Re: Is thinking a good way to deal with boredom? And how to develop the ability of thinking?

The following is part of a private exchange. I am publishing it with the permission of my correspondent. Their identity remains private.

I always feel life is boring, especially when I’m alone and have nothing to do (e.g., the hours before I go to sleep, the weekend). I’ve tried many ways to deal with boredom, reading books, painting, watching movies, e.t.c. However, I found these activities only make me get something to do, I still feel bored when I have nothing to do (ironically, I feel bored again when I go to my bed to sleep after painting).

Have you tried any outdoor activities? They do not have to be particularly fancy. For example, I dealt with boredom by making a habit out of walking. To get into the flow, I needed something that would interest me, so I bought a generic point-and-click camera. It was not special, but it motivated me to go around and take pictures. Over time, I wanted to shoot better scenes/themes, so I started exploring parks and monuments, until I began venturing outside the city to catch some sunrise or sunset. I was hooked! I have been walking daily ever since.

I hear that many mathematicians think about math problems when they have nothing to do. I think thinking might be a good way for my case, since thinking has no dependency compared to other activities, I can think anywhere at any time.

You are right that thinking can be done anywhere. Whether this is good or not will depend on your particularities. For me, thinking too much is not good because I over-analyse things and ultimately lose sense of what needs to happen. Thinking, especially in abstract terms, does not involve considerations of the place and the timing of events, but our everyday experience is all about these aspects of acting in the here-and-now.

Put differently, I learnt that for me a physical, outdoors activity is the best way to (i) not get into overthinking mode, and (ii) not feel bored.

However, I find it’s very hard for me to think, I can’t find a subject to think about, not to mention using thinking to deal with boredom. Do you have any suggestions to develop the ability of thinking?

The fact that you cannot find something to think about may be an indication that you are not getting outside your comfort zone. Sure, you do not want to venture too far away, but it is good for you to try something new. I do not know you, so I cannot imagine what “something new” entails, so I will give an example based on my experience.

Circa mid-2010s I was feeling bored a lot. I decided to check out this whole “Linux thing”. At the time, I only had basic knowledge of computer usage: I had learnt about, Ctrl+c, Ctrl+v, and Alt+Tab a couple years prior. I had no formal training in computer science or related and I did not know what I was trying to achieve with Linux. All I knew was that software freedom made sense to me and that I would be learning lots of new things along the way.

I figured out how to install Linux Mint and off I went into the unknown. Each day I would tinker with the computer. Change the fonts, find some new icon theme, experiment with multiple desktops/workspaces, set up a tiling window manager, switch to Arch Linux, and so on. Part of this incessant experimentation was my transition to terminal-based applications. I remember using the cmus program at some point to play back my local music files. It was fun! Was I more efficient? Not necessarily; not at the outset, anyway. But I was keeping myself in a virtuous cycle of excitement and discovery.

Fast forward to present time and I still tinker with the computer, only now I do it from a position of knowledge and am more deliberate. I have learnt a lot about computers and can even program competently in Emacs Lisp (sure, that is not a marketable skill per se, but remember I was/am just playing around).

Perhaps the language I am using to describe this activity—“playing around”—is read in a negative way. Though I only mean it positively. To me this has both recreational and educational value. I need activities I do at my leisure to be enriching my life and to not feel burdensome. They are fun and play is essential in our lives (interestingly, the Greek word for recreational, fun activities is “psychagogia” (ψυχαγωγία) from psyche (soul/mind) and agoge (education/instruction)).

In more recent times, I have had another “getting out of my comfort zone” moment, as I built the hut where I now live. Again, this is me doing stuff while learning as I go. What I learnt about myself through Linux and Emacs—namely, that I can be competent in a new field with enough effort—inspires me to boldly take on new challenges, such as the building of my house, the planting of trees, and so on.

Between the computer and all the outdoor activities I perform (walking, construction, and the first stages of farming my own stuff), I never find myself in a state of meaninglessness or boredom. There is always something I enjoy and consider interesting. Plus, the outdoor activities expose me to sunshine, which is good for the body.

As for the “how to think” part, I find that the aforementioned have helped me think with clarity. This is because I do not have thoughts that trouble me, nor am I overthinking to the point of generating persistent ideas that effectively crowd out other thoughts. Put simply, my mind is clean and there is no junk around to inhibit me.

Again, you have to consider the particularities of your case. I do not mean to imply that what works for me will necessarily work for you. Do try to push against the boundaries of your comfort zone. You will be surprised how much you can achieve once you commit to unfamiliar endeavours in earnest.