Remember burnout? It was more common in pre-pandemic times, when we were all tied to our desks beavering away. Now, sadly, it’s mostly felt by key workers and those on the frontlines of public service. The definition:

“...a collection of issues from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy”

But now, with so many people stuck at home during 2020, there’s a phenomenon that’s spread more throughout society - boreout. Boreout is similar to burnout, but instead of being caused by overwork, it’s caused by the opposite - underwork.

Not having enough things to do, whether that’s from unemployment, furlough, lockdown, or a combination of these, can really take a toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.

If burnout happens when you’re chronically stressed over a long period of time, boreout happens when you’re chronically bored over a long period of time - and there are lots of people out there who don’t have much to do.

We like to recommend rest as a crucial part of living and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

But too much rest can turn into boredom. And too much of that can cause boreout. So how do you know when you’re resting appropriately and not putting yourself at risk of boreout?

It starts with understanding what boredom is and what it does to us.

Boredom isn’t nice when it’s forced upon us

Boredom is "an emotional and occasionally psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in their surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious.

It’s hard to define the moment you become officially bored, but it’s somewhere around the point when you sigh, put your phone down and start staring at the wall.

Boredom happens to us all at some points in life, and it’s pretty natural. When there’s a gap in our schedules, or if we’re stuck at home having done all our chores for the day, it can be common to feel a little bit bored. These are the times we can either just push through it, or turn it into a positive by being creative or active.

But when we’re bored due to circumstances outside our control, that’s when things start feeling unpleasant.

Claudia Hammond writes in The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age:

“Just as solitude becomes loneliness once it’s no longer optional, doing nothing is only restful when we choose it for ourselves. Enforced rest can result in excruciating boredom.”

She goes on to describe the nightmare scenario of ‘bed rest’, which was often prescribed to women in the 1800s as a cure for a range of maladies. It involved literally being confined to bed for weeks at a time, and of course wasn’t very popular with its victims. If you want to know how it might have felt, read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - a short novel that some might call a horror story. (Spoiler alert: it’s not a happy tale).

Humans have a natural tendency to want to do things. There’s a psychological theory called Self-Determination Theory that explains our innate psychological needs and the basis of our motivation to do things.

It suggests that we need three things to feel satisfied and healthy:

  • Competence - being able to overcome challenges and be useful
  • Autonomy - having control over our own lives and daily actions
  • Relatedness - interacting with and feeling connection to other people

When we’re deprived of those things, we’re just not happy. Being forced into boredom (or being forcibly bedridden) robs us of our autonomy. On the other hand, it’s difficult to feel bored when we’re with people who give us a sense of connectedness.

So the key to avoiding boreout is really to take control of those moments of boredom, appreciate them, and make use of them.

Turning boredom into something positive

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard identified a common way his contemporaries would attempt to stave off boredom. 'The Rotation Method' was a lifestyle that involved basically never doing the same thing twice, or at least constantly changing what you’re doing. It was practiced by many of the ‘hedonic aesthetes’ of 19th century European aristocracy, and resulted in most of them plunging into a state of existentialist despair because they never found anything truly satisfying.

That's not a lifestyle we want to aim for. Constant novelty will only distract you away from the things you really need.

Often, boredom comes about because we can’t properly identify what we’re actually in need of. We might be under-stimulated, true, but there’s other things that need taking care of we need to look at first. When you next feel bored, ask yourself:

  • Am I actually just tired?
  • Am I cranky because I haven’t eaten in a while?
  • Have I not got much energy because I’ve not exercised in ages?
  • Is it a long time since I had meaningful social interaction?

It’s also worth giving thought to your information diet. Are you consuming junk entertainment or nourishing yourself with stuff that really engages your concentration?

Finally, creativity has to be mentioned. There’s a reason you often have your best ideas in the shower, when you’re essentially locked in a wet cubicle of boredom. It’s because your mind can wander wherever it wants without distraction.

Sitting at home feeling bored only highlights your boredom more. So taking your boredom outside and giving your mind other tasks is a way to cure it.

Going for a walk, meditating, feeding ducks in a park, or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by can all stimulate away the boredom while also letting your mind be active. They can also give you the clarity to figure out what exactly it is that you’re craving. You’ll probably come back home with a plan on what to do next.

So the next time you feel bored, embrace it, and take control of it. Otherwise you might get bored of being bored - and that's when it becomes a problem.