The Upside of Boredom

From Skype to Slack to Google Docs, it’s pretty incredible what we can do with the phones we carry in our pocket. I can video chat live with someone on the other side of the world while sitting on a park bench as my kid plays with friends after school. Or read the latest interesting journal articles while waiting to pick up Chinese food around the corner.

In fact, the computing power of our phones far exceed those of the computers NASA used to send Neil Armstrong and other astronauts to the moon (check out this comparison).

With so much computing power at my disposal 24/7, it’s no wonder that I find myself constantly engaging with my phone anytime I have a spare moment to fill. Waiting for my kid to be released from school? Hmm…let me check out my Flipboard feed. Bus is 2 stops away? Hmm…maybe I’ll tap out a quick email to someone. Commercial break on a TV show? Hmm…I wonder what Apple News says is happening in the world today.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I can’t remember the last time I felt bored. All the little “in-between” moments where boredom used to set in are now taken up with apps of one kind or another.

But gee, isn’t it great to be super productive? And smartly use my in-between time to get stuff done?

Maybe, in a way. But is that really the goal? To eliminate the empty, “boring” moments from our days?

Or does boredom have a point?

Does boredom enhance creativity?

A pair of British researchers designed a pair of studies to see if there were any benefits to periods of boredom. Specifically, by seeing if there might be a relationship between boredom and creative thinking.

But…how the heck do you make someone experience boredom on command?

Well, half of the participants in the study were given a few pages out of a phone book (remember those?), and asked to copy the phone numbers onto a blank sheet of paper for 15 minutes.

After the “bored group” was finished, both they and the control group were both given two styrofoam cups, and asked to write down as many different uses for the cups as they could think of in 3 minutes. Of course, this is not the be all and end all of creativity, but it is one common measure of “divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with new and interesting solutions to problems which have no set answers.

Daydreaming gets a bad rap?

The results suggest that boredom, and the daydreaming that often accompanies such a state, does seem to enhance this sort of creative thinking. Those who did the creativity task right after the boring task were able to think of many more uses for the cups than those in the control group (10.63 vs. 7.33).

In a follow-up study, yet another boredom-inducing task was added (reading phone numbers from a phone book), as well as additional tests of creativity. The results were similar, and they found that in some cases boredom not only increases the number of creative thoughts, but the uniqueness or quality of creative thoughts as well.

The authors explain that when daydreaming, “seemingly illogical ideas can be explored in ways that may not be practically feasible and through this exploration a new and more suitable solution to problems or unresolved situations may be found.” It sounds, in other words, like daydreaming gives your brain an opportunity to think without being so critical of its weirdest, zaniest ideas. Some of which might be wacky enough to be sort of brilliant.

Takeaways

My kids begin their spring break this week, so I suspect I may be hearing refrains of “Mommy, Daddy, I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!” once the initial novelty of time off from school wears off.

But rather than getting exasperated and frustrated and giving them something to do, perhaps the most helpful thing I can do is to let them flex their imagination muscles and figure this out on their own.

After all, as I think back to my own childhood, there were times when I’d get so bored that I would resort to inventing an obstacle course for my cat, or dig a ditch from my front door to the pond down the road. None of which was very productive in the traditional sense, but probably gave my creativity muscles a pretty good workout.

And heck, sometimes I’d get so bored, that I would even pick up my violin and practice!

Additional reading

How kids can benefit from boredom @The Conversation

Everyone should make time for daydreaming @New York magazine

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Comments

8 Responses

    1. The way this was set up, everyone took the creativity test only once, so the non-bored group didn’t have a specific activity to engage in beforehand. They just walked in the door and started off the study with the creativity test, so they would have been doing whatever they were doing before arriving. Whereas the bored group would have arrived, spent 15 minutes getting bored (they were asked to rate the level of boredom of the task, and whether they found themselves daydreaming or not, and those who did not rate the task as boring enough or who did not daydream were eliminated from the data analysis), and then engaged in the creativity test.

  1. “And heck, sometimes I’d get so bored, that I would even pick up my violin and practice!”

    For me, one of the biggest benefits of boredom.

    Thanks Dr. Noa!!!

  2. In 1994, I was a few years out of college, we had a toddler, and I wanted to do something so I could get out of the house on Saturday mornings… so, I started a youth orchestra! We started with 8 violins and 2 cellos. We are wrapping up our 23rd season soon with 2 orchestras and have capped our enrollment at 90 string players. http://www.preludestrings.org. I always tell the parents at the annual welcome meeting that I started the orchestra because I was bored.

  3. Could it be we are talking about two different things here?
    On the one hand I see “boredom” in its very general sense. Like being fed up with the ever-same environment, trying to find inspiration in things that have long finished to inspire us in any way. As a kid I felt this way when I searched my room for things to do: Ah, my bookshelf. I could read something! – No, I know all these books already… Maybe that other book? Don’t feel like it now… Draw something? Hm, no idea …
    It sent my mind into the ever-same circles, much like zoo animals trodding the same path over and over as part of a behavioural disorder.
    I can’t remember this state to ever cause creative bursts, and if I did finally come up with something to do, it was usually a compromise I’d accept out of desperation, never a flash of genius.

    On the other hand there are activities that are cognitively undemanding and repetitive: Knitting. Putting pipet tips into racks (one by one, two or three per second) in a lab. Weeding. Swimming. Cutting vegetables (if you get into the groove) While “undemanding and repetitive” doesn’t sound exciting, I have often found these to be surprisingly recreative after mentally (creatively or otherwise) demanding tasks.
    Copying phone numbers happens to fall into the same category (just like the recently popular zentangles).

    Do the authors specify their understanding of “boredom”? Do they say which characteristics of the copying-task they consider relevant for their findings?
    “Undemanding and repetitive” – as I put it – is just the mot obvious common characteristic that caught my eye. I’d be excited to learn what’s really distinctive to this class of activities.

    PS: Making this distiction would also raise the question whether the boredom we experience at the bus stop is really the type that we want. Maybe checking out the flipboard feed isn’t so bad after all? (As long as we do so repetitively? ; ) )

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