Monday, January 31, 2011


This morning, in the car on the way to school, my son asked a question about boredom. He wondered what our response should be to tasks which are inherently boring – should we just refuse to do them? And how did this relate to our life choices as to what to do with ourselves?

A great question. As we negotiated our way through the morning traffic, I suggested that whether we choose to tolerate boredom may depend on how important we think the boring task is. If we don’t think it’s important, we can just do something more interesting. But if the task is part of something important to us, we can try to work through the boredom. That begs a first question: how to decide what it’s important/valuable to do?

My son is doing his A-levels, so he is sometimes exposed to boring academic tasks. He also hears from friends who are going abroad to work in bars. That sounds interesting to him, but he is stuck doing his schoolwork. It is very tempting to choose to do something more fun in the short term, but the problem is that everything we do in the short term has longer term consequences. That begs a second question: how to select something important/valuable to us, but at the same time make sure we don’t get too bored.

I suggested applying three considerations:

1. What are my talents and special abilities? This will never alone solve the problem of what to do. When I was younger, I remember being told ‘if you have a talent, you should use it!’ But this cannot be done in isolation. I often used to reply: ‘So if I’m a great murderer, should I go around perfecting the art?’ We should listen for compliments and positive feedback from teachers, friends and family, and be aware of what areas of activity are likely to suit us.

2. What are my values? Again, unless we want to be fanatics, this alone will not solve the problem. Our values may ask us to become a suicide bomber, but that activity may not be particularly personally fulfilling, or suit us. So those values, to achieve a balance, need to be weighed against a third thought.

3. What do I enjoy? Yet again, enjoyment alone is no guide. Some people get short-term enjoyment from destructive habits. But unless we have some fun, motivation will be in short supply, and we will dry up.

None of the above three, I suggest, is adequate alone. But following all three in balance – talents, values, and enjoyment – have a better chance.

Back to the issue of boredom… If you have consciously decided on a plan of action where you are doing what you’re good at, doing something you believe in, and doing something you enjoy – then you have a good chance of avoiding too much boredom. And when you reach a boring task, you know from the context that it will not be with you for ever, but is just a brief, necessary evil.

If you are bored all the time, then maybe it’s time to review the plan to ensure it’s ‘you’! But being bored some of the time is tolerable, as long as we know that we're on a journey that suits us and our values.

I don't know whether our chat helped my son with his schoolwork, but it certainly made us think!

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