Overcoming boredom & restlessness

Learn four techniques to combat boredom and restlessness from Isabelle Lanser, UCLA psychology PhD student

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives. Many of the enjoyable activities that once filled our schedules are gone. Sharing a meal with friends, traveling and going to concerts, movies and sporting events are now only memories of good times due to the coronavirus.

The result of this disruption is that many of us are feeling bored and restless. Even those of us who are overworked and overstressed at work and home may find ourselves with little to look forward to and nothing rewarding to do in the precious free time we have.

In this segment of the Care Package, we review four skills that can be helpful for combating boredom and restlessness.

Skill 1: Stay active even when you don’t feel like it

When we are under stress, activities that are important to us or bring us joy often feel more difficult to do and less rewarding when we do them. As a result, we tend to stop doing the things that are good for us — including giving up our hobbies and self-care activities. Although it makes sense that we make these choices when we are stressed out, it actually increases our feelings of boredom and restlessness.

So, even when you don’t feel like it, it’s important that you continue these activities. Try not to give in to negative thinking and feelings. Does this sound familiar?: “I’ve been meaning to read that book, but I probably won’t be able to focus on it, so I’ll just play on my phone.” We challenge you to stop mindlessly scrolling through social media and see if you can immerse yourself in that book.

Even if you aren’t getting as much joy out of your hobbies and activities, there still are benefits to spending time doing them. It’s like exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors–these activities are helpful for your physical and mental health even when you don’t feel like doing them or even enjoy them.

On your own: Think about the thoughts and feelings that tend to stop you from doing things that you used to enjoy. Is it helpful for you in the long term to listen to these thoughts? If not, what can you say and do when these thoughts come up to help you break out of this negative cycle?

Skill 2: Get in touch with your values so you find activities that bring more meaning

When we have free time, we often go on “autopilot” and follow a routine without thinking about why we are doing these activities. When these routines are disrupted, we often stumble without an idea of what to do instead. One helpful exercise to use is the values assessment exercise referenced in earlier segments of the COVID-19 Care Package to understand why we enjoy certain activities and then identify alternative activities that can be equally meaningful, stimulating and enjoyable. We review an example below:

Example: How you might use the values assessment exercise to address boredom

Seth enjoys basketball with friends. Right now he is unable to enjoy this activity due to the pandemic. Because he can’t play basketball, he’s spending more time scrolling through social media instead and he’s noticed he’s feeling more bored and restless.

When pushed to consider why he enjoys basketball, he realizes that there are two reasons: (1) he enjoys spending time with his friends; and (2) he enjoys the physical exercise.

Once he understands the reason why he valued a certain activity that he is no longer able to do, he is in a better position to identify other activities that fulfill these same needs and interests. As a result of this self-reflection, he is now increasing his flexibility with an online yoga workout and getting his social fix with a twice weekly online gathering with his basketball friends on FaceTime.

On your own: check in with your values. For any item you have rated as a 2 or 3, make sure that the activities listed in Step 2 of the form connect to these values. If you find that not to be the case, be sure to brainstorm a list of related activities that you can do that are related to these values in Step 4. When you find yourself restless or bored, pick an activity from this list. 

Skill 3: Shift your focus to what you actually can control

Thinking that there’s “no point” to doing anything anymore can make us feel more restless and bored. A good way to combat this mindset is to focus on things that you actually do have control over in your life. For example, no amount of scrolling through social media is going to make the pandemic end quicker, but learning a new skill, trying out a new hobby or reaching out to a loved one might help you take your mind off negative thoughts and give you a feeling of accomplishment and productivity. We reviewed the positive aspects of keeping a Special Projects list in the Managing Worries segment of the COVID-19 Care Package and the importance of defining those projects into bite-sized pieces to make it easier to start right away. Often, the hardest part is taking those first steps. Once we begin a task, we get absorbed in it and can see it through to the end. And crossing something off that list can give us a sense of accomplishment and remind us that there are some things we can control.

On your own: Create or update your Special Projects list.

Skill 4: Practice generosity

When we are feeling restless and bored, it’s helpful to shift focus from our own thoughts and feelings to the needs and experiences of others. As reviewed in the segment of the Care Package focused on feeling overwhelmed, when we act reach out and help others without an expectation of anything in return, this action turns our focus away from ourselves. We have the chance to feel good about what we did, we may get positive feedback from the recipient, we create good will and we even may cause a ripple effect where the person we helped chooses to help others.

On your own:  Create a list of people who you might help.

Try out one of the strategies when you are feeling bored or restless

Restlessness and boredom are to be expected, given the massive disruption to our daily routines caused by COVID-19. As described above there are four techniques you might try out to make sure these feelings do not stop you from engaging in positive, meaningful and rewarding activities.

Also, remember that when you are feeling restless and bored, there may be other reasons behind it, like feeling worried, lonely or overwhelmed. For help dealing with these difficult experiences, check out other sections of the Care Package. 

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet:

Pre-Work Lists:

Fillable Activities: