Take the Time to be Bored

Recently, a professor of mine spoke to my class about the passage of time. It was a small aside in a two-hour lecture, but it had such a great impact on the rest of my day that I had to share it with an audience.

    The passage of time is not equal for every minute in our lives. Of course, that sounds ridiculous; each minute has sixty seconds, no more, no less! But, a minute of waiting for the caf doors to open for lunch is a lot longer than a minute spent trying to catch up with a friend. We don’t really notice these differences until time seems to slow down and we can actually look around to ground ourselves in the present. 

When we were young, time moved so quickly because we are always so excited to be doing even the most mundane tasks. Our day disappeared with a snap of our tiny little fingers. Now that we are older, we can realize the importance of certain things and the irrelevance of others. Many things just aren’t as exciting anymore, and we find the minutes dragging by as our bored, tired eyes watch the clock tick slowly, slowly towards the end of class. Boredom eventually leads to a wandering mind that starts asking all sorts of existential questions: Who am I really? What purpose do I have at this school? Am I in the right major? What is the meaning of life? We may or may not realize the answers to these questions, but boredom is essential to prodding our curiosity in the first place.

    For instance, last year during the fall semester, I was about 2,000 miles away in Wisconsin, playing volleyball, overloading on credits, and participating in research outside of the three labs I was already actively involved in. My sleep cycle was destroyed, I never ate lunch, the baristas became my good friends, and my chemistry professor practically became my best friend. The only time I had to myself was a morning run...when I could squeeze one in. 

After finals ended on Wednesday afternoon, I had to wait two days in limbo for a flight out of the bitterly cold Milwaukee airport. I was bored. So, I did what I always do when I’m bored, I cut my nails. Only, as I looked down at my hands, I realized that I didn’t have nails to cut or cuticles for that matter. I had bitten down every last one to a nub, then proceeded to tear apart my nail-beds. 

Then, I noticed that my wrists were smaller-I had lost almost fifteen pounds from skipping lunches every day. My skin was pale from my time indoors, my hair falling out in chunks from stress, the bags under my eyes were no longer of grocery quality, but rather had become Ikea-sized. And since I finally had time to think, I did.

    I asked myself if I was happy with where I was and what I was doing. I wondered if I was accomplishing anything more than I had during my freshman year. Most importantly, I asked myself if I could continue that routine for two more years, if I could handle that burden physically and mentally. These questions were not as hard to answer as the meaning of life, because they all resulted in one word: no. I wasn’t happy. Working more did not mean achieving more, and if I had stayed, my health would have taken a swan dive into Michigan Lake. 

    The decision to dip my pen back into the ink and start a new chapter of my life was made while I was bored. The minutes seemed to take hours while I waited for my Saturday morning flight, but while time stretched, the world slowed down just enough for me to take it in. It was like finishing a race and realizing that I had lost a shoe along the way; I could finally focus on me, and not just my task.

    In fact, when I mentioned this to my doctor as we were discussing my obviously diminished health, she had an exact word for it: mindfulness. Mindfulness is just another term for awareness, but there’s a special system for actually being “mindful” of yourself. Use five seconds to take in the scene around you without emotion. Just describe your setting with facts, such as, the walls are white, this chair is brown, and my pencil is in my right hand. Though it sounds silly, practicing this mindful technique forces you to take time out of your day to center yourself and become spatially aware. In time, this will become a habit that takes over when you are anxious, and you’ll be able to focus on what matters the most: you.

Be grateful for the times when you are bored. You may not have quite the same revelation that I did, but you are guaranteed to find a question that needs to be answered, even if it’s something as simple as "has it really been two weeks since I’ve done laundry?". Boredom may not have directly sent men to the moon, but it has pushed humans down the path of curiosity all throughout history. So, make sure to take a moment from your busy life to be bored - even if it’s just five seconds of mindful thinking. Let the passage of time slow down for just a little bit so that you can ground yourself in the present and take control of your future.

All Photos Courtesy of the Author