Have you heard anyone say “I find the gym boring” or “I find running on the treadmill boring”? That someone may have even been you. Why does that feeling of boredom happen? Should it be ignored or addressed? In what other forms might it appear in your life? Most importantly, how can you avoid that feeling and max out on life?
I’m not fond of exercise but I don’t suffer from a boredom problem because, like many other suboptimal states of existence, I stay away from that state. I thought it would be good to write about this problem that many people face, and about a solution.
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Our boredom situation
Indoors vs Outdoors
Why is it bad?
1234Not an Excuse
Why does it happen?
1234Old Brain and New Brain
1234Boredom is at the Opposite End of Pain
1234Flow & Hormesis
How do we get there?
1234The Geek Method
Boredom Broadly [top]
Although there is a body of research on boredom it is not vast and deep. Part of the reason is that, historically, it has not been at the top of mankind’s list of major problems. In recent years, as the world has become richer, and the rich have endless forms of pointless distractions there is a need for understanding boredom better in order to aid with improvement in mental health in society.
I will not deal with the topic of boredom in a wider setting today but be specific to boredom with the gym or the treadmill.
Our boredom situation [top]
Perhaps you started going to a gym not so long ago, or have been going for quite a while. However, the excitement seems to have worn off and it seems like a drudgery to have to show up. The thought of lifting weights within those walls or pounding miles out on the treadmill fills you with a feeling of boredom.
Perhaps it’s not at the gym that you feel bored, but maybe you have a treadmill or exercise bicycle at home that is now just an ugly, expensive and suboptimal clothes rack! At one time you looked forward to getting home to use it, but a few weeks later, it became another piece of furniture.
Indoors vs Outdoors [top]
If it is just that you prefer running outdoors, or using outdoor equipment for strength training, then that is fine. However, please read on to see how you could think differently about using indoor facilities when you have no choice – for example, during heavy snow or a pandemic curfew.
Why is it bad? [top]
Sometimes, having been to a gym for a bit in the past or tried out a treadmill, one uses the “I find it boring” as a fashionable excuse to avoid exercise completely. If you are in that category, you have bigger hidden health problems than you think you do. You should definitely read on for what may trigger off a thought process that may change your life.
Not an Excuse [top]
If you are someone who has been showing up for a workout but that feeling of boredom leads to not pushing yourself physically in the activity, the result will be a path that is some combination of [a] no progress [b] a pattern of negative experience activities [c] dropping the activity completely.
Whatever be the case, if you eventually end up doing no exercise to work on all components of fitness, be they health-based measures or fitness-based measures – you are highly likely to suffer a set of minor or major illnesses in the future.
Why does it happen? [top]
Understanding why you feel bored is important in surmounting the problem.
Old Brain and New Brain [top]
You feel boredom in your brain when you think about the activity or even when you’re doing it. You reach there because of 2 very different parts of your brain’s processes that work interactively on a continuous basis.
- Your Primitive Brain – is the part of your brain that appeared first in human evolution and is associated with emotions; it will typically drive you towards 3 things
- To avoid pain
- To seek pleasure
- To conserve energy
- Your Modern Brain – that is much newer in human evolution typically deals with rational decision making and long-term planning. So, along with your store of knowledge about how exercise is meant to be good for you, this part of your brain tells you that pushing your heart on the treadmill or straining your muscles against resistance is good for you in the long run.
How you feel about using that treadmill then is the net result of signals from those 2 aspects of your brain’s functioning. If your primitive brain dominates, and its signal is to “stop this pain, save your energy and go seek some pleasure“, your choice is likely to be to do just that – regardless of the quality of your ‘modern rational brain’.
On the other hand, if your modern brain can send signals that are such that the modern brain’s advice to exercise dominates, then you are likely to exercise.
Boredom is at the Opposite End of Pain [top]
If you are ‘bored’ you are not pushing hard enough. If you are pushing too hard, you will feel pain. You may feel agony. You may even feel frustration and rage. You cannot feel bored. A feeling of boredom cannot exist when you are pushing hard. Boredom and pain are mutually exclusive!
Hold that thought as you continue reading.
Flow & Hormesis [top]
If you ask someone who has had a good session in their work or workout, they may tell you how they don’t know how time flew by – in fact, to them, looking back, it’s as if time didn’t exist. They were then in a state that the renowned psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, called ‘Flow’.
After introducing you to Hormesis – Your Best Friend, I have referred to it numerous times in previous conversations with you. When you go through a hormetic shock, you have scope for improvement. Any less and you will see no improvement, any more and you are likely to harm yourself rather than improve.
In what way do Flow and Hormesis co-exist?
Working in my favourite currency, ‘time’, I see Flow as being something you experience at the time of the activity.
Hormesis is best thought of as something that happens to you after the activity has been completed.
The hormetic stress, eustress, typically starts prior to the experience of Flow. And, it is almost always the case that the state of Flow ends prior to or after the hormetic stress ends. The bulk of the hormetic benefits typically begin to accrue after the activity has ended.
What’s better? [top]
Our ultimate goal is to minimize the time invested while maximizing our Healthspan. So, it would be good to achieve the following pattern:
- invest the minimally optimal time in the activity
- achieve a state of Flow
- followed by Hormesis
- and to repeat this pattern after an appropriate passage of time
How do we get there? [top]
What should have become clear by now is that you need to push yourself harder to avoid feeling bored. Along with that, you need to appreciate the need to focus on what a skill improvement in it would be and work on that in parallel.
Working within the paradigm of what I call the Internal-External Divide, I categorize the tools to use into 2 methods:
[a] get the work done with crutches (I call this the Brute Force method)
[b] work on eliminating the source of the problem (I call this the Geek method).
I naturally gravitate towards the Geek approach, but at times I may use the Brute Force approach, and sometimes a combination of the two. It’s good to be aware of them both. I believe the Geek approach subsumes the Brute Force approach. If you master the Geek approach the Brute Force method becomes a tool within that broader philosophy.
Brute Force [top]
This method is all about external crutches and external motivational factors. The typical advice you will get off the internet is along the lines of “join a class”, “find a workout buddy”, “identify a music playlist”, “buy a fitness tracker”. The idea is that you can “fake it till you make”. To express your wisdom then, withdraw the crutches gradually to eventually not need them. You can then reintroduce them occasionally to boost performance rather than as a routine to just make you show up.
For example, start by listening to your favourite energizing music during a workout. Then get used to also not having it while doing well in any session. Then use it when you really want to push your limits in a specific session or competition against yourself.
The first thing you have to do to win a race is to show up at the start line. Use the Brute Force approach to do that. Don’t rely on it for making you run well forever.
The advantage of the Brute Force method is that it is mechanical and easy to execute. Long-term and wider results are only guaranteed if you can graduate out of it.
The Geek Method [top]
This method is about intellectualizing for solving the problem at hand. It is unlikely to work if you tend to be someone who ignores science and logic in living your life. Broadly speaking, the idea is to consciously create strong signals from your modern rational brain to attempt to change the signal quality and signal strength from your primitive emotional brain.
I will not delve into the details to expand on them here. Briefly, however, the pattern is the following – accept, set aside, do, retrospection
1] Accept the existence of your primitive brain and the control it has over your decision making. In particular, note that your primitive brain will tell you to skip the effort. (Time required: 5 seconds.)
2] Consciously set aside the above and focus only on the benefits of
[a] doing the activity
[b] with an appropriately high level of intensity.
To give structure to this focus you could consider the benefits in various future timescales. For example: during the activity, 1-min after, 1-hour after, 1-day after, 1-week after, 1-month after, 1-year after, 1-decade after etc.
So, you are doing some kind of time-travel for your thoughts. (And the time required to do it: 30 seconds.)
3] Do the activity focusing on improving your skill at it along with an appropriately high level of intensity. [see: Technique, Form, Progression]
4] Once the activity is completed, consciously observe your state of mind, to confirm that you are in a more emotionally positive state – even though you may be feeling physically exhausted. This retrospection helps with the reinforcement pattern. (Time required: 20 seconds.)
The disadvantage of the Geek Method is that it requires thinking and humans generally find it painful to think. Conscious practice of one-pointedness (Ekagrata in Yogic philosophy) in your activities of daily life will help.
The advantage of this approach is that it creates significant internal fitness in the [a] mental and [b] emotional dimensions – strength, power, endurance. These components of mental fitness and emotional fitness can then translate to the maintenance of an internal culture with far-reaching positive consequences for you.
Final Takeaway [top]
Although we thought of the examples of treadmill running and working out in a gym, you will recognize similar activities that you do with feelings of boredom, or activities that are meant to be for your benefit but that you avoid because of boredom. I hope you now have a more constructive way to think about and handle them.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.