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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