How Can Boredom Foster Creativity?

Image credit: Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

By Natascha Ng

Over the last few weeks, we have all had far too much time on our hands and, for many of us, this has probably been quite daunting. There is lots of societal pressure to be using this time to better ourselves, get fitter and learn new skills. However, if you are struggling to find this motivation it turns out this could, in fact, be a very productive use of your time.

Our minds are trained to perceive dullness as something that makes us unproductive, but the reality is that some of the greatest ideas stemmed from boredom. I am sure many of us have experienced that lightbulb moment or solved something that had been nagging you whilst partaking in a mundane task such as folding washing or showering. These moments of genius often occur when we are bored – but why?

A growing body of research shows that boredom can give us clarity; it allows different connections within the subconscious to take place, connecting ideas and solving problems. ‘Boredom becomes a seeking state’ says Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench. ‘What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged’. Research shows that being in a state of boredom encourages you to explore creative outlets because your brain is telling you that your current situation is insufficient and signally for you to push forward. According to Jerome Singer, an expert on positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), when you intentionally allow your mind to wander, you’re tapping into your unconscious brain, allowing it to access long-lost memories and make meaningful connections.

It turns out being a multitasker isn’t all that – if you are doing nothing, you are actually being your most productive and creative self. So, whilst Sophie might have a banana cake in the oven while she finishes off her newest blog post on her favourite books to read during quarantine, there are also benefits to passing your time daydreaming.

Perhaps we have got boredom wrong. Boredom isn’t something that we should try and escape but instead embrace. It can give us clarity, helping us understand emotions and make connections.

But are we ever truly bored anymore? If I have a spare minute waiting in a queue or taking a break from work, I immediately pick up my phone and check Instagram, Snapchat or other forms of social media. A number of studies argue that this is due to the cultural attachment we have with our phones. And yes. I think many of us would agree we are pretty co-dependent on our phone, mine certainly feels to me like a teddy to a baby. Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, says ‘We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices’. Mann says that whilst this might relieve us temporarily, it shuts down the deeper thinking. According to eComerce, UK adults spend 9 hours and 40 minutes each day consuming media. Considering this we can see how we are missing the opportunity to let our minds go into default mode.

So how should we be bored the right way?

Mann recommends, to tap into true boredom, picking an activity that requires little or no concentration — like walking a familiar route, swimming laps or even just sitting with your eyes closed — and simply letting your mind wander, without music or stimulation to guide it. But she warns that we must be careful to not confuse boredom and relaxation. There are two key differences between boredom and relaxation. The first being energy levels – a low level of energy will result in relaxation. However, an unstimulating environment coupled with a high level of personal energy leads to boredom. The second is intent, we usually intend to relax, whereas when you unexpectedly find yourself without anything to do you feel bored.

Zomorodi’s New York Public Radio tech podcast ‘Note to Self’, turned into a project called ‘Bored and Brilliant,’ was designed to get listeners to spend less time on their phones. Participant feedback noted an increase in mental wellbeing as a result of spending less time on their phones.

So, if we are bored in this lockdown, let’s try not to turn to our phones to distract ourselves from deeper thinking. In fact, maybe this is the perfect time to teach ourselves how to be productively bored. Because for many of us who are struggling with uni work, taking some time out to do nothing might be the most successful tool in working out the next step.

Zomorodi argues that we need to teach ourselves how to self-regulate and proposes this becomes part of digital literacy. For those of us with unhealthy attachment issues with our phones, or those of us who would just like to feel less reliant on them, perhaps we can take the first steps of ‘Bored and Brilliant’.