Feeling Bored? Maybe You Have Too Much to Do

Researchers have come up with a counterintuitive explanation for boredom.

father and daughter on sofa

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I learned a lot during the pandemic lockdown, but one of the most surprising lessons was that I felt much less bored than I had expected. As someone who usually operates at 110% capacity, with a busy social calendar and a dozen projects on the go, I thought that erasing all of that would leave me feeling bereft, lost, and profoundly bored. 

The opposite happened, in fact. I spent my days reading more than ever, practicing music, cooking better meals, playing with my children, and working out harder and heavier in my garage gym. Despite my anxieties about the world beyond my home, I felt content to spend night after night in with my husband, watching movies and playing Scrabble and having the occasional Zoom check-in with people I used to think I had to see every week.

It turns out, I shouldn't be surprised by this reaction, as there was some interesting psychology at play. A new study from researchers at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and published in the journal Cognition & Emotion, has found that boredom is something of a paradox: The more potential opportunities for distraction that exist around you, the more likely you are to feel bored. It sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain how they came to this conclusion.

Over 200 volunteers were recruited to sit in one of two rooms for fifteen minutes. One room was sparsely furnished, with only a chair, an empty bookshelf, a chalkboard with no chalk, a filing cabinet, and a desk. The other room was full of distractions, with chalk added to the chalkboard, a laptop with a Google search page open on it, a half-built LEGO car, a partially-completed puzzle, blank sheets of paper, and crayons.

Participants had to sit for fifteen minutes, alone with their own thoughts, without touching anything in the room. They reported afterward on their feelings of boredom. Surprisingly, those in the fun-filled room felt more bored than those in the sparse room. But as Susana Martinez-Conde writes for Scientific American, it's not as crazy as it sounds: 

"Boredom is more likely to arise when opportunity costs are high; that is, when there is high potential value of engaging in activities other than your own. In other words, a main component of boredom is FOMO — the unease you feel when you realize you could be doing something far more exciting with your time."

Study co-author Andriy Struk told PsyPost that people should keep this in mind when trying to manage boredom. "Consider if you will be restricted from engaging in something that the environment otherwise affords (an activity that one could engage in if it was not for the restriction). For example, bringing a phone to a class might actually make us feel more bored, if we are not able to use it."

Back to the lockdown, that's why becoming a reclusive hermit overnight wasn't as traumatizing or boring as one might expect – because there wasn't anything to miss out on. I could throw myself into home-based activities without feeling like they were replacing other, more exciting ones. 

This is a fascinating finding because it can be applied to various situations. I first read about this study on a website devoted to minimalism, where the phrase "empty room" takes on a literal meaning. It got me thinking about where I do my best writing work, and it's in my dining room, which is quite minimalist, with nothing but a table, chairs, some plants, and a painting on the wall. Put me in the living room, with a fireplace, overflowing bookshelves, musical instruments, and kids' toys strewn everywhere, and my mind wanders far more because I start thinking about the objects themselves.

Speaking of toys, this finding could perhaps offer relief to parents overwhelmed by their children's toy boxes. Previous research has shown that kids play better and for longer with toys when they have fewer options available, and this study suggests the same. When a child isn't always thinking about what comes next, he or she is more likely to get caught up in the immediate game. So do a purge, and don't feel guilty about it!

From a financial perspective, this research has value, too. If you're trying to save money, surround yourself with friends who don't do expensive activities and you'll feel happier because you won't be saying no and missing out. A 2018 survey found that 40% of U.S. millennials have put themselves in debt to keep up with their peers, but that's no way to live. Choosing friends based on their spending habits (among other characteristics) is one way to ensure you feel included, supported, and stimulated in a sustainable way.

So, embrace that empty room and that empty calendar. Rest assured that less is indeed more, and that you'll feel happier the less cluttered and overstimulated your life is.