Nobody likes having to sit through a boring meeting. But for some of us, it goes way beyond that. Having to sit still for more than a few minutes can be almost physically painful. You might have a hard time sitting still even when you’re not bored. What’s going on here, and what can you do about it?
Why can’t I sit still?
Let’s start here: the human body really isn’t designed to stay in one position for long. Ever had your butt fall asleep from sitting too long? Moving around is good for you. It keeps the blood flowing and helps prevent achy joints.
It’s easy to forget that humans are animals. We’re built to chase gazelles in the savannah and dance around campfires, not to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day. Of course, we’re also adaptable. Most people have been able to adjust to our sedentary modern lifestyle—but if you’re not one of them, that doesn’t make you weird.
Still, there are certain situations that can make it harder to sit still:
- If you’re not getting enough stimulation, you’ll feel bored. Your brain will start looking for something interesting to do. Moving around is one way to do that.
- On the other hand, you could get too much stimulation and feel stressed or overwhelmed. Now your brain is telling you that you’re in an unsafe environment and need to escape. In this case, fidgeting might be a way of distracting yourself—tuning out all the stressful stuff going on around you.
- People with high anxiety get a lot of internal stimulation from their own emotions. They might fidget to distract themselves from the things that overwhelm them.
- People with ADHD are often understimulated. Fidgeting can provide a little extra stimulation and help them focus.
Some people’s brains just have a harder time balancing the amount of stimulation they need. This is often a sign of a mental health condition (like anxiety or ADHD). If a mental health condition is making it hard for you to sit still, some combination of therapy, medication, and/or lifestyle changes should help.
How can I make it easier to sit still?
You can’t always just leave a boring or stressful situation and go do something more fun. But there are things you can do to make the situation more bearable.
It’s okay to fidget
Fidgeting can keep your brain occupied if you’re bored, or help calm you down if you’re anxious. You can carry something small and silent to fiddle with, like a small rock or a paper clip. Lots of people like to doodle during meetings or classes.
Sometimes other people won’t even notice that you’re doing these things—and if they do notice, they often won’t mind. If your fidgeting does become distracting to yourself or others, try to find something more subtle that still scratches the same itch.
Move around when you can
The more movement you get in when you can, the easier it will be to sit still when you have to! Get up and walk around or stretch every hour, at least.
At least once or twice a week, get in a longer session of exercise. Start with whatever is doable and enjoyable—a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood is a great place to start. If you can do more, great! The more you can wear yourself out, the less restless you’ll feel later on.
Find balance in your free time
If you have a job that’s fast-paced and stressful, make sure you’re getting enough time for relaxation while you’re not working. On the other hand, if your job is slow and boring, maybe you need a little more excitement in your life after you clock out.
Change your environment
You can’t control everything about your environment, but you can control some things. For some people, listening to music while you work or study can help you stay focused. Other people need to tune out as many distractions as they can—earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can be a life-saver.
If you have access to a standing desk, use it. When you’re trying to focus on a task, remove as many distractions as you can.
Be intentional with your devices
Your phone is the ultimate anti-boredom machine. All day, every day, you have access to a pretty much infinite supply of games, memes, and videos.
It’s a blessing and a curse. Have you ever pulled out your phone thinking that you can multitask, and suddenly realized you’ve completely lost the thread of the conversation you were having? Trying to use your phone the way you use a fidget toy is like trying to drink from a fire hose. It’s simply way too much stimulation for a human brain to handle.
Be intentional about how much time you spend staring at a screen. Turn off unnecessary notifications, and delete some of the most distracting apps.
Practice being bored
When we get used to the level of stimulation we can get from things like YouTube and video games, ordinary life can start to feel unbearably boring by comparison.
A little boredom is actually good for you! If you’re constantly doing something 24/7, your brain can’t process everything that’s happening to you. You’ll forget important things. You’ll get irritable with other people. You’ll have trouble learning new things or coming up with new ideas.
When you’re bored, your mind wanders. This kind of daydreaming is actually really important and healthy.
You can “practice being bored” by getting used to lower levels of stimulation. Here are a few things you can try every now and then:
- Meditate or do deep breathing exercises
- Do some chores without listening to a podcast
- Read an actual, physical book instead of an e-book or an audiobook
- Play a board game instead of a video game
- Take a break from social media for a few days or weeks
- Have a conversation with someone you don’t have that much in common with. Be curious—ask about the things they’re interested in, and try to understand what makes them tick.