Beat Boredom: Get Your Game On

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 28, 2014

Mowing theyawn. Shopping at the grocery… snore. Whoever you are, wherever you live, chances are there’s at least one task that bores the pants off you. For me, it’s shoveling snow, something we upstate New Yorkers do while the rest of you are frolicking in meadows with bluebirds and puppies (or so we assume).

This is a shame, of course, because a) nobody likes being bored and b) boredom leads nowhere good. Slip-ups of all sizes—including major plane, train and car accidents recently in the news—have been traced to our trouble staying alert while doing dull, repetitive stuff.

So the next time your day turns into a snooze, why not channel your inner Will Shortz? Shortz, as any crossword puzzle lover will tell you, is a six-letter word meaning “diabolically clever New York Times crossword editor.” He’s been making up all sorts of games for decades. And he is, as he assured me by phone, almost never bored. “You can turn virtually anything into a game,” he said, “and that’s a good way to live life, I think.”

Take your next carpool. “I invented a game for a car ride with a friend that’s a lot of fun, that I’m proud of,” Shortz said. “You can do it with anybody.” The rules: Have everyone in the car think of a six-letter word that starts with “S” (or any length word starting with any chosen letter) that you might hear on the radio. Then say your words aloud to each other and turn on the radio. Set it to search mode so you’re changing stations every few seconds. “The first person to hear his word wins,” Shortz says. “And then you go ahead with a different letter.”

I don’t know about you, but the second I heard about this game, I couldn’t wait to play it—and to invent some games of my own. How to come up with one? Simply telling yourself to make up a game would be overwhelming, Shortz said. “What you should do is put a constraint on,” he added, reminding me of the sound advice I got last year from Patricia Stokes, Ph.D., author of Creativity from Constraints ( Like Stokes, he prefers his constraints in pairs. “It’s going to involve rearranging letters” might be constraint No. 1 for a new game. “Well, that’s been done before,” Shortz said. “ ‘It’s going to involve synonyms.’ That’s been done before.” But put the two constraints together, he said, and you might get something great. He did exactly that not long ago and wound up with the following, perfect for when you’re waiting in line someplace: Try to think of a pair of synonyms, where one word starts with the second and third letters of the other—“spin” and “pirouette,” say, or “dream” and “reverie.” My contribution: “screwy” and “crazy.”

Of course, you might not always be in the mood for word puzzles. But constraints can lead to all sorts of games that rescue ho-hum moments. What if you decided, say, to combine folding laundry with playing a sport? You’d naturally get sock-ball basketball. Doing paperwork with a treasure hunt? You might wind up, as I did, with this little experiment: Have someone hide a sticky note inside your mound of papers. When, in the course of your work, you reach the sticky note, you win a prize—a head-clearing walk around the block, say, or a nice juicy clementine, or at least some Excedrin.

There’s no end of games you might produce with this dreaded-task-plus-fun-element formula—and no end of fun elements to throw into the mix. Over dinner recently, my daughter and I came up with one together: to encourage her to eat more of her veggies (a very dreaded task), we added animal sounds. After each bite, she combined two animal sounds and I had to guess what she was. “A duck-dog? A cat-monkey?” (Our favorite, hands down, was the cow-parrot.)

As Shortz made clear, it never hurts to include friendly competition in the game—which takes me back to snow. Each year in my neck of the woods, five cities vie for the unfortunately named, yet surprisingly motivating, Golden Snowball Award. Whichever city gets the most snow wins. Will Rochester beat Buffalo this year? Squash Syracuse? The question is, admittedly, not a nail-biter—and we realize we can’t control the weather. Still, as we dig out from the latest storm, it’s fun to imagine that each shovelful represents a step toward glory.

What new games will help take your day from boring to soaring? Here are a few repetitive tasks and fun elements to get you started. Tasks: driving to work, doing dull household chores (scrubbing, vacuuming, etc.), waiting in line, grooming a pet, weeding, washing your car. Fun elements: time limits, prizes, wordplay, luck (try using a spinner or dice), sports moves, rhymes, singing, hiding/seeking, dancing, goofy noises.

So go on: Do Will Shortz proud. Come up with a combo or two—and then share your ideas with SUCCESS so we can all beat boredom, one game at a time. Send your responses to [email protected] or post at