The Benefits of Boredom: How to Stop Distracting Yourself and Get Creative Ideas Again

Here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, we have con­quered bore­dom. Impres­sive though that achieve­ment may be, it has­n’t come with­out cost: As with many oth­er con­di­tions we’ve man­aged to elim­i­nate from our lives, bore­dom now looks to have been essen­tial to full human exis­tence. Has our real­i­ty of on-demand dis­trac­tions, tai­lored ever more close­ly to our impuls­es and desires, robbed us of yet anoth­er form of every­day adver­si­ty that built up the char­ac­ter of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions? Per­haps, but more impor­tant­ly, it may also have dried up our well of cre­ativ­i­ty. The frus­tra­tion that descends on us when try­ing to come up with new ideas; the itch we feel, when­ev­er we start doing some­thing, to do some­thing else; our inabil­i­ty to go more than a few min­utes with­out look­ing at our phones: we can hard­ly assume these mod­ern prob­lems are unre­lat­ed.

“When you’re bored, you tend to day­dream, and your mind wan­ders, and this is a very, very impor­tant part of the cre­ative process,” says psy­chol­o­gist San­di Mann in the ani­mat­ed BBC REEL video at the top of the post. “If you find that you’re stuck on a prob­lem, or you’re real­ly wor­ried about some­thing and can’t seem to find a way out, take some time out. Just be bored. Let your mind wan­der, and you might just find that a cre­ative solu­tion will pop into your head.”

But we’ve fall­en into the habit of “swip­ing and scrolling our bore­dom away,” seek­ing “a dopamine hit from new and nov­el expe­ri­ences” — most often dig­i­tal ones — to assuage our fears of bore­dom. And the more such stim­u­la­tion we get, the more we need, mean­ing that, “para­dox­i­cal­ly, the way to deal with bore­dom is to allow more of it into our life.”

“Once you start day­dream­ing and allow your mind to real­ly wan­der,” Mann says, “you start think­ing a lit­tle bit beyond the con­scious, a lit­tle bit into the sub­con­scious, which allows sort of dif­fer­ent con­nec­tions to take place.” She says it in “How Bore­dom Can Lead to Your Most Bril­liant Ideas,” a TED Talk by jour­nal­ist Manoush Zomoro­di. Like the pub­lic-radio pod­cast­er she is, Zomoro­di brings in inter­view clips from not just Mann but a range of experts on the sub­ject of bore­dom and dis­trac­tion, includ­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin, who warns that “every time you shift your atten­tion from one thing to anoth­er, the brain has to engage a neu­ro­chem­i­cal switch that uses up nutri­ents in the brain to accom­plish that.” And so the “mul­ti­task­ing” in which we once prid­ed our­selves amounts to noth­ing more than “rapid­ly shift­ing from one thing to the next, deplet­ing neur­al resources as you go.”

We’ve become like the exper­i­ment sub­jects, described in the Ver­i­ta­si­um video above, who were asked to sit alone in an emp­ty room for a few min­utes with noth­ing in front of them but a but­ton that they knew would shock them. In the end, 25 per­cent of the women and 60 per­cent of the men chose, unasked, to shock them­selves, pre­sum­ably out of a pref­er­ence for painful stim­u­la­tion over no stim­u­la­tion at all. How much, we have to won­der, does that ulti­mate­ly dif­fer from the dis­trac­tions we com­pul­sive­ly seek at every oppor­tu­ni­ty in the form of social media, games, and oth­er addic­tive apps? And what do these increas­ing­ly fre­quent self-admin­is­tered jolts do to our abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy promis­ing avenues of thought and fol­low them all the way to their most fruit­ful con­clu­sions? As the old say­ing goes, only the bor­ing are bored. But if our tech­no­log­i­cal lives keep going the way they’ve been going, soon only the bored will be inter­est­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Boosts Our Cre­ativ­i­ty (Plus Free Resources to Help You Start Med­i­tat­ing)

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Old­er: What the Research Says

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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