Aug 302011

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Today, I ate approximately 640 (particularly non-constructive) calories (so far…) due entirely to boredom.

This came in the form of a blueberry muffin and a caramel slice and doesn’t include the delicious Long Macchiato coffee that I washed them down with. In all honesty, consuming these things is not exactly unusual for me and as I utilise Mike T. Nelson’s ideas regarding Metabolic Flexibility (affiliate link) I don’t usually anticipate any real negative effect when I choose to do so.

The thing that made it unusual was that I barely wanted to eat them at all. And I knew it. So why did I do it?

I was bored. Very much so.

As I walked to the bakery and prepared to purchase and consume some food that I barely desired, it made me ponder why boredom would drive me to do such a thing and what I thought boredom truly was.

It seems to me that the best way I can define my understanding of Boredom is “dissatisfaction with the stagnation or level of intensity of stimuli being experienced”.

Many people tell me that they “eat out of boredom”, but I find it curious how little examination people seem to give this phenomenon.

“Why do I choose to eat when I’m bored?”

I think that, although this is the obvious question to ask yourself, it might not be a very useful one.

I suggest beginning with the following: “What elements of the context do I associate to the boredom?”  “What elements of the context do I associate to the choice of eating to alleviate the boredom?” “What other elements of the context could be manipulated in an attempt to address the boredom, with lower cost?”

My associations with boredom, in the context:
  • I was at work; working in a shift that I often undertake, which implies excessive familiarity and the boredom associated with that.
  • I have been employed in this role for over 4 years, so I am very familiar with my standard work activites (including large periods of primarily inactivity), which reduces my enthusiasm somewhat.
  • My shift partner had been patiently listening to me ramble and at least feigning some interest, but I began to feel that I may be wearing out my welcome on that front.
  • I was unable to change my location or activity outside of strict margins dictated by my work role. I hadn’t had the chance to entertain myself freely for approximately 5.5 hours at that point.
  • Nothing was really “going on”, that I could see.
My associations with the choice of eating, in the context:
  • Due to workplace structure, eating is an activity that will rarely be questioned regarding time & circumstance (outside of specific parameters), so it would have no workplace consequence.
  • I am located very close to many vendors of food, so convenience due to proximity influences my decision.
  • I had no more pre-prepared food at hand, so the idea of purchasing food had already gained a foothold due to the likelihood of it taking place before my shift was over.
  • The act of purchasing the food would require movement to a slightly different location, which would be accompanied with new stimuli perceived as unique to that change.
  • It is “socially acceptable” (i.e. no one with whom I would be interacting would question if it was a reasonable action to take).
  • I had money on hand, reducing the barriers between myself and the act by removing steps from the necessary preparative actions.

In all honesty, I could sit here and come up with more and more, depending on how finely I want to examine the situation. I think that’s probably a fair slice of the issues involved though. I would look at all these things as potential elements to be altered and the resulting effect as something to be judged on usefulness.

I can also see common themes running through these items; specifically I see “lack of/desire for variety”, “convenience of choice” & “low perceived cost of choice”; the last two options appearing entwined.

So now, under the assumption that I wish to curve this behaviour, I see two real options: reduce the boredom or reduce the likelihood of choosing eating when boredom occurs. I find with exercises like this there is often a lot of overlap, so I won’t bother to specifically define prospective actions to being one or the other.

Potential actions I can see:
  • Change shifts/job role. (Create variety; change context.)
  • Change conversational habits/actions with my shift partner. (Lower the barrier to other available activities as a preferable choice by removing a perceived objection; create variety by differing on topics.)
  • Change target of conversation. (Create variety by speaking with a different person; associated potential for interesting variety.)
  • Examine all potential options of activity within acceptable parameters more carefully. (There may be other preferable options that I have missed by lack of observation/analysis.)
  • Create more work within my job role to keep me busy. (This is often associated with high cost/distress involvement; relating to myself and to others involved.)
  • Change proximity where possible. (I have an allocated area, but I could attempt to maintain the largest distance possible from the locations where food is available.)
  • Ensure that I have pre-purchased food on hand more often. (Reduce chances of my purchasing food at all; utilising my associated desire to save money and sense of “failure” at “wasting” money on the purchase when it’s not necessary.)
  • Change locations within work area as much as possible. (In my case, patrol more regularly in an attempt to utilise available variety. In an office context, you could find excuses to attend other people’s desks or other work locations, etc.)
  • Limit or eliminate funds on hand. (The barriers to obtaining extra food become much more difficult to overcome without any access to money; an extreme measure in my context, but very reasonable in some.)

So what’s my point, really?

I do not think that it would be uncommon for people to say something along the lines of “I ate too much today; I should probably eat less”. The problem here seems to be that this is not a plan; it is simply a desire. I have found that examining an issue with a specific eye to context and potential actions can provide a much clearer path to progress; perpetual progress is likely to lead to goal success.

Which associations/actions do you struggle with? How could you stand to look at it differently and what actions can you generate as opportunities for change?

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