Boredom is misunderstood. To most individuals, boredom is something to be avoided at all costs. Boredom is watching paint dry or watching grass grow. It’s lifeless and unstimulating. As the stereotypical teenager would say, “boredom is the worst” (cue eye roll).
I disagree. In fact, most neuroscientists, productive performers, and teachers do too. Boredom is vital to a growing mind, particularly in its relation to executive function. We often make the analogy of executive function as the air traffic control tower of the brain. Rather than managing arriving and departing planes to avoid collisions and ensure on-time arrivals/departures, our brain’s EF control center manages the plethora of stimuli we interact with daily. The EF center performs a broad range of functions that can be sorted into three categories: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Our flagship executive function program helps students improve these three dimensions to ensure academic and long-term success. While the needs vary from child to child, one overarching executive function skill that every man, woman, and child should improve has to do with our misunderstood friend, boredom.
When was the last time your child was bored? I don’t mean for a few seconds. When was the last time your child was bored for several minutes to an hour? You might say “yesterday,” but let’s think through that. Was your child actually unstimulated? The truth is most children haven’t experienced a period of boredom lasting longer than five minutes, and that’s a huge problem.
In a world of perpetual motion, instant gratification, and an army of screens vying for our attention, boredom has become a relative luxury. In some ways, it’s really cool that humanity has invented so many technologies to make information and entertainment so painstakingly prevalent. However, this exclusion of boredom from our days destroys our ability to focus. The option to avoid boredom at every turn makes it difficult to do focused work, which is often excruciatingly dull at first.
For example, your son wakes up on an average school day and goes to brush his teeth. For those two minutes, he scrolls through Instagram. Then, he walks downstairs to wait until it’s time to leave for school. While he munches on breakfast, ESPN’s SportsCenter keeps him entertained. In the car on the way to school, he’s either in conversation or back on Instagram. For the eight-hour school day, if he is not occupied or supervised, he reverts to any number of stimulations: socializing, homework, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, emailing teachers, etc. After school, it’s much of the same with the addition of soccer practice. But then it’s time to study, and herein lies the problem with eliminating boredom: the student begins to read his history textbook, a chapter on the American Revolution, but quickly becomes bored with the dry material, back to the cellphone!
Fleeing boredom rewires our brain for distracted work. In essence, people who multi-task or seek constant entertainment cannot filter out irrelevant information. They can’t sit with one item at a time. In other words, they struggle with working memory, inhibitive control, and cognitive flexibility. Therefore, one of the best ways to improve a child’s executive function is to help them see the value of boredom.
This is easier said than done, as boredom aversion is a deeply ingrained habit. Start small with simple rules or challenges. Ask your son or daughter to focus on one task at a time rather than multi-tasking during mundane activities: brushing teeth, riding in the car, walking to class, etc. The simple act of leaning into boredom makes a huge difference when it comes time to study. Next, push the envelope a bit by relegating highly stimulating activities (social media, videogames, and Netflix) to specific time periods each week. Don’t let your child watch Netflix while they study or respond to Snapchat while doing math homework. It’s destructive in the long run. Lastly, encourage your child to become more comfortable with stillness and mindfulness training. A few deep breaths to start a long bout of studying is a great way to put this idea into practice.
We hope you enjoyed these candid thoughts on boredom and its vital role in improving executive function. For more ideas like this, please check out our blog. If your child could benefit from one-on-one academic coaching, please reach out today to learn more about our services.