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the stillness of a spinning top

6 a.m. Saturday Morning. I peer down the wooded single-track, assessing the softness of the trail, soggy from the rain the night before and the mist hanging still in the air. The cuck-and-tuck chatter of robins and the whistled song of the cardinal urge me forward. Sunlight streaming through the winter-shocked bronze of oak leaves clinging still to their branches, rustling their rhythm like an African gourd, I follow a ribbon of light into the woods—the mud sucking my feet, and I losing myself in the staccato pattern of the stretch-step-hop, stutter-duck-and-weave of my trail runner’s gate.

curious running

I’m a long distance trail runner, and can spend hours in the woods—sometimes most the day—just putting one foot in front of the next. When time allows, I venture north to remote forests where I can run for hours without seeing another human being. I run silently. No music. On good days, the hours melt into a single moment that passes without awareness of effort.

The other day, as I was getting ready for a run, my son asked me how I can go out into the woods alone for so long with no music or other entertainment and not get bored. It was an interesting question to me. How is this so? It is true. I am never bored. In fact, I’m scarcely aware of time passing. I thought more on this, trying to figure out where my mind goes when running and determined that my mind moves between a couple of different states, I think, and this difference often depends on the terrain I am traversing. When the trail is flat, straight, and mostly predictable, my mind wanders. I do all kinds of things within my mind when running a flat, straight, trail. I work out problems, engage in some critical self-reflection, plan for my week ahead, consider the trajectory of my life thus far, write long drafts of ideas with no pen or paper, reread favorite books from memory, do math to calculate my pace, visualize my next race event, think about my relationships—past, future, and present—and on and on. The possibilities are endless, really. I can immerse myself in thinking about all sorts of things and be quite entertained through this process as my body is busy putting one foot in front of the next.

I am never bored. In fact, I’m scarcely aware of time passing.

The other state my mind moves to when running occurs when the trail gets a bit technical—with roots and rocks, hills, quick descents, twists, and turns. When running this kind of trail (my favorite kind), I am certainly not bored, but I also become far less aware of time passing. My attention becomes locked on the perpetual present as I work to negotiate the challenges of the trail before me. In some ways, this state of mind feels quite opposite to the wandering mind of the long, flat trail, but in other ways it is similar in that time ceases to exist. I am fully immersed in experience and my attention is focused—whether on what my mind conjures or on what my body demands.

the idea of boredom

The idea of boredom is quite interesting to me—probably because I don’t understand it very well—or at least I haven’t until I began doing a bit of research on the topic. I say I don’t understand boredom because, honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt bored. Truly. Maybe if I think really hard, I could muster something, but boredom plays very little role in my life. I suppose any moment of boredom I might have is quickly dispersed as I simply direct my attention elsewhere and become interested in something once again. Having said that, though, I am no stranger to boredom. I see people struggling with it everyday—my students mostly. How do I know they’re bored? Well, they tell me—usually after attempting a tough reading or after working on a challenging writing assignment. (Actually, they typically don’t say “tough” or “challenging” when describing these tasks; they are much more inclined to say “stupid” and “boring” instead.) I’ll be honest here, these comments can drive me nuts, and sometimes I want to say something snarky like “The assignment is boring and stupid?” Now, I would never mean this, but I’ve gotten so frustrated when I’ve seen students diverting blame to things outside of themselves when what they were really describing was something they had a good deal of control over, that is if they were to own it and work to understand it. But then again, who was I to judge? Like I said, only until just recently, have I begun to really understand the psychology behind boredom. I’ve been pretty content blaming my students for their unwillingness to work through challenging tasks and their quickness to blame the task itself for being “boring” or, of course, “stupid”—to externalize the causes of such difficulties. I’m realizing now, I was doing my own share of externalizing. If I really wanted to address boredom in my classes, I had to own it, and that means I had to work to understand it (especially since I myself wasn’t feeling it—at least not as far as recent memory serves me.)

the little we know

With little to go on other than my own biased observations, I began my research like any good academic. Surprisingly, what I discovered is that there is very little mature research on the human emotion of boredom. It seems I wasn’t the only one who didn’t entirely get it. But given the times we’re living in where boredom is something of an epidemic—“pervasive states of mind in economically privileged cultures and classrooms” (Csikszentmihalyi qtd. in Gute 191)—there were a few key studies that kept popping up to offer me the beginnings of insight.

Boredom: “pervasive states of mind in economically privileged cultures and classrooms”
– Csikszentmihalyi

Anna Gosline of Scientific American cites psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow psychology,” indicating that boredom can be explained, at least in part, in that “great absorption, focus and enjoyment of work results from a balance between our skills and the challenge of the tasks we face.” If pressed too far beyond our current skills as writers and readers, we will invariably become frustrated with the task. It’s just too hard, we say, or tedious or—more often—boring. The same is true for work that offers no challenge to our current skills. If something is too simple, too obvious, too easily done blind-folded, juggling chainsaws, and with one hand tied behind our backs, then, well, it is boring. Where’s the challenge? So, there are two different kinds of boring in these examples: the kind that comes from too little challenge and the kind that comes from too much.

anxiety masquerading as boredom

Digging a little deeper into the latter form of boredom—the kind that comes from too much challenge, the research suggests that this isn’t really boredom at all, not in the true sense anyway. If the demands of a task surpass an individual’s skill, it manifests as anxiety, but the results can be and often are the same—disengagement. A 2008 study published in The Journal of Education found that anxiety-based disengagement looks a lot like boredom. In other words, the symptoms are the same—clock-watching, sleepiness, difficulty concentrating. Other symptoms include producing inadequate notes, feeling sleepy in class, daydreaming, fighting the temptation to skip class. “The visible symptoms of failing to keep up (but wanting to) may look identical to symptoms of boredom/lack of interest” (Gute 203). This is the kind of “boredom” displayed by my student who recently said, “I couldn’t finish the reading because it didn’t make any sense. It was stupid and boring.”

Boredom and anxiety can have the same symptoms and the same result—disengagement.

It’s easy to misread the symptoms of habitual disengagement (or disengagement of the less pathological kind) as mere anti-intellectualism, immaturity, or apathy. Gute reminds us that teachers who feel like they are dragging their students through their educational experience (and misread the symptoms of disengagement) run the risk of investing less and less effort into their teaching, disengaging themselves, becoming cynical, or even hostile toward students (192). Yes, I’ve been there—one too many times, when my enthusiasm for the subject matter (or for being in the classroom for that matter) is not even remotely matched by my students. I’m not naive. I’ve known for a long time that the difficulty of the material I present my students with challenges them. I’m clear about it in the classroom, telling students that, yes, this is hard, but that’s the point. If we can work through this difficulty, we will have gained something. The dots I didn’t quite connect for myself were that the dismissal of the material by students may have very well been driven by anxiety—by a fear of failing—not by laziness or immaturity as I had presumed. The challenge at hand was pushing them (and their anxiety levels) beyond their threshold of tolerance and so kicked in one of the most common mechanisms of coping—distraction.

distraction to cope

Distraction and boredom, actually, are familiar bedfellows. While we are easily distracted when challenged to the point of boredom, we are also more easily bored when exposed to low-level distractions. Eastwood et al. in their 2012 comprehensive attempt to define boredom cite the research of James Laird of Clark University who studied the effects of low-level distractions—like a television in the next room—on participants engaged in a reading task. Those exposed to the mildly distracting sounds of the television more often found a reading task “boring” than those who were engaged in the activity without the distraction or even in loud conditions. Subtle distraction led to higher levels of boredom even when subjects were unaware or could not identify a source of distraction. The kicker, however, is that being distracted away from something makes us not like the thing we were distracted away from. Boredom is a negative emotional state resulting, as some would argue (Csikszentmihalyi), in the disruption of attention—the break in our internal sense of “flow.” When this happens, we are inclined to attribute the negative feelings to the unattended activity, e.g. “This task is horrible and boring” (Eastwood et al 487).

Laird conducted his study in 1989 (presumably when the best form of low-level distraction he could find was TV). Think for a second, though, about the number of such distractions we endure today. There is much more competing for our fragile attentions nowadays with the explosion of social media, mobile devices, video games, a full smörgåsbord of electronic and Internet entertainment and all the rest—all vying for our time and minds. There is some evidence to suggest that the constant din of distraction we live in has made many of us more distractable and therefore more easily bored.

what’s at stake and how to deal with it

“Being bored entails a reduction of attention; or responsiveness to conscious stimuli flattens out and shrinks; distinctions are not noticed and not made, so that the conscious field becomes increasingly homogeneous. The general functioning of the mind diminishes… homogenization is, at the limit, tantamount to the cessation of conscious experience altogether. [Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self” (Frankfurt qtd. in Millgram 163-64).

5 strategies to conquer boredom

So how do we manage this push and pull of distraction? To answer that question we can return to this question of appropriate challenge. The problem we sometimes encounter is that we look to others to set our Goldilocks challenge appropriately—not too hard, not too soft, but just right. Anything other than just right, we sink into the muck of boredom and get nowhere (and may even blame others for our bind). This is particularly true in the case of too much challenge. If we can achieve the right balance between skill and challenge, we can stave off our own distraction-seeking behavior. That’s half the battle.

“[Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self.”
– Frankfurt

Really productive readers and writers have learned how to adjust to varying degrees of challenge. In the case of what feels like a task with too little challenge, effective readers/writers can work to raise the challenge to meet their skills. In other words, they can challenge themselves by working toward their own weaknesses—by making it harder for themselves. In situations where the task itself seems just out of reach, effective readers/writers become comfortable stretching their skills to meet the challenge at hand, recognizing that there is something to be gained in engaging with the difficult; in fact, there can be a certain pleasure that comes with it.

There are ways we can work to better our focus, manage the push and pull of distraction, increase our attention spans, and develop our abilities to sustain our efforts on challenging cognitive tasks—including reading and writing.

  1. Practice Thinking—We are easily pulled away from our own thoughts, especially if they are not particularly clear at first. One can see this in how some of us speak about things we are unsure of. We may begin to venture down the path of our ideas but then the road gets a bit craggy or the fog rolls in and the way ahead isn’t easy or clear, so we bail on our own thinking with an “Oh, never mind…” or a “Forget it.” We find ourselves against the wall of boredom—of the kind of too much challenge—and so we look for a shortcut off the trail, a fast track back to the safety of our complacent minds. Writing can help with this. Laying words to paper forces us to articulate what we might otherwise give up on. It forces us to think things through—that is if we give ourselves permission to do so. Writing lets us sit with our thoughts in a way speaking does not. If we force ourselves to write, resisting the lure of distraction, writing forces us to think, and so we get stronger. Practicing deep, sustained thinking is one way to stave off boredom.
  2. Practice Stillness—In our fast-paced, competitive culture there’s this idea that if you are standing still, you are moving backward. In other words, if everyone is moving so quickly around us, we had better move quickly too lest we get left behind. There may be some truth to this when talking about scientific and technological research and development, or individual professional skills development, or educational attainment; however, the idea of shrugging off stillness in favor of continuous motion is something of a distortion. This is particularly true when you consider that so much of this continuous motion keeps us from focusing our attention. It serves instead as a way to keep us distracted from sustained thinking and difficult tasks. Continuous motion may work as a coping mechanism or a quick fix to keep boredom at bay, but it accomplishes little else and fails to cultivate the power of focused attention. A still mind is not necessarily a stagnant mind. Rather, it is like a spinning top. The faster and more precisely it spins, the more still it appears. It is focused. Alive with energy, but still. We can practice this kind of stillness and become comfortable with it by simply sitting and breathing for set periods of time. Call it meditation if you’d like. Certainly there are many developed traditions and methods of meditation you can look further into if you’d like. For now, however, try sitting alert and awake and perfectly still for 15 minutes each morning. Calm your mind. Breathe. Be still. With practice, you will see the difference this can make on your ability to sustain attention (and avoid boredom).
  3. Talk Less, Listen More—Part of practicing stillness is quieting the mind, closing the mouth, and opening the ears. We are all guilty of not doing this as much as we should. “Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris Bueller reminds us in the classic John Hughes film. It does. Our minds tend to wobble two and fro with all of life whipping around us (not at all like that perfectly balanced top spinning in perfect stillness). We have our agenda and sometimes our interactions with others become driven by that agenda. We look single-mindedly for a bit of needed information, or we think about what we want to say next, or we are push a person along or interrupt them—whichever is needed—to meet our immediate needs. We are distracted by all the pressure and our minds assume all the wobbly whirling of a slow moving top about to fall on its side. Yes, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” continues Ferris. Take care not to be distracted away from the splendor of things or people right in front of you. Be patient. Let people finish their sentences. Look them in the eyes and listen to what they mean—not just what they are saying. Words are imperfect sometimes (or the people using them faulter). Listen for meaning. Delay the gratification of satisfying your immediate agenda-driven need for something far more interesting.
  4. Limit/Remove Low-level Distractions—TV, social media, video games, and the plethora of other media we fill our days with can be great learning and communication tools, but they get in the way of silence, which can also teach us a lot—a lot more than many think actually. To increase your attention span and perhaps your ability to find more things interesting (i.e. to be less bored), try limiting or removing these kind of media distractions from your life—particularly anything in the form of “background noise” when you are trying to engage in a challenging task. Or, if you really want to challenge yourself, try going one day with no social media. Or maybe turn off your mobile/smart phone for the day. (Could you live without it? I bet you could.) If you just can’t bring yourself to turn off your phone, maybe try this: each time during the day when you are about to check Facebook, twitter, texts, or whatever your pleasure is, stop yourself and ask if it is absolutely critical that you do so or if you are just “bored” in the moment and trying to distract yourself. If you’re honest, you might be surprised at your own habits. See what happens if you change those habits even for a short while.
  5. Act “Smart”—The opposite of being bored is being engaged. You can apply a conscious effort to get engaged with the world around you and in doing so never be bored again. So called “smart” people are seldom if ever bored, so act smart—not to say that you’re not already a smart person, but practicing certain “smart” habits can strengthen that noodle and make life more interesting for you. For example, try regularly reading beyond your comfort zone. Developmental Psychologist Lev Vygotsky postulated that we learn best in what he called the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) where new learning is best achieved when it lies just out of reach of our current development. In simple terms, we learn by stretching just beyond our comfort zone and when we are supported by others in this process. As smart people, we can get that support from others by engaging with them, by being curious and asking lots of questions. Also, to pit your smarts against boredom, try seeing the meaning in all things. Life in general and the world of ideas in particular is pretty amazing in that everything is connected in some way. Look for those connections, connect the dots in all that you read, hear, and see to make meaning from it. Be a deep thinker and reject anti-intellectualism every chance you get. (It is, indeed, cool to be the smartest kid in the room. That kid is never bored.)

the life you save…

“If you stay the same, you will become bored enough to whish you were dead.”
– Millgram

“[Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self,” suggests Frankfurt in his research on the subject. “The general functioning of the mind diminishes. […] The more you’re bored, the less you’re there” (cited. in Millgram 163-64 and 182). Boredom is a kind of stagnation—of the most severe kind. A failure to engage—whether it be from the anxiety of too much challenge or the ennui of too little, the result is dangerously the same. Not engaging is a discarded wooden top at the bottom of a child’s toy chest, lying motionless on its side in the dust. “If you stay the same, you will become bored enough to whish you were dead” (Milligram 182). Instead, strive for a carefully attuned mindfulness. In the Japanese language, it’s called sumkiri, meaning a sharpness of body and mind. The term actually refers to the ideal movement in the Japanese martial art of Aikido where the master redirects a barrage of attackers with seemingly no effort—with the stillness of a spinning top—an immovable center, focused and engaged.

We live in exciting times. There is so much to learn, so much to do. You have control over whether you are bored or not. Boredom is an emotion, after all, a negative one at that. Most theories of emotion argue that thinking precedes emotion, so take control of your thinking here. Develop the habits of mind and good practices described above to work yourself out of “couch-potato-dom” and a life of boredom. It can change your life; it might even save it.

works cited

Brand, Alice G., and Phoebe A. Leckie. “The Emotions Of Professional Writers.” Journal Of Psychology 122.5 (1988): 421. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Eastwood, John D., Alexandra Frischen, Mark J. Fenske, and Daniel Smilek. “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7.5 (2012): 482-495. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Gute, Deanne, and Gary Gute. “Flow Writing In The Liberal Arts Core And Across The Disciplines: A Vehicle For Confronting And Transforming Academic Disengagement.” JGE: The Journal Of General Education 57.4 (2008): 191-222. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Millgram, Elijah. “On Being Bored Out Of Your Mind.” Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society (Paperback) 104.2 (2004): 163-184. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Vygotsky, Lev. “Interaction between Learaning and Development.” Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Havard UP, 1978. 79-91. Print.

act out now goes live

For almost a year now, Chris and I have been talking about taking our appreciation for service-learning to the next level. Last spring, I plunged more deeply into this approach with the research writing class I was teaching and the results were remarkable. Students really responded and I found myself with a renewed energy toward teaching. That year my students hosted the first Act Out event on campus–a service-learning and volunteer fair where students showcased their service-learning work beside the local non-profit organizations they had worked with that semester. We had over 20 organizations present, three guest speakers, 75 participating students, and many people from the community attending, looking for ways to get involved. It was fantastic experience and a great success. In fact, I was nominated and won Master Teacher for this project (blush).

Given this success and the feeling of so much untapped potential, I decided (along with Chris–my beautiful wife) to kick this whole project up a notch, and so we launched Act Out Now (actoutnow.org). This is the online home to our growing project. From the site, folks can join upcoming service-learning events, find quality organizations to get involved with, and browse a growing set of learning resources. We’re really excited about where this might be heading. People are getting excited and getting involved, and that’s always a good thing. Check out the site now, and see what you might do.

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