If there’s one thing we dread, it’s being bored. During the school holidays, at work, at home, we constantly crave mental stimulation and demand to be entertained. In today’s digital world, with access to a stream of round-the-clock information, we no longer give ourselves the chance to be bored.
But what if we looked at boredom as a positive thing? According to researchers, boredom can lead to creative, even brilliant, ideas, and is sometimes the motivational push we need to improve our lives.
Here’s why being bored can be good for you, and why taking time out to clear your mind could also be good for your creativity and productivity.
Boredom: what the experts say…
Back in 2017, author and TED Talk motivational speaker, Manoush Zomodori, explored the science behind boredom. Zomodori explains that when we do mundane, everyday tasks such as walking, or doing the laundry, our brains go into autopilot, or ‘default’ mode.
According to British psychologist and boredom researcher Dr Sandi Mann, in default mode, we begin to daydream and let our minds wander – that’s when our brains really get busy.
Zomodori’s TED Talk also addressed our shortening attention spans. A decade ago, we shifted our attention from one thing to another every three minutes – today, it’s every 45 seconds. Every time we move from one task to another, our brains engage a neurological switch, using up valuable nutrients to do that.
With access to information 24/7, we’ve become a society that demands to be constantly entertained. It’s becoming harder to hold our attention for long. We’re so busy multitasking and flitting from one thing to the next, that we don’t give our brains the time to rest and refresh.
As Zomodori points out, younger people don’t actually recognise boredom. They don’t know what it feels like to be really bored because they’ve never known a life without connectivity.
Globally, internet users spend an average of 2 hours and 27 minutes per day on social media. According to Zomodori, the average person will spend two years of their life on Facebook. That’s time and nutrients we could have spent being more creative and productive.
Distraction: the modern-day drug?
The truth is the modern world is fast becoming addicted to distraction. In her book, The Science of Boredom, Sandi Mann equates this need for constant stimulation to a treadmill that many of us can’t seem to step off. The more stimulation we have at our fingertips, the more stimulation we crave. Think Netflix ‘binges’, the hours spent scrolling through our social media ‘feeds’. Our appetite for distraction and stimulation is becoming insatiable – so much so, that it’s getting harder to switch off and actually use that time to think.
By allowing ourselves to experience boredom in a positive way, taking time out to step off the treadmill and rest the grey cells, our brains may have the chance to de-clutter and re-energise.
Time out is time well spent
As any parent will know, time out is an effective strategy for dealing with over-stimulated kids on the verge of a meltdown. The same could be said for our brains. In adult terms, think of it as downtime. It could be as simple as switching off your phone, going for a run, baking, or cleaning the house – basically, something that requires no real thought, and allows your brain to slip into ‘default’ mode.
According to experts, giving our brains some downtime helps generate original ideas and problem-solving. It clears our heads of cerebral congestion and helps us think with more clarity and imagination.
A wizard is born: how boredom unleashed creativity
The famous story of how Harry Potter came to be is a perfect example of how boredom can unleash creativity, and sometimes, even brilliance.
It was on a four-hour train journey from Manchester to London, with nothing to do but stare out of the window, that J. K. Rowling came up with the idea of ‘the boy who lived’.
Now imagine if Ms. Rowling had spent those hours on a smartphone, scrolling through her Facebook feed or catching up on a Netflix series – the world’s most famous wizard might never have seen the light of day.
Rowling’s is just one famous example of how boredom can lead to creativity:
• Agatha Christie – “There’s nothing like boredom to make you write.”
• QuestLove – “When distraction shifts into boredom, that’s the seed of something creative.”
• Margaret Atwood – “[bird watching] takes you out of yourself – it’s a flow state. Writing ideas come in sideways during such states.”
• Steve Jobs – “Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity… and out of curiosity comes everything.”
Can boredom in the workplace be a good thing?
Let’s be clear about this – bored out of their minds is an emotional state you don’t want your employees to be in. Many managers assume that boredom comes from not having enough to do. But rigidly structured days, where every minute must be accountable for, can also have a negative impact on staff morale and creativity.
So, instead of resisting boredom, what if we embraced the idea of unstructured ‘empty’ time during the workday? Taking time out from the ‘busy means productive’ mindset to give your workforce the chance to de-clutter their thoughts and refresh their brains.
Experts believe that unstructured downtime, where we allow our brains to go into ‘default’ mode, free from external distractions, could be as beneficial as getting a good night’s sleep.
How to use boredom (or downtime) to enhance creative thinking:
• Do a mundane task – if you’re getting worked up over a complex problem, switch to a mundane task that doesn’t require much thought. By giving your brain a rest, it will have time to wander, process information better, and may help you come up with a solution.
• Take a break from the tech – switch off your phone and walk away from the computer. Go for a stroll around the block or sit in a quiet room. Give yourself time to experience boredom and let your mind wander freely.
• Observe the world around you – airport lounges are great places to quietly observe the frenetic pace of life while doing nothing. If you’re off on a business trip, or simply commuting to work, resist the urge to take your phone out and start scrolling – keep a pen and notebook handy instead; you never know what creative ideas may spring to mind.
Allowing yourself and your employees time to ‘step off the treadmill’ and take a break every now and again from the busy work schedule could prove fruitful for all. And yes, that sometimes means embracing boredom by doing nothing at all.