Solving Boredom Without Throwing Money at the Problem

“I’m bored.”

As a parent, those are two of the most frustrating words that I hear from my children. With an absolute abundance of options available to them and amounts of free time that I’m often jealous of, I can scarcely believe that they’re bored.

I also used to get very frustrated with my friends in college and in my professional life if they would ever suggest being bored. How could they possibly be bored?

Part of the problem, of course, is that boredom is something that’s almost alien to me. My parents did a tremendous job of equipping me with personal skills that enable me to basically never feel bored with life. I always feel like I have something worthwhile to do, and I never feel dissatisfied with the options before me. I view this as one of my personal strengths, actually.

When I look at how my children and how my old friends used to instinctively approach the problem of boredom, I see some of the same patterns. One of the biggest patterns that I see is the underlying idea that throwing money at the problem is going to solve it, that buying something new or paying for an experience is the best solution to alleviate boredom.

Money might solve some problems, but it doesn’t solve boredom over anything more than the shortest of timeframes. Throwing money at boredom is like throwing a bunch of sand into a stream. It might temporarily slow or stop things, but it doesn’t do anything to address the problem in any lasting way and soon the boredom will be back, flowing almost exactly as before.

To put it simply, the best way to solve the boredom problem without throwing your money away is to have a toolbox of techniques and patterns inside your head to deal with boredom. Most of the solutions to boredom that actually work don’t involve spending any money at all; they just involve a wise approach. Without those techniques, boredom can be an endless sinkhole of money.

Right now, I’m working on teaching my kids how to master these techniques on their own, so it’s a good time to summarize what boredom actually is and what you can do to stop it and even prevent it from happening.

Let’s start by talking about the five different types of boredom. Wait… you didn’t know there were five types? Let’s dig in.

Indifferent Boredom

From the article above:

“People with indifferent boredom appear relaxed, calm, and withdrawn. Think of it as a stoner boredom of sorts (it’s so indifferent that even its definition is barebones).”

This is probably the most cheerful form of boredom. I like to think of it as the “staring off into space” kind of boredom, where you’re not feeling negative, just kind of drawn into your own thoughts because nothing in the external world is exciting you. It’s the kind of boredom that fills a bit of time when something more interesting may happen soon, or when there’s a lull in a pleasant conversation.

In fact, if there’s one type of boredom that’s actually constructive and useful, it’s this one. It’s often this state of “staring off into space” indifferent boredom that generates ideas if you leave yourself open to them. It’s also the type that’s least likely to directly lead to alleviation in the form of spending money because it’s pleasant and introspective and usually doesn’t last too long.

So, we’ll just skip past daydreaming in a pleasant way and move on to the second type.

Apathetic Boredom

Again, from the article above:

“The most recent paper, which appears in Motivation and Emotion, outlines this type of boredom, discovered this year. Goetz and his colleagues found that university and high school students experienced a boredom that seems a lot like helplessness (and could contribute to depression): At least 36 percent of the high school students in the survey reported it. People who have this kind of ennui show little arousal and a lot of aversion.”

In other words, imagine a high schooler stuck in a boring class that they don’t strictly hate but that they just don’t find engaging, and they’re sitting there just waiting for the minutes to pass. They don’t want to engage and the teacher basically won’t be able to make them engage, but rather than raging against the situation, they just feel like this is all a hopeless part of their life and they have to go along with it.

This is the kind of boredom you get when you’re swept up into a situation where you feel like you have no control and you’re stuck in a place you don’t want to be by forces outside your control. Think of a doctor’s office or a hospital bed.

People often turn to their smartphones in states like this, and I find that such situations often end up resulting in impulsive e-commerce spending. You’ll feel kind of stuck, so you’ll turn to your phone or computer and find yourself browsing aimlessly, which makes you very prone to ads and nudging and impulsive spending.

Here are two tactics to deal with apathetic boredom – times when you’re disengaged and bored with the situation you find yourself in but feel that you don’t have options.

Get introspective and make a list. Usually, you’re stuck in a situation that you can’t leave, but you’re feeling relatively calm about things. That’s a perfect time to turn your thoughts inward, reflect on your life, and what you can do to change it.

What I’ll often do in these situations is take out a notebook and make a to-do list of some kind. I’ll list tasks I need to take care of or things I want to change about myself or things I’m curious about or things I want to do when my situation changes. I’ll make a list of friends I want to contact or books I want to read.

What I find is that making such a list that draws from my own internal world does one of two things: it either awakens a desire to do something (and I’ll head off and do it as soon as possible) or it converts apathetic boredom into the relatively better indifferent boredom (where I’m kind of staring off into space and letting my subconscious mind work).

In either case, I usually wind up with a list of ideas I want to engage with.

Pick out a detail and focus in on it. Another strategy I use in situations where apathetic boredom peeks out is that I pick something in the environment I’m in and focus in on it. Maybe I’ll listen in on someone else’s conversation. Maybe I’ll try to find that bird I can hear whistling in the tree outside. Maybe I’ll try to figure out the tile pattern on the floor.

I find this works pretty well in situations like waiting rooms where I recognize that eventually I will be pulled from this state of apathetic boredom.

Just as with the first tactic, part of the value of this tactic is that it keeps me away from my smartphone and away from avenues where I might spend money out of boredom. This tactic nudges me to put my focus on the environment around me rather than within me, and it works pretty well for the kind of short periods where this often shows up.

It’s worth nothing that if you find yourself feeling this kind of boredom a lot, particularly in situations where you otherwise have the freedom to do other things, you may be suffering from depression or a similar psychological ailment, and discussing this with your doctor might be a wise step. This type of boredom has a lot of crossover with melancholy and depression, so it’s good to make sure that this is really just boredom and not something deeper.

Calibrating Boredom

Again, from the article:

“People with calibrating boredom find that their thoughts wander and they want do something that differs from what they’re currently doing. But they’re not exactly sure what or how they might go about it. This state occurs when people perform repetitive tasks and want to reduce this boredom, but generally seem unsure of what to do.”

This often happens when you’re doing dull and repetitive tasks that you’d rather not be doing, the type of tasks where your mind isn’t really engaged in it but you need to get it done anyway. You’re doing something, but you don’t really like that something and would really rather being doing something else but you don’t know what that is.

This type of boredom – and the next one, too, actually – often leads to splurging, particularly right after you escape from this type of boredom. People will go out and find a “treat” for themselves as a reward for getting through this state. This is why people might go out for a drink after work, or buy themselves something after work.

Here are two great ways to handle this type of boredom.

Reflect on the benefits of what you’re doing. When you’re stuck with a task that’s not particularly engaging, you can begin to ask yourself why you’re even here to begin with. Answer that question seriously. Why are you here? What benefits are you getting from doing that task?

Perhaps you’re getting paid for this task. That’s a real reward. It puts food on the table for you and ensures that those you care about have what they need in life. Maybe you’re doing this task to help someone out. That’s also a real reward – you’re making life better for someone or something you care about.

Dig deep into that question. Why are you doing this and what are the real benefits of doing this? Focus your mind on that question and come up with lots of real answers.

For me, this type of approach almost always quenches my feelings of wanting to do something else and almost completely eliminates a sense of needing a “reward” afterwards. I feel better about the work and I want to do it well.

I think this approach is a lot like gratitude journaling. It creates a sense of gratitude and contentment about whatever challenges life hands you, causing you to reflect on the situations of your life with a “glass half full” approach rather than a “glass half empty” approach.

Deliberately focus on the task at hand. Still, even if you have the best intentions, you might find that you’re not engaged fully with your task. If you understand why you’re doing this and the reasons for doing this task well, then the next step is to figure out how to do this task as efficiently and productively as possible, and you get there by deliberately focusing on the task at hand.

I do this when gardening, for example. I need to do a lot of weeding and I might not really want to do it. I’d rather be doing something else. By thinking first abut why I’m actually gardening – the high quality and low cost food for my family, the wonderful visual addition to my home, and so on – I become more engaged in why I’m doing the task, but the task itself isn’t still fully engaging. At that point, I start focusing very deliberately on the task, making sure I’m doing each little bit to the maximum of my ability and using a process that’s going to result in the best outcome at the fastest rate.

I’ll step back and look at my overall process, even while I’m weeding. I’ll consider whether there are ways to make this process move faster, or else to produce better results in the same amount of time. I’ll focus on the actual practice of weeding, considering the motions I’m using and slowly speeding up that motion. The goal is to do the best job of weeding possible in the least amount of time, drawing on the fuel of motivation and contentment that I’ve built up so that I do the job well now and I’m more efficient at it next time.

Reactant Boredom

From the article:

“This boredom is the worst—people experiencing this tedium are highly aroused and have a lot of negative emotions. They’re also restless and aggressive. People experiencing reactant boredom really want to leave their dull situations and flee from the people they blame for it, including their teachers, bosses, or parents. They waste their time thinking of situations they’d rather be in that seem more valuable than their current circumstances.”

Reactant boredom is the worst kind of boredom. It’s the kind of boredom that pops up when you’re stuck in a situation you actively dislike, you’re not engaged with the situation, and you want out. Think about a poisonous office environment, close quarters on a long ride with someone you don’t like, and other such situations where you’re stuck in a negative situation without anything positive to be engaged with.

This type of boredom often results in significant splurging when you have the opportunity and can sometimes pair up with rather destructive behavior. Think of the person who hates their job so much that they get utterly plastered on nights and weekends, or the person so miserable in their marriage that they drown themselves in drugs and alcohol.

If you find yourself regularly experiencing this kind of boredom, where you’re stuck in situations where you don’t have anything grabbing you other than complete dissatisfaction with your current situation, here are two things to consider.

Develop a realistic escape plan in detail. Rather than just fuming and daydreaming about a better life, step back and ask yourself what you can do to get yourself out of this situation permanently. What can you do in your life to ensure that you never wind up here again? How can you make that change happen as quickly and as successfully as possible?

For many people, this might take the form of planning an actual job change or a career change or some kind of transfer. It might involve something like moving or changing roommates. It might involve a divorce.

Whatever that change is, however hard it is, it’s better than a stew of negative feelings of boredom and resentment at large parts of your life. Take your plan, iron it out, then start filling your time outside of that situation to make it a reality. Plan out your job switch. Plan out your career switch. Plan out your divorce. Then, make it happen.

Identify the biggest single difficulty and consider tangible steps you can take to fix that problem. It may be that the entire situation isn’t bad, but just one element or two is poisoning the entire well. This happened to me for a while – I had a coworker who was singlehandedly poisoning our entire office with atrocious behavior and there were times when I nearly sunk into reactant boredom with daydreams of escape.

Instead, I focused not on escaping the situation, but on a detailed plan to minimize the impact this coworker could have on the rest of my workplace. My solution wound up being centered around moving forward on project plans completely without this person’s input, as her input was almost entirely negative. This coworker was gradually cut out of the creative process and the project moved forward without her, leaving her further and further behind until project reviews made it abundantly clear that this coworker was a net hindrance for the project. This plan, and the execution of it, built a deep bond between everyone that remained after this coworker left us.

Rather than being frustrated and bored, I channeled those emotions into a real tangible plan for success and never looked back.

Searching Boredom

This is the final flavor of boredom:

“Those experiencing searching boredom experience negative feelings and a creeping, disagreeable restlessness. They look for ways out by focusing on more interesting activities.”

This is the type of boredom you have where you don’t necessarily hate your current situation, but you feel that it’s not engaging you enough and that the grass must be greener elsewhere. You’re looking outward for something to take you away from the sense of disengagement you have with whatever you’re doing.

You don’t hate what you’re doing. You just feel that there must be something more.

This often leads to a lot of “dabbling” behavior, where people try lots of new experiences and are very easy influenced to try new things. That type of “dabbling” can end up being incredibly expensive.

Here are two ways to respond to searching boredom without going broke.

Intentionally seek out free things to do in your area. As you seek out new things to dabble in, intentionally look for things that are free or low cost. Make that part of your search criteria.

For example, rather than looking for stuff to buy that provides an engaging activity, look to borrow stuff. Go to the library and borrow some books or movies. Borrow a game from a friend and play it.

Another approach is to look for free resources and activities in the community. Check out what kinds of things are on your community’s website and calendar. See what kinds of meetings are at the library. Check out Meetup and see what kinds of events are going on. If you don’t know what something is, go to it and see what it’s about – at worst, you burn an hour or two and discover what something is and that it’s not for you, and it didn’t cost you anything.

Dig through your closet and storage areas for projects that are left unfinished that you forgot about. Invite some friends to go somewhere to do something active, like playing soccer at the park or going on a hike. Go do some volunteer work.

All of those things are free. Filter them down to things that you’re actually interested in doing. Out of that multitude of options, there’s surely a few.

Change up some of your daily routines. Another approach is to look at your daily routines and simply shake them up a little bit, not in a way that costs more money, but in a way that’s different and fresh. Try going to the gym in the morning instead of after work. Make some cold brew coffee in the fridge and drink it at home while reading a book for fifteen minutes instead of going to Starbucks. Talk to your boss about moving your workspace around, or shifting your working hours a little, or telecommuting one day a week.

Just find a bunch of little ways to change around your ordinary routine so that it feels a little less ordinary. You might just find that it breathes new life into something that feels very boring and you have much less desire to seek out different pastures.

Final Thoughts

Boredom is actually a set of varied emotional states that can sometimes be gentle and even somewhat productive, but can often be manipulated into situations where we’re highly emotionally primed to spend money without really considering it.

Having some tools to battle boredom in its various flavors is a great way to make sure that we don’t find ourselves falling into those traps.

If you’ve noticed yourself spending money or doing things simply because there wasn’t any other compelling option, or you’re responding to parts of your life that feel “empty” by “splurging” as a reward, it’s likely boredom is the culprit, and these tactics can help you get past it.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.