Busy vs. Bored: Is One Worse Than the Other?

So many of us feel these extremes. The key to balance may be acceptance.

September 30, 2020

Think back to last weekend. Did you get rest, or were you crossing items off your to-do list? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment, or were you feeling guilty about doing nothing? Or maybe you started your workweek more tired than well-rested. Whatever the situation, we have all felt too busy at times or struggled with boredom at others.

According to Caitlin Nevins, PhD, director of psychological services at McLean’s College Mental Health Program, not feeling a proper balance between boredom and busyness is a common concern coming up for many people right now.

“Expectations play a large role in the distress around both these states, especially when it feels like the pendulum is swinging from one state to the other,” she said. “Too much busyness can be emotionally taxing. We may be too busy to attend to our needs, including our basic needs, like eating, sleeping, and social connection.” Being busy can also lead to physical and emotional burnout, making us less effective in the tasks we are trying to achieve.

Nevins added that there is currently a true lack of structure and social connection in our lives, which inevitably leads to moments when we will feel bored or isolated. Judgment related to this issue or the belief that we should always be able to entertain ourselves and keep busy can cause additional distress. “Self-compassion is important as we navigate the balance,” Nevins said.

Being Busy Doesn’t Mean We’re Feeling Fine

Productivity can be highly connected to our self-worth. “We tend to value those days when we get a lot done,” Nevins said. “A sense of mastery and accomplishment is good for our mood.” However, the ability to sit with ourselves and experience our emotions is an essential skill for our well-being.

Woman drinking coffee and working on laptop with baby in lap
Being busy doesn’t always mean we feel fulfilled: there are benefits to being bored

There is a common belief that staying busy will keep difficult emotions at bay or at least tamp them down. Constant busyness or distraction doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t still experiencing difficult emotions beneath the surface. When we coat sadness, anger, or loss with a layer of productivity, we aren’t able to process such feelings as effectively as when we face them directly.

Boredom can be uncomfortable—not just because of difficult emotions that may arise but also because of attitudes we may have about it. “Particularly in some Western cultures, we are socialized in many ways to always see boredom as negative,” Nevins said. “Either we aren’t doing enough or there isn’t enough going on around us.”

The Benefits of Boredom

If we can accept that boredom is a part of life, though, we can learn valuable lessons. Our ability to sit with ourselves through boredom can help us develop more awareness of what we need to feel fulfilled. After all, boredom and dissatisfaction are intertwined. Because of this, boredom helps motivate us to move toward other goals and values.

“Prioritizing time to self-reflect can help us become better in-tune with our emotional experience, which in turn allows us to respond more effectively to it in the moment, rather than having it pop up and surprise us in other ways,” Nevins said.

Boredom can provide a much-needed break and reset from the overstimulation of social media, work, relationships, and the news. It can also spark creativity. Several studies have explored this link.

One 2014 study in which UK researchers asked participants to read unstimulating material showed people developed creative answers to problems after the exercise. The study suggested that boredom is linked to daydreaming. Often, when our minds wander, we find novel ways to escape our dissatisfying experiences.

The Pandemic: A Period of Innovation

During the pandemic, many people have taken up new hobbies and have found new, safe ways to socialize while maintaining physical distance. Such innovation is arguably not only the result of necessity but also the desperation inspired by boredom.

Social media and the news have been rife with images of people recreating scenes from famous works of art, giving lectures to housecats, and painting rocks. The evidence is in: We aren’t alone in our dissatisfying states.

“We do a lot of social comparisons and imagine other people’s lives are constantly full of entertainment or structure,” Nevins said, “when in truth we all feel bored at times.”