Endowed with a hyperactive nature, I am apprehensive of and feel defeated by moments of inactivity, as they lead me into one of the states of mind I mostly dread: boredom. That time when I don’t know what to do with myself. My over-trained mind and body don’t like to stand still, as they feel like they are being the captive of nothingness.
Regardless of how hard I sometimes try to avoid these moments of inactivity, I do sometimes find myself trapped in them. All of these moments of captivity are externally induced: for example, on the treadmill when I don’t feel like running, at the cinema watching a movie that doesn’t live up to my expectations, at a concert listening to an artist whose music I don’t appreciate, at a party or social gathering where I find myself surrounded by people with whom I don’t share common interests, in a meeting where I find that the topic of the conversation is not relevant to me, or whilst doing a job that my mind is not engaged in.
In such painful moments of forced inactivity, my mind seeks one of the three forms of escape. The first one is a state of comforting numbness into which my mind comfortably succumbs into. It’s a state of inactivity in which I yield, letting my mind wander freely. The second form of escape is a restless state of inactivity, whereby even though I find myself trapped in not doing anything, I am keen for this time period to end, so I end up checking on the lapsed time to gauge how much more I will have to bear with this. Whilst this gives me a sense of the progress made towards getting myself out of this state, inevitably, this makes time go slower. This is regretful, considering how much I appreciate this invaluable resource when I am allowed to pursue my own interests. The third form of escape is a quest for instant gratification that my mind restlessly seeks, in the hope that it will keep me going through the dull of a situation or the non-doing of things. Although more active, this state is equally unproductive, as it leads to over-indulgence.
In order to prevent such circumstances, I have come up with strategies to allow me to make the most of this dead time. I will write them in the second person, so they feel like personal commandments. And I hope they come in useful to you, too, my dear reader, should you find yourself trapped in an externally-induced time of idleness.
1. Keep thinking
Even if you find your time caged, no one can take your brain’s activity away from you. So, appreciate the time you have to immerse into any thoughts that you may have tried to put to rest before then. Make plans as to what you will be doing once you will be released from the inactivity confinement. Daydream of things you would like to achieve, how you’d like to change your life for the better, or what you would like to do next or the person you would like to become in the future. Reflect on things past – how far you’ve become from where you were this time last year, things you could have done better along the way. Or, treat it as an exercise of mindfulness and meditation. Let the mind wander – you might be surprised by what it will come back with.
Pursue your interests mentally, but be careful not to get too mentally absorbed in them as, the strategy may backfire. You may lose the minimal attention you were paying to the situation you were in and the last thing you want is for those around you to notice your mental escape to the freedom of your thoughts.
If you have access to pen and paper or a computer (i.e. while stuck in an unproductive meeting), take the opportunity to write things down. It can be anything: to do lists, plans, diary entries, your own artistic creations. Just write, it’s a good exercise for the brain and it will keep you mentally engaged. Writing is a great therapy for the mind, as it will help to de-clutter and cleanse your mind.
Always be prepared to face several moments of inactivity at some point during the day, by arming yourself with plenty of reading material to keep your mind occupied. Use it whenever you can: when stuck in the car (as a passenger), or in an unproductive meeting, at the cinema before the movie starts, while traveling and even at a social gathering if the situation allows or opportunity arises (e.g. if you come across a magazine or any reading material at a boring house party or social gathering & you can subtly glance over it without coming across as inappropriate). However, make it discreet – the easiest way to do this is by having reading material saved on your smartphone (i.e. in a Dropbox account that you can access offline), or simply by searching your favourite sites on your phone.
Act interested. Get into the role. This is in contrasts to the first tactic in which you mentally distance yourself from the situation in order to pursue your own chain of thoughts. If you find it difficult to think in these moments, force yourself to act out a participating role in the situation when the opportunity arises. This will fuel you with energy, which will help you alleviate the bleak onset of boredom. Step into the conversation if you’re in a meeting or a social gathering, even if you aren’t interested in the subject matter. Project a real interest in the people you are surrounded by and their opinions, try to connect with them. Sing along at a concert if you happen to know the lyrics of an artist you don’t like (long shot here). Try to become captivated by the scene of the movie that you are stuck watching in the cinema, pretend in your mind that you are in those scenes, and try to experience the feelings that the movie is trying to convey to you. Acting the way you want to feel, will make you feel that way.
Or, take the extreme opposite and pretend in your mind that you are in a totally different situation to the one where you are then. Transpose your mind into the setting of a rocking party or a social gathering with really good company, a fun night out, a really good movie at the cinema that you’ve always wanted to watch, a highly productive meeting with the nicest colleagues where they are all listening to your brilliant ideas.
Either way, treat this like a test or experiment of your acting skills. If you turn out to be a good actor, you will be amazed by the turn your thoughts and feelings take while undertaking this acting role. If you are not yet a good actor, keep practicing and learn to master the craft. Over time you will become one. It’s amazing what the human mind can achieve if the wheels are set in motion to allow it to create and escape.
In line with the above strategy of acting out how you would want to feel, but more applicable to situations of absolute inactivity confinement (boring conferences, dinners, or artistic entertainment where you are sat in a dark room with no access to technology, pen & paper, social interaction) is the strategy of play. Play with your hands, give yourself a little hand massage to give your nervous terminations a little boost and through them maintain your brain engaged.
6. Practice a new language
In order to counteract "mental paralysis", when you are trapped in so called "physical paralysis", you can always try to remember foreign words from the language you are trying to master. Keep your mind engaged by leading it to think how it would translate various thoughts and phrases in a foreign language. Also, if you have access to a smartphone with internet and it's appropriate to use it in the situation you are in, then download the Duolingo app and access it via your smartphone to learn a foreign language. In this way, you can pass off as catching up wit your emails when in fact you are brushing up on your Spanish.
Regardless of how you choose to pass this time, remember that times goes a lot quicker when your mind and/or body are actively engaged. The most important thing is that you make the most of these moments. Slow or fast, time passes anyway, and it’s how you spend it that matters the most in the overall quality of each day. Get creative and make each moment count, don’t waste it. You will find it easier to maintain focus in such moments of inactivity, and therefore you will probably be more productive than when you have complete freedom over your time. This is because your brain, even if vaguely engaged, will be trying to maximize the limited opportunities it has to be active and, if encouraged enough, it may even try to compensate for the potential loss of time.
So, rather than letting boredom settle in, try and do something useful or interesting that brings you a bit more joy, rather than standing still watching time go by. In this way, at the end of each day when you reflect back on how the day went and what you achieved throughout, rather than finding excuses for the chunks of wasted time, you will be able to proudly say to yourself: I used that time to…