You say it like you’re five years old, fresh out of the summer sun, laying on the floor in the form of a tantrum. “I—am—bored!” The whine escapes your lips. “Anything,” you plead, perhaps to a friend or roommate. “Even if it means vacuuming!”

When the kitchen is clean, homework is done, and Instagram’s dreaded “You’re all caught up!” notification hits, the nothing-left-ness can be overwhelming. Boredom often pairs itself with shame, as well—embarrassment that, in a world of possibilities, we can’t bring ourselves to do even one thing.

So what is boredom, exactly, and why have we convinced ourselves so deeply that it’s a bad thing? And is it okay to get bored? (Spoiler: The answer is yes.) 

Boredom can feel like being caught in a roundabout with no exits, when all you crave is direction.

Boredom is the unpleasant feeling of vague listlessness that’s accompanied by a desire to find some stimulation. It can feel like being caught in a roundabout with no exits, when all you crave is direction. While everyone’s experience is unique and characterized by their personality, circumstance, and resources available, we’re all familiar with the annoying and even painful feeling.

Perhaps our dismay about boredom stems from a fear of indecision, of having the world open up to us like a blank page, and we are now scared of what we can, and must, write. Boredom puts us face to face with the emotions we’ve been putting off—it asks us to keep moving rather than sitting in our feelings. The fear can freeze us up, and we end up scrolling the Instagram explore page with no real purpose.

Maybe we’re scared that boredom is a bad thing because we’re taught to value ourselves based on our productivity. “We have been told that our value is measured in how hard we work, and so we put in punishing hours trying to prove that we are valuable and worthwhile,” says Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

Headlee notes that this concept is nonsense—because our worth as people isn’t connected to our output. “Part of the productivity brainwashing has been to convince us that boredom is a terrible thing, that we should always be focused on accomplishing things. On the contrary, boredom is a useful state of mind.” 

Boredom is a useful state of mind.
— Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing

When we’re in a state of low stimulation, our brains will kick into high gear looking for something to think about, explains Headlee, which is why we can find inspiration in the dullest daily moments—like in the shower.

How, then, do we turn passive boredom into a helpful tool? The answer lies in examining boredom on a deeper level—both personally and structurally. We have to start by looking at the level of control we have.

“Boredom does not necessarily always come with a negative connotation,” assures Clarice Fangzhou Hassan, a licensed clinical social worker in New York. Hassan suggests starting by assessing the details of your boredom—are you feeling “stuck,” or are you in a hopeless situation?

For people who are simply feeling “stuck,” Hassan says, “Usually it’s a situation where they step out of the primary challenges of survival, and upon achieving all the checkboxes, they want to understand where they want to go to the next step.“ 

Boredom that accompanies hopelessness, though, can require larger, systemic change that goes beyond individual actions or “reframing” it in a positive light. This, Hassan argues, is less “boredom” and is instead an “institutional lockdown of opportunities to have any control and autonomy over [our] lives.”

Instead of asking, ‘What should I do?’ you can ask yourself, ‘How and what do I feel?’

It’s important to acknowledge which of these you’re experiencing and practice self-compassion both ways. “Sometimes it’s not your fault at all (for underserved folks, for example),” says Hassan, “and sometimes, it’s a sign for you to make changes and be kind to yourself.”

Once you’ve established whether or not a change is within your capability, instead of asking, “What should I do?” you can ask yourself, “How and what do I feel?” Try exploring these practices to get to the root of what you’re really feeling—or to get an honest (and perhaps humbling) look at your circumstances:

  • Create a basic needs” checklist. This can be a literal or figurative list you run through when boredom creeps in. Have you slept? Eaten? Hydrated? Bathed? Before you dive into the big emotional needs, make sure your essentials are cared for.

  • Find a feelings chart (like this one!) and find the feeling that most specifically describes your current state. Once you clarify what it is you’re feeling, it’s easier to take action.

  • Journal or talk it out. Push yourself to identify whether it’s just simply that you’re not currently stimulated or whether you are in a situation where you need to seek out help from friends, family, or mental health professionals.

  • Spend a few minutes noting where your thoughts wander when you get bored. Are you looking for relief, escape, hope, adventure, comfort, or stimulation? Ask yourself what your boredom is asking of you. Discovering the mood you *want* to feel can help you plot a course of action towards your next step.

  • Have a conversation with your inner child, Hassan recommends. “If you wouldn’t talk to your child, or any child the way you talk to yourself when you are feeling bored (‘You are lazy,’ ‘you are bad’), try something nicer. (‘Let’s take a moment and sit down and talk. What would you like to do instead?’)” If we have the privilege to make a change, self-judgment can keep us mired in boredom and indecision.

  • It’s no surprise that we should take a moment or two away from our phones, when we can, and preferably get outside to see the sun. “However short the breaks have to be, it’s important that you find short windows of time when you can be away from the electronics that make your brain believe you are still working,” Headlee adds. If you’re bored, try not to fill the void with more void (which is what I call doomscrolling).

  • Finally, check your breath. I’ve found that most of the time I’m bored, I’m feeling particularly disembodied. Like a thunderstorm of thought, untethered to a human body. A small breathing meditation or even a squeeze of my arm can remind me that, yes, I am a physical being. By connecting to my body, I re-establish myself. Sometimes, I even embrace where my boredom is taking me.

Boredom isn’t a dull, monotonous fact or a problem to be solved. Instead, it’s a quiet question, one that asks us to examine our mental state—and our lives—just a tad more thoughtfully. Next time you feel bored, ask yourself if this might be a moment of calm that invites inspiration—or if the boredom is asking you to look at the bigger picture or painful truths.

Or, perhaps, your boredom is just asking you to sip on some water because you’re dehydrated. Pause, breathe, and take a drink. Just like that, boredom can be an invitation to stop and ask for directions. Whether we’re asking ourselves—or the communities around us—we can chart a path forward that meets us where we’re at. 

Boredom isn’t a dull, monotonous fact or a problem to be solved. Instead, it’s a quiet question, one that asks us to examine our mental state—and our lives—just a tad more thoughtfully.

Does boredom frustrate you, too, or do you have tried-and-true methods for navigating the feeling? Drop your ideas in the comments below!

Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio.