Sunday, June 12, 2011

Battling Boredom

I know a lot of people who find running boring. I too, sometimes fall into that category. However, I have tried-and-true strategies to battle running boredom. The kind of boredom that is worse for me is the boredom brought on by modern society. We live in a time and place where so much is taken care of for us by machines, computers, constant connectivity, that we, like our machines, are always plugged in and if not cruising on autopilot, at least humming along in "powersave" mode. A lot of pundits have commented on the busy-making, stress-inducing gadgets that are supposed to make life easier, and the loneliness inherent to a mostly virtual social network. To be sure, I wouldn't want to give up my facebook friendships (some friends are better virtually) or my email. I, like many post-boomers, prefer electronic communication to the telephone. I also love socializing in person. What I'm concerned with is how we social beings deal with boredom--or don't deal with it, as the case may be. What's wrong with being bored? What's wrong with being alone? Or rather, simply not being busy or surrounded by people, virtual or flesh-and-blood?

To be honest, breaks are hard for me. REST is hard for me. Be it thirty seconds, 10 minutes, a week, or a month, I prefer to be busy, to have structure, to have routine. If I were stripped of pen/paper/computer/phone I would still try to "keep busy" by, planning, strategizing, and thinking about what could be. Certainly that goal-oriented, prepare for all contingencies gene is something that has done me well over the years. I am reminded of a maxim (appropriately, from the Stoic philiosopher Seneca): "luck is where preparation and opportunity meet." And I'm extremely "lucky" to be paid to overthink. As a professor, it is legitimately part of my job description! But sometimes I just want to turn my brain off. Drugs and booze are obvious go-to remedies there, but as an overthinker, of course I've already weighed the possible physical, emotional, and professional pros and cons. Only sometimes is it worth it for me to go that route. More often, I just go to bed. Or graze in the kitchen  (scoops of peanut butter, handfuls of almonds, a waffle or two...). Or graze in the kitchen and then go to bed. Clearly, none of these remedies are actual solutions, and in a way, are detrimental. Boredom is the emotional reaction to lack of structure, to time devoid of imperatives from oneself or one's social surroundings.

First to address the boredom of running: If you get bored running, it's probably a lack of intrinsic motivation--the time spent doing something with no force behind it (no imperative from a friend running next to you, or from your own will). For me, it's an imperative from my core being to stay fit, to not tank in races, to give time to myself by exercising etc. etc.--in other words, I have created multiple imperatives to keep me continuously intrinsically motivated to run. When I do get bored because of the tedium of repeated routes or the length of time is numbing, I try to find someone who will run with me (a social pressure to get out!), or I resort to covering up my thoughts with someone else's. My older brother was right when he said a few years ago "my ipod changed my life." I actually don't run with anything in my ears very often, usually only for the runs over 50 minutes. But for those long runs, it has been useful. I listen to the Savage Love podcast, This American Life, and as of late, when I'm running at 6:30 am, the local NPR news station broadcast. When I get tired of other people's monotone, I listen to music.

It's when I'm not running that the boredom gets to me. The boredom I'm talking about is something between loneliness and transitioning between tasks after my brain can no longer be productive. On teaching evaluations I am often criticized for being overly brief, and my husband notes my impatience as well, although perhaps not as forcefully as my family members who are not really kidding when they call me the "little piranha." Deep down, it's my fear of rest, of taking time, and experiencing time, and being okay with not doing. Some people like yoga. I often get annoyed at yoga (it's too hot, this pose is taking too long, what's that smell, etc.), more so than if I wouldn't go, and so for me, what is meant to be mindful is sometimes actually counterproductive. But I do work on my impatience and my over-valuation of time in other ways. I like to take deep breaths, get massages, take long walks. But I suppose all that is still doing. And so goes my overthinking, circular argument, because I'm back to where I began: I run because it's during that time that I am most calm, relaxed, and happy. That I am, even though moving my body, "just be-ing." Perhaps not unlike a monk in perambulatory meditation.

It might not be running for you, but cycling, yoga, or walking that helps you to breathe deeper, smile inside, and connect with your self. Boredom is a disconnection of self from purpose. It's cliche now, but it boils down to mindfulness. Appreciate the slowness of a second (they can be slow in long races!) or the speed of a three-and-a half hour run, or the five minutes petting your cat or dog, or the two-second kiss with your spouse, or just sitting on your couch staring out the window.

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