour, and so on.

Boredom also comes when the tasks we have to do are either too easy or too hard, or when we aren’t given any choices and feel we are being forced to do things – in other words our lives have become out of our control. My brother-in-law was offering alternatives, providing choices, giving his kids back some control over their lives. He was encouraging them to find solutions to their predicament themselves, and to persevere through the discomfort of the boredom.

Digital devices are useful things, but they are not a good solution to boredom. The shallow engagement that comes from most activity on computers or smart phones actually decreases the user’s ability to concentrate and engage more deeply with thoughts and activities. My brother-in-law had the advantage of raising his kids before digital devices were invented. He knew that when they declined his generous offers and went grumpily on their own way, they were going to engage with deeper more satisfying work or play and find their own creative solutions to their predicament.

We probably need to bear all that in mind when we are faced with our bored children – not to mention the boredom we are feeling ourselves.

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Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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