Struggling to Be Creative? Try Being Bored.
As a child, I remember complaining to my parents, “I’m borrrredddddd.” They'd kindly respond, through what I assume were clenched teeth, “Sweetheart, find something to do.” And I did. I made obstacle courses outside, wrote fantasy books (no, they don’t still exist 😅), and tried to clip my hair like Cher in Clueless. I always found something to do.
As an adult, it’s hard for me to remember the last time I uttered “I’m bored.” My brain’s fear mongrels tell me: if you’re bored, you’re lazy. My schedule shows me: there’s no way you can be bored with all those meetings and yoga classes. My iPhone beckons me: you can’t be bored when I’m around.
Boredom is hard to come by today. Not only is the modern working world pressuring us to be part of the hustle culture where we’re busy all the time and proud of it, but we also have the internet, and our phones, to provide constant stimulation. When we don’t feel stimulated, we feel bored. Back in the day, we may have picked up a magazine and read the latest about J. Lo and George Clooney or started writing chapter one of our fantasy novel, but now we reach for what’s comfortable (and easy): our phones. Look at anyone in line at Target, waiting for the subway, or sitting in a doctor’s office – chances are they’re all scrolling on their phones, avoiding the terror of boredom.
But here’s the somewhat uncomfortable truth… research is finding that boredom avoidance is bad. Like, really bad. Because boredom is actually good, and even essential, in today’s over-connected world. It could be the antidote to many serious workplace issues like burnout, discontentedness, and creative block. Why? Boredom gives us the sweet, sweet space for our brains to do what it so rarely can: wander.
Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychology lecturer at University of Central Lancashire and emotions expert, found that a state of boredom allows your mind to press pause on the to-do list, the deadline, the distraction so you can daydream/fantasize/muse about what could be and what isn’t. As you sit and exist in that headspace, your brain forms new connections in the conscious and subconscious mind. By thinking without agenda, you’re increasing the likelihood that you can create, problem solve, and innovate. If you, like most working folks, yearn for a breakthrough idea or revolutionary product to reinvigorate your company and/or your people, then boredom may be the best method to get there. Mann’s research proves that if you’re bored, relish in it. It could be the pivotal step to something new at work and at home.
I s’pose Ferris was right: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” When we’re running at one speed (hustle and bustle), we don’t take the time to sit and examine our lives: Am I happy? Am I fulfilled? What could I be doing differently? Boredom, the wandering mind, and the accompanying questions, can open our eyes to things that may need to change.
Wijnand Van Tilburg, a professor at King’s College London and social cognition researcher, found that “boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.” So, the next time you allow yourself to be bored, you could very well find your new purpose. Or, in a less grandiose way, you could realize that you need to travel abroad, journal, or start scrapbooking again because you stopped that nonsense when Archivers closed. You could ideate ways to shift, change, and appreciate the rest of your life simply by sitting and existing for a moment.
So, how can you be more bored?
Well, first, understand that boredom is the act of spacing out with no goal and little external stimuli, or doing something that’s so routine that your mind shifts into autopilot. It’s easy to confuse boredom for relaxation and while they can go hand in hand, hiking a new trail will give you lots of animals, trees, and humans to look at so boredom is unlikely. Walking a trail you’ve walked a million times, however, will kick your brain into boredom mode. Running on the treadmill (without music), taking a shower (no podcasts!), and laying down looking at the ceiling (again, silence) are all great choices.
Second, this may seem obvious, but DON’T reach for your phone. Put that thing away. Turn it on do-not-disturb. Eliminate all possible tech distractions or your fingers will itch to see what you’re missing.
Three, as mentioned earlier, make sure to turn off your music, podcast, audiobook while you’re driving, cleaning, or taking a shower. Let those mundane tasks get your unconscious mind flowing.
Fourth, plan an evening of doing nothing. No plans, no errands, no to-do lists. Just you, your brain, and a comfy chair.
The first few times you create space for boredom will likely be uncomfortable. Perhaps it’ll make you want to complain like kiddos who can’t find anything to do. If so, that’s ok. “I am quite happy when my kids whine that they are bored,” said Mann, because “finding ways to amuse themselves is an important skill.” So, get bored. And find a way to amuse yourself. It might even lead to your next great idea.