How to Take Advantage of Boredom, the Secret Ingredient of Creativity


Pierre-August Renoir, La Tasse de choco­lat

Last year we told you about the impor­tance of messy desks and walk­ing to cre­ativ­i­ty. This year, the time has come to real­ize how much cre­ativ­i­ty also depends on bore­dom. In a sense, of course, humankind has utter­ly van­quished bore­dom, what with our mod­ern tech­nolo­gies — com­put­ers, high-speed inter­net, smart­phones — that make pos­si­ble sources of rich and fre­quent stim­u­la­tion such as, well, this very site. But what if we need a lit­tle bore­dom? What if bore­dom, that state we 21st-cen­tu­ry first-worlders wor­ry about avoid­ing more than any oth­er, actu­al­ly helps us cre­ate?

Even if we feel no bore­dom in our free time, sure­ly we still endure the occa­sion­al bout of it at work. “Admit­ting that bore­dom to cowork­ers or man­agers is like­ly some­thing few of us have ever done,” writes the Har­vard Busi­ness Review’s David Burkus. “It turns out, how­ev­er, that a cer­tain lev­el of bore­dom might actu­al­ly enhance the cre­ative qual­i­ty of our work.”

He cites a well-known sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment which found that vol­un­teers did bet­ter at a cre­ative task (like find­ing dif­fer­ent uses for a pair of plas­tic cups) when first sub­ject­ed to a bor­ing one (like copy­ing num­bers out of the phone book) which “height­ens the ‘day­dream­ing effect’ on cre­ativ­i­ty — the more pas­sive the bore­dom, the more like­ly the day­dream­ing and the more cre­ative you could be after­ward.”

Burkus also refers to anoth­er paper doc­u­ment­ing the per­for­mance of dif­fer­ent sub­jects on word-asso­ci­a­tion tests after watch­ing dif­fer­ent video clips, one of them delib­er­ate­ly bor­ing. Who came up with the most cre­ative asso­ci­a­tions? You guessed it: those who watched the bor­ing video first. Bore­dom, the exper­i­menters sug­gest, “moti­vates peo­ple to approach new and reward­ing activ­i­ties. In oth­er words, an idle mind will seek a toy. (Any­one who has tak­en a long car ride with a young child has sure­ly expe­ri­enced some ver­sion of this phe­nom­e­non.)”

Writ­ing about those same exper­i­ments, Fast Com­pa­ny’s Vivian Giang quotes researcher Andreas Elpi­dorou of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville as claim­ing that “bore­dom helps to restore the per­cep­tion that one’s activ­i­ties are mean­ing­ful or sig­nif­i­cant.” He describes it as a “reg­u­la­to­ry state that keeps one in line with one’s projects. In the absence of bore­dom, one would remain trapped in unful­fill­ing sit­u­a­tions, and miss out on many emo­tion­al­ly, cog­ni­tive­ly, and social­ly reward­ing expe­ri­ences. Bore­dom is both a warn­ing that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that moti­vates us to switch goals and projects.”

“Bore­dom is a fas­ci­nat­ing emo­tion because it is seen as so neg­a­tive yet it is such a moti­vat­ing force,” says Dr. San­di Mann of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Lan­cashire, one of the mas­ter­minds of the exper­i­ments with the phone book and the plas­tic cups, quot­ed by Tele­graph sci­ence edi­tor Sarah Knap­ton“Being bored is not the bad thing every­one makes it out to be. It is good to be bored some­times! I think up so many ideas when I am com­mut­ing to and from work – this would be dead time, but thanks to the bore­dom it induces, I come up with all sorts of projects.” (This also man­i­fests in her par­ent­ing: “I am quite hap­py when my kids whine that they are bored,” she said: “Find­ing ways to amuse them­selves is an impor­tant skill.”)


“Near­ly the Week­end,” by David Feltkamp. Cre­ative Com­mons image

How to make use of all this? “Tak­en togeth­er,” Burkus writes, “these stud­ies sug­gest that the bore­dom so com­mon­ly felt at work could actu­al­ly be lever­aged to help us get our work done bet­ter,” per­haps by “spend­ing some focused time on hum­drum activ­i­ties such as answer­ing emails, mak­ing copies, or enter­ing data,” after which “we may be bet­ter able to think up more (and more cre­ative) pos­si­bil­i­ties to explore.” In the words of Dr. Mann her­self, “Bore­dom at work has always been seen as some­thing to be elim­i­nat­ed, but per­haps we should be embrac­ing it in order to enhance our cre­ativ­i­ty.” And so to an even more inter­est­ing ques­tion: “Do peo­ple who are bored at work become more cre­ative in oth­er areas of their work – or do they go home and write nov­els?”

David Fos­ter Wal­lace took on the rela­tion­ship between bore­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty in an ambi­tious way when he start­ed writ­ing The Pale King, his unfin­ished nov­el (which he pri­vate­ly called “the Long Thing”) set in an Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice branch office in mid-1980s Peo­ria. The papers relat­ed to the project he left behind includ­ed a note about the book’s larg­er theme:

It turns out that bliss – a sec­ond-by-sec­ond joy + grat­i­tude at the gift of being alive, con­scious – lies on the oth­er side of crush­ing, crush­ing bore­dom. Pay close atten­tion to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, tele­vised golf), and, in waves, a bore­dom like you’ve nev­er known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like step­ping from black and white into col­or. Like water after days in the desert. Con­stant bliss in every atom.

This, as well as the more every­day sug­ges­tions about work­ing more cre­ative­ly by doing the bor­ing bits first, would seem to share a basis with the ancient tra­di­tion of med­i­ta­tion. If indeed human­i­ty has gone too far in its mis­sion to alle­vi­ate the dis­com­fort of bore­dom, it has pro­duced the even more per­ni­cious con­di­tion in which we all feel con­stant­ly and unthink­ing­ly des­per­ate for new dis­trac­tions (which Shop Class as Soul­craft author Matthew B. Craw­ford mem­o­rably called “obe­si­ty of the mind”) while know­ing full well that those dis­trac­tions keep us from our impor­tant work, be it design­ing a sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment, com­ing up with a sales strat­e­gy, or writ­ing a nov­el.

Maybe we can undo some of the dam­age by delib­er­ate­ly, reg­u­lar­ly shut­ting off our per­son­al flow of inter­est­ing sen­so­ry input for a while, whether through med­i­ta­tion, data entry, phone-book copy­ing, of whichev­er method feels right to you. (WNY­C’s Manoush Zomoro­di even launched a project last year called “Bored and Bril­liant: The Lost Art of Spac­ing Out,” which chal­lenged lis­ten­ers to min­i­mize their phone-check­ing and put the time gained to more cre­ative use.)  But we all need some high-qual­i­ty stim­u­la­tion soon­er or lat­er, so when you feel ready for anoth­er dose of it, you know where to find us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers and Writ­ers Have Always Known

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

The Psy­chol­o­gy of Messi­ness & Cre­ativ­i­ty: Research Shows How a Messy Desk and Cre­ative Work Go Hand in Hand

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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