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Have We Lost Our Tolerance For a Little Boredom?

February 4th, 2009 · 38 comments

Boredom MattersTired Student

Earlier this week I listened to a radio interview with New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. He was discussing his new book Food Matters, which describes practical advice for eating consciously and healthy. One quote, in particular, caught my attention. He mentioned that a factor behind American obesity is that “we’ve lost our tolerance for a little hunger.” As soon as the slightest pang arises in our stomach, we dash off to the nearest source of calories, which is often processed and terrible for us. Bittman notes that it’s okay to be a little hungry during the day.

(Having once lived a famished month in France, I know that other countries certainly concur with this concept.)

This idea got me thinking about a completely different topic: hard work. Inspired by Bittman’s formulation, I found myself asking: have American students lost their tolerance for a little boredom?


I should clarify: I’m not talking about big picture boredom with your life. I’m referring, instead, to the short term malaise that arises when we lack a ready source of novel stimulation — the pressure behind your eyes that builds twenty minutes into writing a paper or reading a tricky article.

The more I advise students, the more I notice a growing lack of tolerance for this sensation. At the first sign of boredom, we reach for e-mail or refresh a Facebook feed. A shockingly large amount of schoolwork gets done in a last minute frenzy, fueled by the adrenaline of an impending deadline, and proceeding in a confusing, inefficient slurry of short work bursts constantly interrupted by quick hits of boredom-busting stimulation.

This reality worries me.

Exceptional things — be it ideas, writing, mathematics, or art — require hard work. This, in turn, requires boring stretches during which you ignore a mind pleading with you to seek novel stimuli — “Maybe there’s an e-mail waiting that holds some exciting news! Go check!”.

This all brings me back to that unavoidable, meddlesome question fueling this entire line of inquiry: If our generation loses its tolerance for boredom, will we lose our ability to produce things of exceptional quality? Have we lost the art of serious self-education and self-inquiry? Have I lost these abilities?

These questions worry me, especially when, after just a few minutes of pondering their truth, I find myself tempted to see what’s on TV.

38 thoughts on “Have We Lost Our Tolerance For a Little Boredom?

  1. Benedikt says:

    Very interesting point, thanks.

  2. Michael says:

    I believe many people have lost their tolerance for boredom. It’s why we don’t read books anymore.

    I find it interesting that you conclude that it will destroy our ability to produce quality things. Now, that really scares me. Take a writer for example. If a writer gets board of writing, the book won’t be good. Many times it is the tedious tasks that really polish up the final product.

    Usually we think of spending time on Facebook as boredom, not the cause of boredom.

    I think if someone wants to fix this problem, they must practice rebuilding their tolerance. Perhaps spend an entire weekend just reading books. Unplug the internet, TV, and computer. Turn off the cell phone. Get a nice quiet place, with very no distractions.

  3. Eric says:

    I blame it on computers and the Internet, though we are also to blame for not being able to use electronics responsibly. People on the Internet have taken to skimming articles instead of perusing them, so we get a lot more information in a much shorter time than people in past generations did. I think that’s part of the problem. We’re so used to this skimming deal that when we sit down to read something — anything, we want the information, and we want it fast. Novels don’t facilitate quick skimming, so some can’t bear to read them slowly.

    Of course, I’m not talking about everyone, but it’s what I’ve seen more often than not. And that includes me.

  4. Albert says:

    I agree with your analysis. I find that working alone with a concept – no multitasking or distractions – allows me to push through the boredom and finish my work.

  5. Nicky says:

    This is also what has been bothering me for awhile. In fact, I find myself suffering from a sense of loneliness and emptiness when I am not doing anything. These emotions can be engulfing, so I automatically start reach for something to do, to make myself feel good about myself for being “productive”. what can I do? What are your points of view?

  6. Dr. Oliver DeMille has had a similar thought regarding America’s short attention span and how our freedom is tied to it.

    In my experience, stuff gets boring really quickly when there’s something else you’d rather be doing; and you’re doing whatever you’re currently doing because you “have to” do it. If we recall that the only thing we have to do is croak one day, then it’s easy to see that whatever we’re doing is being done b/c we want to do it. This paradigm shift moves you from the damsel in distress mode into King Leonidas mode.

    In the book Outliers, Gladwell cites a study that suggests that American students on average spend about 30 seconds to 3 minutes on a math problem before “giving up.” Their Asian counterparts spend far more time on a math problem before giving up. Ergo, Asians tend to fair better on math exams. Now, Asians are surrounded by just as much electronics/technology (if not more in some cases) as Americans. It’s not about electronics/technology so much as it’s about a culture of discipline. That all said, I’m still confident that America will continue to produce work of exceptional quality for the foreseeable future.

  7. Liz says:

    This is scary because it rings so true.

    The only hack I have to counter this tendency in myself is to keep a “fun” project on the go (like making figures and slides for a distant talk) that I switch to for a little while when reading a paper is putting me to sleep. Better powerpoint than facebook.

  8. Jonas Park says:

    A very good observation. I think this is one of the countless manifestations of our conditioned tendency to attack the symptoms, not the cure. It’s like when you’re driving and your oil gauge tells you that you’re out of gas, instead of filling up the tank, you shove your hand into the dashboard and push around the needle so that it points at “Full.” Likewise when we encounter frustrations with schoolwork we instinctively think the frustration is something intrinsic to the work itself, when it fact it simply means our threshold for boredom has been exceeded. The former interpretation calls for getting away from the work; the latter realization behooves you to stick with whatever you’re doing until you have raised your threshold. Until you realize that the reward from internal change is far more substantial than external manipulation, you will repeat the same vicious cycle.

  9. maureen says:

    I see separate issues here. It’s one thing not to tolerate boredom, it’s another to be easily distracted and lack focus.
    Personally, I don’t tolerate boredom well. My mind has to be engaged in solving a problem or thinking through what I just read. The other issue is with the Internet and TV. As others have mentioned, both are very distracting and lead to general short attention spans. Related read I recently found was Nicholas Carr’s piece, “Is Google Making us Stupid
    I think self discipline and realistic planning are key to sticking to designed plans and assigned tasks. Your book talks about keeping track of your assignments, etc (full capture) but I lack self discipline to carry out the work and studying needed to execute though I am working to improve and take a lot of your study tips that have helped a lot. Thanks!

  10. SalsHome says:

    I don’t call it boredom – this precious moment with deliciously nothing to do. Glorious. Recharge.
    Soon, I’ll on some good music and get back to the grindstone.
    Music helps me to focus.

  11. Linh Bui says:

    Your conclusion is precisely the one I came up with a while ago! I noticed too that our age isn’t seeing much in the way of stunning individual achievement. Independently of bad thinking habits, it may be due to the scope and complexity of information required to complete a project today compared to 200 years ago, therefore requiring much more teamwork. Study habit-wise, I think the reason this is happening is new forms of entertainment (new to, say, Jefferson and Franklin at least) that require much less thinking are now way more available than thinking-intensive distractions aka good ol’ books. Given the choice, I can’t imagine the average person would go out of his way to create extra thinking work for himself. I don’t know about Google, but YouTube is indeed making us more stupid. Also, education is no longer the domain of the talented and privileged. To borrow a cliche’, what we gain in breadth we sacrifice in depth.

    I’d come up with more, better-organized thoughts, but I have to be somewhere right now. Ironic…

  12. Scott Young says:

    Interesting argument, Cal. I’d agree on a short-term basis: people switch to the slightly-more-stimulating sources of television and internet rather than the areas of life that require longer input for rewards.

    However, in the long-term, I’d say people tolerate far too much boredom. Instead of doing truly interesting, challenging, frightening, worthwhile things, people invest it in activities that just barely eclipse the minimum threshold for mental activity.

    I would say that instead of losing a tolerance for boredom (which can be defined as the lack of intellectual stimulus), your argument would be better put that people don’t have tolerance for frustration/difficulty. The reason a math problem is boring is often because it’s frustratingly difficult, not because it lacks mental stimulus. And if math problems truly bore you (provide no stimulus) then perhaps you should switch to a discipline that interests you.

    As far as the argument this is a recent, cultural change, I’m a believer that our need for additional stimulus has made us seek more challenge/novelty in our lives, encouraging taking on more mentally stimulating tasks. The growth of more complex forms of media is an indication of this(compare an early silent film to Memento, or Pong to Command and Conquer).

    Interesting thoughts!
    -Scott

  13. zfnd says:

    Agreed. I usually scan a post and see if it’s longer than a page before I read it :/

    …unless of course it’s study hacks 😛

    The lack of boredom is more and more prevalent with incoming freshman.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    Great comments. I’ve put some random thoughts below…

    I think if someone wants to fix this problem, they must practice rebuilding their tolerance.

    I definitely practice this. In my fields, math and writing, the tolerance is crucial to any sort of success!

    These emotions can be engulfing, so I automatically start reach for something to do, to make myself feel good about myself for being “productive”. what can I do?

    It sounds like the reaching for some productive is a quick fix to a deeper underlying problem. You should talk to someone at your school about it. These counselors are pros!

    and you’re doing whatever you’re currently doing because you “have to” do it.

    I’ve written about some of these intrinsic motivation issues in my previous articles on willpower. It’s true that if the big picture direction of your student life is not intrinsically motivated (i.e., choosing a major to satisfy your parents or overloading your schedule to try to validate your talent) then you might develop deep procrastination, which is the first step toward a burnout. On the short term scale, however, there is always stuff you’d rather be doing than school work — school work is hard and boring — but you still have to do it.

    I see separate issues here. It’s one thing not to tolerate boredom, it’s another to be easily distracted and lack focus.

    The semantics are tricky.

    I would say that instead of losing a tolerance for boredom (which can be defined as the lack of intellectual stimulus), your argument would be better put that people don’t have tolerance for frustration/difficulty.

    That’s a good way of putting it.

    The reason a math problem is boring is often because it’s frustratingly difficult, not because it lacks mental stimulus. And if math problems truly bore you (provide no stimulus) then perhaps you should switch to a discipline that interests you.

    This might just be a wording issue (e.g., differing definitions of boredom), but it’s definitely the case that a lot of the short term work in a discipline you love can be really boring. Writing, for example, is really boring (by my definition.) Writing research papers is really boring. Etc.

  15. Suzie Bee says:

    I’m not sure if it’s exactly boredom that’s causing the problem. I’d say a lack of self-discipline and an unwillingness to put in work without immediately seeing results are bigger factors in the lack of achievement in our generation.

    I get bored, but not in the “Oh, this homework is so boring, I’m going to go on Facebook now” kind of way. What really hits me is similar to your idea of deep procrastination – deep boredom. I like to be engaged in fulfilling tasks which have a tangible output/goal. It’s one of the reasons I like shop work but hate office work. People think I do too much but I’m not stressed by it at all. None of it feels like work. (NB: I’m currently rehearsing a play, making a dress for a school fashion show, working Saturdays in Oxfam, learning to drive, writing a play, trying to read more about Far Eastern culture AND doing four A levels. I’m going to start ballet classes soon, too.) If I’m not busy like that, deep boredom sets in and I become stressed and fretful because everything seems to pointless.

    I can cope well with day-to-day boredom, because I’m the kind of person that just sits down and gets on with things. It’s deep boredom that I can’t stand.

  16. phil says:

    Facebook and television contribute to a long-term acceptance of boredom, and a short-term relief from boredom. Think about it–in the short-run, Facebook provides stimulation and so we escape boring activities like math, etc. In the long-run, a constant routine of Facebook and television increases boredom and complacency–right now, think about watching television for twenty minutes, and then think about watching it for six hours. The first idea seems “interesting, relaxing” while the second seems boring.

    Scott, Cal, both of your points can be resolved this way…if we give up something like television, we will avoid this short-term addiction to stimulation. In the long-run, when we get used to short-term boredom, we will realize when we are completely bored with “big picture” stuff since we don’t have the television to escape.

  17. arj says:

    Boredom
    ARJ
    Kathmandu Post DEC 22 2006
    When the cable TV does not work, there is the computer to play with at least for sometime. And if the lights are out, TV and computers no longer remain an option. Then what about tuning in to any of the many twenty four- seven FM stations or lending your ear to your MP3 player or an ipod? There are many things to keep you away for boredom. So, when was the last time you got bored?
    Many people have a notion that boredom suppresses the intellect. They think that one should engage the mind in to keep it always focused. The cerebral hemisphere should always be in search of information, in one form or the other.
    But I am of the opinion that a bored mind is an innovator’s workshop. When I am bored, new ideas come to me. My brain starts galloping like a race horse. It begins to think of new things to do. My boredom led me to my new found interest in writing. When I am bored my poetic side illuminates my cerebrum and the writer in me awakens. It is my boredom that made me fond of nature. When I have nothing to do, I look up to the sky and find inspiration in those creamy clouds and the mighty sun. When I am bored I get a chance to look within me and evaluate myself. I get an opportunity to contemplate over my role models, dreams and how I am going to achieve it.
    So, boredom is not that bad after all! A bored Isaac Newton taking a siesta under an apple tree, his bored mind aided him to discovered something that they call gravity, which by the way is one of the most important physical phenomena in the universe. When we get bored we are in constant search for something that will stimulate us. If we direct this boredom towards creativity and innovation, we can find things that will stimulate our mind. Boredom leads us to realize how different we are form others and how it makes us special.
    But in this age information and electronic media, we are so attuned in TV, radio, computer and the internet, that we have forgotten the good old days when people used to gratify themselves in the hours of boredom in the storehouse of feelings and emotions. We are so accustomed to this “media- hyped” world that we are often involved in pointing out the weakness of rush hour traffic, political parties and anything to everything. But ironically, we have forgotten the self that is inside us.
    So the next time you have nothing to do, seize the momento to get in touch with yourself and who knows? An apple just might fall off the tree!

  18. qwerty says:

    Stimulus Junkies!

  19. Alvin says:

    Hey, I found this article interesting and thought I’d share it.

    Yeah, the article is primarily about a UK/Commonwealth qualification but

    Ali also achieved a top score in the U.S. admissions test and was accepted by most Ivy League institutions, including Harvard and Yale.

    I guess extracurriculars aren’t absolutely necessary if you have world record setting grades? Although in Ali’s case, I think most of his subjects are extracurricular!

    I don’t think he even feels the “boredom” described above although possibly his rapid 10 minute subject switching helps alleviate that greatly.

  20. Mary says:

    I’m a mom (with a college degree and with kids in college) with a comment and a question.

    When I first found this blog, I thought – wow! there is so much here that I wish I had known as a college student. There is some really great stuff here – things I can use now too as a software developer and systems person.

    But I have to tell you, I watched Apollo 13 last night and wondered if those crazy all-nighters may have prepared the different team members for the unique challenges they faced getting that ship back to earth.

    Do you have thoughts or comments about that? My thought was that maybe one should go through college much as you describe – on purpose, working smarter, really learning the material, etc. But perhaps certain team seminars or mini classes could be made available for people who will have to work in a real crunch mode. I couldn’t work like that all the time – I’d go nuts!

  21. Just sitting, and being bored is really important I guess.
    When you just sit, and daydream, our mind is archiving things. If we don’t do it anymore, but be busy all the time, our mind doesn’t get the time to process all the data.
    So, just lean back for a while, be bored. Just do it.

  22. RT Wolf says:

    Whoa, whoa. I love the point you’re making, but to jump to the idea that our “generation” hasn’t accomplished nearly as much seems to be a result of fallacies rather than truth.

    In any case, the point you’re making is very important, more important than you may realize. In psychological circles what you’re talking about is called Delayed Gratification or Deferred Gratification and different people have it in different amounts. The ones that can delay gratification the most (even at the age of 4) have greater success later in life. Better grades, more income, etc.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deferred_gratification

    Nicky, as Cal Newport says, you’ve got deeper issues there that you wanna spend some time looking into. It will be a source of tremendous personal growth and accomplishment for you. At least, it was for me. Check in with a counsellor and/or try journalling about it. IE write down teh question at the top, “why do I feel lonely if I’m not constantly doing something?” and then relax your mind a bit and let the other parts of you answer for a bit. One solution may just be that you’re just not doing what you deeply feel you “should” be or really want to be. Maybe you want to be an accountant but you’re in engineering, maybe a muscian but you’re in accounting.

    If I must fill all my day with some sort of work fidget or attempt to constantly stimulate myself, I know there’s something inside me that I’m not paying attention to and that it’s hard to. Look at it. Else it’ll grow and consume you, and you wont’ be the person you want to be or living the life you want to be.

  23. RT Wolf says:

    That ability to delay stimulation and handle a little bit of boredom is correlated with higher SAT scores, better income and being more emotionally stable and dependable. An important study found that even in four year olds, those that could resist taking eating a marshmellow immediately, were more successful in the above criteria 20 years later. This phenomenon is called Delay of Gratification and you can read about it here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deferred_gratification

    Unfortunately, success seems to involve doing things you don’t necessarily want to do. The difference between successful and unsuccessful, then, seems to have a little bit to do with doing the things you don’t want to do.

    I realize I buried the lead, so let’s try again (i’m trying to get better at writing in an interesting manner).

  24. Devonna Frazier says:

    Dangerous Ideas
    Wednesday,February 18th 2009
    Having a high tolerance for boredom:
    There are several reasons why people think Americans have lost their tolerance for boredom.
    First of all, It is not the lost of tolerance for boredom that we should address,it is the lack of enjoying life, exercising, fixing problems and being assertive in today’s society.
    Second, It isn’t that we seek to induldge ourselves with peculiar things,we tend to find exceptional circumstances to draw from.

  25. If it’s boring, you should be doing something else with your life…

  26. kk says:

    Nice Point. Which is why I atleast try and spend 1 hour every day on physical exercise. That is probably the only “pure” focussed work time I have in a day. 🙂

  27. Al Daly says:

    OR WILL IT IMPROOV HOW WE QUALTY ARE ART ?>?

  28. Plavixo says:

    I really agree that there is a difference between the state of being bored because there is nothing to do, and being bored by revision for a subject that doesn’t interest you and is difficult to boot (my current situation exactly! Exam tomorrow and I’m commenting on blogs…)

    I’m really bored when revising certain modules – how does one go about improving their tolerance for boredom? Being able to keep my brain focussed on the topic, and not reaching the bottom of the page and then finding that I recall nothing of what I have read would be a real boon!

    Thank you!
    P

  29. Study Hacks says:

    I’m really bored when revising certain modules – how does one go about improving their tolerance for boredom?

    Most of it is practice. You go to quiet places. You clearly identify the work you’re going to do, and you power through. If it’s not too much, you’re mind will begin to recognize that it’s not too terrible. You’re ability will grow. But you have to give yourself every advantage. This means smart, efficient, specific study plans; realistic schedules; quiet, isolated locations for work.

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  31. Woody Stodden says:

    This article reminds me of a section from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig talks about craftsmanship, and specifically, the idea of gumption.

    He discusses what he calls “gumption traps”, which are things that seem to absorb your motivation to take your time and get things right, which is the whole idea of gumption in the first place.

    There are several comments about how this whole problem is fueled by the internet, but I don’t think that’s true. If Pirsig wrote about the problem in the 70s, I think it’s safe to say that the internet didn’t cause this. I think it’s human nature. We want things to be easy, and to accomplish things quickly, so we can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

    There is a zen to the art of mastering anything. In our culture, though, we tend to think only about the physical steps required to accomplish a task. We rarely think about the mentality that goes along with craftmanship and mastery, however.

    That mentality is based on an attention to detail, and connection to the work.

    Pirsig touches on all these bases and much more in his book. Probably many people reading this blog have already read it, but if not, I’d recommend it. The book can be read on many levels, but there’s a lot of wisdom mixed in.

  32. Madhu says:

    Scott Adams talks about the same in this WSJ article
    Every time I find myself bored, I think about what he said and his advices.Now on, I have two articles to think about.

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