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Be More Bored

I'm not great with downtime. In line at the post office, I whip out my cell phone and delete old text messages. When I'm stopped at a light, I retrieve a cloth from the glove compartment and dust the dashboard.

At home, I try to snuggle with my pug and relax, but I can't. I get up to unload the dishwasher, check my e-mail, sort socks, or get a jump on tomorrow's research and writing. Clearly, I feel better ticking items off my to-do list. The question is: Would I be better off just letting my mind drift?

Truth is, the urge to occupy idle time is tough to fight. We're a nation of doers, after all: bustling workaholics who have a hard time sitting still (unless it's in front of the TV). As much as we try to crowd it out, however, experts tell us that boredom is an essential part of the human experience. It's a counterbalance to all that busyness. In fact, some argue it's a gateway to peace.

"Create space in your life," says Body+Soul life coach Cheryl Richardson, "and you'll find serenity and inspiration on the other side."

If a little thumb-twiddling can truly lead to better things, why do many of us so desperately avoid it? To demystify our aversion to idleness, we asked Richardson and psychotherapist Richard Winter, M.D., to explain what's fueling our discomfort with those frightfully unscheduled moments. Here, they share the top three reasons we're so down on downtime, as well as offer up ways to embrace it -- and find deeper satisfaction in the everyday.

We're Overstimulated
Remember when the doctor's waiting room was just that -- a place to sit, with nothing to do but wait? Now, with TV screens popping up in medical offices, taxicabs, elevators, and even the checkout line (not to mention the lure of your cell phone, iPod, and BlackBerry), every spare moment provides another opportunity for stimulation. As a result, the empty pockets of time we once took for granted have vanished.

The problem with overstimulation, says Winter, author of "Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment," is it creates a "psychological callus" that hardens over time and can eventually keep us from responding with depth to anything or anyone. "Because we can't discriminate between so many options, we completely shut down our attention to almost everything."

That, he argues, essentially leaves us feeling passive and craving temporary relief from boredom. Worse, we end up with no time to reflect on our lives, making it harder to forge meaningful connections with the people around us.

Find joy in the humdrum. Recharge your inner resources by reacquainting yourself with quiet. This can prove surprisingly hard if you're used to nonstop stimulation, so aim for specific actions. Turn off the TV after a certain time each evening. Drive one way of your commute without listening to NPR.

Better still, take a calming walk three nights a week after dinner -- and leave the iPod home. The physical activity will satisfy your need to do something, all while energizing you in a way that watching Law & Order can't. By welcoming a little idle time and its attendant reflection, says Winter, you'll soon come to "delight in the ordinary again."

We Believe Productivity Is a Virtue
Crossing things off a to-do list not only feels satisfying, but also reaffirms how busy (read: successful) we really are. Our penchant for productivity has us leaping from task to task, from hitting the treadmill to paying bills to whipping up dinner.

We'll even take on jobs three at a time, checking e-mail while folding laundry while making a call. Modern culture eggs us on, looking favorably on those who work all the time and suspiciously on those who loll about on the couch.

Ironically, though, filling up every iota of empty space in our lives with tasks (particularly meaningless ones) might prove counterproductive. "Creativity is one of the sweet fruits of boredom," says Winter. "If you don't give yourself time to reflect, you don't come up with inspired ideas."

By keeping the mental slate clean, you actually allow your mind to be fresher, more loose. Think of it this way: It all comes full circle. Those ideas might help you come up with new solutions to old problems -- which only breeds efficiency. "Cultivating boredom," Richardson says, "just may be the most productive thing we can do."

Let your brain breathe. Schedule a block of time to do absolutely nothing. Pick two hours on a Sunday afternoon -- no housework, no Web surfing, no reorganizing your closet. You may find yourself picking up a paintbrush or having a great laugh with your family.

Richardson also suggests taking advantage of micro-rest periods, such as waiting at the checkout line or traffic light, to practice being present. See these "nothing" moments as enriching and indispensable experiences; notice how this changes your own approach to productivity.

We Fear What Lies Beneath
Sometimes the question isn't why we're running around all the time, but what we're running from. Seal out all the distractions, and your mind may take you where you don't want to go -- like wondering when your husband started sleeping on the couch, or why your job no longer feels meaningful.

"Many of us live in a comfortably numb place, Richardson says. "Space gives hidden feelings a chance to emerge." She's seen proof of this in her workshops: When she asks participants to sit for 10 minutes in total silence, she finds they struggle with the difficult feelings -- even to the point of tears. "They say there's a deep sadness about their lives. We're all afraid to feel that."

But by sitting with that discomfort, you can address what's at the root of it, whether it's regret over a past decision or anxiety about a pending one. Perhaps the choices you've made have boxed you in. Having some time on your hands will help you face reality.

Allow thoughts to surface. When you find that the day's anxieties are rushing up to fill an unscheduled moment, let them. Use boredom as a tool for probing the depths of your consciousness, says Winter, and you'll be better able to identify the source of those anxieties.

Only then can you map out a plan, whether it's checking the want ads for a new job or booking an appointment with a therapist to sort things out. Sometimes, just knowing what it is that's causing you to run from downtime will help you enjoy it more -- and inch you a little closer to the life you want to be living.

Text by Janice O'Leary

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