I wanted to share an important revelation that I had a few weeks ago when I got back-to-back sick with the stomach flu and then the flu flu, and spent two weeks glued to my sweat-drenched pillowcase.
Ironically, it was in this two-week period that I had finally completed an important writing project that I had been avoiding since the beginning of the year. I knew that it would take a large chunk of time and that it would require me to be extremely detail-oriented and organized. (Two things that don't come naturally to me and aren't particularly fun to do.)
Since the perfectionist in me demanded that it had to be flawless, I had to really brace myself for the task - so naturally, I put it off.
That was until the historic day (historic for me), as my ears rang from an infection and fever, I sat dizzily up in bed, opened my laptop and went to work on my three-part executive function guide for parents. I remember thinking then about Frida Kahlo laying in a hospital bed with a paintbrush strapped to her chin, painting.
She was just a 19-year-old girl then. One who had suffered from polio since the age of six and who had, at the time, been immobilized by a full-body cast after a traffic accident had landed her in the hospital for three months. The next year, she painted her first self-portrait to win back the heart of her estranged lover, Alejandro; then went on to paint 55 self-portraits and over a hundred more works of art.
But Frida - as inspirational as she is - wasn't what finally got me to take action and sustain my focus on a task I considered both difficult and not-fun. Here's what finally did it. I had gotten so bored. So stir crazy. So over Youtube life coaches and business gurus. Sick of The Office reruns (even bloopers!). Even my favorite music started to annoy me. I was sick of the quiet and sick of meditating. I was sick of the birds chirping. I was sick of the gardeners with their leaf blowers. But more than anything, I was bored out of my freaking mind.
Then It Hit Me
My revelation was so simple and so profound. At the height of boredom, I had burned through all of what I considered my "favorite" activities (more specifically: passive, low-investment activities that delivered instant pleasure and stimulation). I had actually run out of stuff to keep me entertained, and I was only one week in!
How would I describe the feeling of the intense boredom that followed that week?I was so bored that after recharging my phone for the second time that night, I started researching boredom (I was hoping it would lull me to sleep!). Instead, I learned something new; a definition of boredom that was so simple and made so much sense that it led me to a profound discovery - and my personal "cure" for boredom.
So many sources, like this book on the psychology of torture, put boredom into a category of psychological torture akin to the isolation experienced in solitary confinement. In fact, the scientific name for boredom is hypostress, a lack of stimulation that causes our body to produce cortisol (a stress hormone). This is the opposite of the usual distress that we feel when we are overwhelmed or over-stimulated. In a different study, participants chose to shock themselves rather than sit idle for 15 minutes in a (boring) room with nothing but their thoughts. I imagined what I would do in that situation - 15 minutes didn't seem that long of a time, but who knows?
My "Cure" For Boredom
In that moment of intense boredom, when I couldn't stand it anymore, I chose to "suffer" the pain of a not-fun activity (my meticulous writing project) rather than to put up with the torture of being bored for one more minute. But that's still not what got me to sustain my attention on this task until it was complete.
When I had started writing, to my surprise, I didn't feel the feeling of "dread" that I normally would feel when forcing myself to do something I didn't feel like doing. Instead, I was so grateful to have something of VALUE to do to occupy my time.That's when I realized that it was my work and my mission that brought me joy in that time of stress. Because I was doing work that I was GOOD at doing, and doing it out of LOVE and SERVICE for others.
Motivation, Procrastination, & Other 'Ations'
I spend a lot of time speaking to parents about procrastination, overwhelm, motivation, and how to help their kids change "dysfunctional" habits. Many of my clients believe that this stuff (or executive function) comes naturally to me. That I have found the magic formula that keeps me motivated and focused. That's far from the truth!
The truth is that a lot of what is required to live a happy and successful life (however you define that for yourself) is to do the mundane, routine stuff that nobody wants to do. The trick is to figure out why you're doing it all for. What is your ultimate purpose and what brings you joy? It's usually a combination of stuff that you're passionate about, stuff that you're good at, and stuff that brings value to your life and to the lives of people connected to you.
What I gained from this grapple with intense boredom was a sense of validation. Because the thing I chose to do for fun during a time when I was TIRED, SICK, and BORED is also the thing I choose to do every single day to make a living.
I think back to that now when I feel overwhelmed with the long list of stuff on my to-do list, and I realize how grateful I am for it all.