How boredom can make you more productive and creative
Last updated on: June 22, 2022
As a kid, I used to get bored very often, especially during summer vacations. My Mom would always tell me to go read a book or play outside. But, I remember that one time, after spending hours doing nothing, I felt inspired to write a short story about building a doghouse for puppies, and why that matters. These moments of creativity came as a complete surprise to me.
So, when you think about it, boredom can sometimes be a good thing, even though we usually perceive it as a negative experience.
In this blog post, we’ll shed light on boredom, and why we dread it. We’ll also explore why getting bored is important for your brain, as well as show you some ways to trigger boredom in order to gain creativity.
The science behind boredom
There’s no universal definition of boredom. Many psychological studies that examine the subject of boredom are trying to unravel whether boredom is an emotion or a mental state. One paper about Why Boredom Matters for Psychology and Society suggests that “boredom ‘behaves’ like an emotion”.
So, if we have no accurate definition, what do we know about boredom? Why do we get bored? Here’s what science has to say about it.
Boredom is a motivational state
For professor James Danckert at the University of Waterloo, boredom is a motivational state.
He discussed his team’s findings in a lecture. According to Danckert, people don’t like being bored. That’s why he believes boredom is “a state that we want to redress, we need to do something about it.” Although boredom may be mistaken for apathy, Danckert claims that they are not the same — boredom is actually a motivational state:
“It’s a call to action. It’s a push to action, a push to explore your environment.”
Boredom is a situational state
In his article, The bright side of boredom, Andreas Elpidorou, from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, shares some interesting observations, as well. For Elpidorou, boredom is a
psychological state. He also adds that we can easily relieve ourselves from the state of boredom since it’s temporary. In addition, Elpidorou thinks that boredom is situational. Here’s how: we sometimes get bored because we find ourselves in situations that are unchallenging, monotonous, or repetitive. In Elpidorou’s opinion, boredom isn’t a state of balance:
“We are not content in it. We feel restless and wish to be doing something else. We desire escape from boredom,” he adds.
So, boredom can cause some kind of imbalance in our life. Now, there are other reasons people find boredom frightful, which we’ll cover in the following section.
Why do we resist boredom?
A few years ago, a security guard in Wisconsin handcuffed himself because he was bored. He had to call the police to release him, as he left the keys at home.
Let’s look at one more drastic example of how far people are willing to go to avoid boredom. In the study about the challenges of being left alone with your thoughts, people were asked to choose whether they want to sit and think for 15 minutes, or get a mild electric shock. Believe it or not, 67% of men and 25% of women opted for electric shocks.
These are just some examples of what we’re capable of doing when we’re bored. Now, stop for a second and think. Why do we find boredom so terrifying?
I looked for answers in the book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self, by Manoush Zomorodi. In the book, one of Zomorodi’s interlocutors is Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good.
Boredom is an emotion we want to suppress
According to Mann, every emotion has a purpose, or an evolutionary benefit. To her, boredom is an emotion. In fact, she was researching emotions in the workplace. Her findings show that, apart from anger, boredom is the second most commonly suppressed emotion. Or, as Mann humorously explains in Bored and Brilliant:
“It gets such bad press. Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom.”
We view boredom as a negative state
And, that’s not just the case at the workplace. Try to analyze some of the most significant literary and philosophical pieces, and you’ll be surprised. Many authors refer to boredom as a negative aspect of our lives.
In the aforementioned The bright side of boredom, Elpidorou highlights some writers and philosophers who believed boredom to be:
- “disruptive and harmful (Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Burton),
- a great source of unhappiness and suffering (Schopenhauer, Beckett, Kierkegaard),
- a state that hinders the development of one’s intellectual, social, and even moral capacities (Dante’s Purgatorio, Pascal), and
- ‘the root of all evil’ (Kierkegaard).”
Talk about bad press, right? No wonder we’ll do anything to avoid boredom, sometimes even trying productive things to do when bored.
But, even though boredom has negative connotations in today’s society, many studies show its benefits.
What are the positive effects of boredom?
Let’s take a closer look at the advantages of boredom.
Boredom can trigger creativity
Manoush Zomorodi says in the above-mentioned book:
“Creativity—no matter how you define or apply it—needs a push, and boredom, which allows new and different connections to form in our brain, is a most effective muse. It’s what the futurist Rita King calls ‘the tedium of creativity’.”
Numerous studies show the link between boredom and creativity.
For instance, in a study conducted by Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood, volunteers watched various video clips. These videos evoked feelings such as relaxation, boredom, and happiness. After watching the videos, researchers tested the participants’ ability to think about different vocabulary words. For example, researchers asked participants to think about a vehicle and come up with associations. The volunteers who were relaxed or happy usually answered with the word “car,” while bored volunteers had more creative answers such as “camel.”
In another study called Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative, there were two groups of participants. In the first group, volunteers had to deal with a boring writing activity, then with a creative task. In the second group, participants had to complete either a boring written activity or boring reading activity. In both groups, there was a control group of people who did nothing. According to the results, boring activities led to enhanced creativity in participants, while boring reading activities contributed to more creativity in some situations.
Boredom can enhance productivity
The previously-mentioned surveys show us that being bored can sometimes trigger creativity. But, how does boredom affect productivity?
In the research Why Being Bored Might Not Be a Bad Thing After All, which explored the consequences of being bored, researchers conducted several studies. One of these studies involved a mundane task that participants had to finish. Researchers found that participants were more productive after finishing a dull task.
Boredom can ease negative emotions
Even though the state of boredom is often linked with negative emotions, the researchers from the previously-mentioned study came to different conclusions.
In their second study, participants carried out several dull tasks. Once they finished these boring assignments, volunteers weren’t showing any signs of other negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. Therefore, researchers concluded that “boredom is not always paired with other negative feelings.”
Boredom can improve empathy
Now, here’s a surprising benefit or boredom — it can actually promote empathy. This scientific discovery comes from the University of Limerick, Ireland. It’s a Doctoral Thesis called Boredom and Its Psychological Consequences: A Meaning-Regulation Approach.
In this paper, the author claims that “boredom can promote prosocial behavior.” That’s because, when people are bored, they feel like their actions have no meaning, which further motivates them to change their behavior. The author also adds that the literature he used for the thesis links prosocial behavior and a sense of meaningfulness. In addition, the author mentions that, in several studies, there are examples of prosocial responses like altruism, blood donations, and charity support. All these activities are the result of people being bored and wanting to act in a prosocial manner.
Boredom can spark motivation for significant change in life
We already mentioned that boredom is a motivation state. Or, as professor Danckert says, a call to action.
Now, according to the On the Function of Boredom study, we need boredom when we wish to make significant life changes. In this study, researchers suggest that when we feel our previous goals are fading, we need to search for new goals. They also claim that it’s the emotional state of boredom that motivates people to seek new goals. Throughout the study, authors illustrate their research by mentioning Alice in Wonderland:
“Much like Alice becoming distracted from her fear of falling and shifting her attention towards the cupboards and her upcoming conversations; we propose that boredom will motivate the pursuit of new goals as the intensity of the current experience fades.”
In this case, being bored is a sign that something needs to change, that you need to pursue new and exciting objectives.
So, for instance, if you find your current job boring, and you don’t feel excited about it anymore, maybe it’s time to reconsider your career. Think about your dream job. If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about when it comes to working, talk with your family and friends, figure it out together.
Why getting bored is important for your brain
What would a life without boredom look like? It’s difficult to imagine, but for professor Danckert, this would mean not having a call to action. Danckert was a guest on the podcast Choose to be Curious. While discussing a subject of boredom and its purpose, this is how he described a world without it:
“As so, you would become an apathetic, ineffectual individual. None of us really want that. We want to be out in the world, engaging with others, engaging with different tasks, goals, and pursuing those goals as effectively as we can. Boredom helps us do that.”
As you can see, Danckert truly is an advocate of boredom. But, apart from him, many other scientists were eager to discover how boredom affects our brain functionality. Here are the key reasons boredom is important for your brain.
Boredom allows your brain to switch into the default mode
When you’re bored, your brain isn’t focused on a particular activity, which is why it usually starts to wander. For example, it’s when you’re performing repetitive tasks like folding your laundry or washing the dishes. But, what exactly is going on in your brain at that moment?
It switches to the “default mode”, a term coined by neuroscientist Marcus Raichle. As Manoush Zomorodi explains the term in the book Bored and Brilliant, “default mode is used to describe the brain ‘at rest,’ that is, when we’re not focused on an external, goal-oriented task.” According to neuroscientists, there are several reasons default mode is beneficial for your brain:
- It’s the time when you’re able to perform your most original thinking and problem-solving.
- It encourages you to have empathy, and to broaden your imagination.
Instead of the term “default mode”, some scientists even call it the “imagination network” because it helps us come up with the most creative ideas.
Boredom allows your brain to process new information better
In the aforementioned book, Zomorodi points out that, for a brain to rest, it needs to experience boredom. Moreover, boredom helps the brain process information better.
So, when learning something new, you’re ‘feeding’ your brain stimuli. And, in order to process new information, your brain needs frequent breaks. During these moments of rest, it’s able to sort out new data. As a result, you’ll be capable of remembering these new pieces of information.
Apart from breaks, having enough sleep at night is equally important for your brain functionality. Not only will you feel relaxed in the morning, but thanks to this routine, you’ll have more energy to better organize your life.
How to trigger boredom in order to regain creativity
Now, here are some ways to get bored for the greater good — and get creative juices flowing.
Try the “Dream house assignment”
In 2015, Manoush Zomorodi started a podcast called Note to Self. One of the projects she organized for her listeners was the Bored and Brilliant challenge. The goal of this challenge was to rethink your relationship with technology. So, participants had different challenges throughout the week.
One of the most interesting assignments that participants had to perform was the “Dream house” task. So, in one episode, Zomorodi had a special guest, an artist Nina Katchadourian who came up with this assignment.
Here’s how you can try this task at home or anywhere you are:
- Put your phone away.
- Put a pot of water on the stove and watch the water come to a boil. Alternatively, if you don’t have a stove, you can take a small piece of paper and write 10101010, as small as you can, until you fill out the entire paper.
- Doing such an activity will get you bored, which is exactly what you need.
But, here’s a fun part of the assignment:
- Take your wallet and empty it out.
- Use everything you have in your wallet (money, credit cards, coins) to build your dream house.
- Once you finish constructing your dream house, take a photo of it. Be creative and find the best angle for a photograph.
- Lastly, name your dream house and think about its location.
The gist of this challenge is to spend some time away from your phone, then get bored by doing some dull activity. Finally, experiencing a state of boredom will help you unlock your creativity. Check out this link to see how participants of this challenge built their dream houses.
Take a break from your phone
The purpose of this tip is to prevent you from reaching out to your phone when you’re bored. Furthermore, reducing your usage of digital devices will eventually help you take back control of your time.
So, what can you do instead of scrolling through your social media accounts on a phone? There are some tricks you can do to let your mind wander.
For instance, take a walk around the block. You can even repeat this routine several times.
Or, if you like swimming, be sure to visit a local pool. You can swim from one part of the pool to the other a couple of times.
Feel free to think of any other similar activity that will help you unwind and mind-wander, without using your phone. Don’t be afraid to embrace the boredom.
Observe the world around you
Another Bored and Brilliant challenge is “One Small Observation.” The idea behind this challenge is to observe the world around you, in order to spark creativity. As the host of the podcast, Manoush Zomorodi, says, “noticing is step one to creating something.”
Here’s how to try this challenge:
- Go to a public place, such as the mall, the gas station, the park, or take a cab ride around the town.
- Take some time to watch people around you (without being too creepy, of course).
- Let your mind wander.
How will these observations help you? Well, spending some time doing nothing will help your brain activate that imagination network we mentioned earlier.
In addition to simply observing what you see, you can also note down your observations. A futurist, Rita King, says that, when paying attention to the world around her, she usually writes down what she sees. For instance, it can be a dialogue she heard at the train station, or simply paying attention to how the birds fly, then noting it down.
Famous boredom-triggering routines you can try
If you need some additional ideas for enhancing your creativity by experiencing boredom, here are several tricks that famous people use:
- Traveling without books or gadgets. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, claims that taking the four-hour train ride from Manchester to London, without any books or gadgets, helped her come up with amazing book ideas. Who knows, maybe Rowling wouldn’t have thought up a story about Harry Potter if she had a phone with her. As you can see, sometimes traveling without any type of entertainment comes in handy and improves creativity.
- Household chores. For the choreographer George Balanchine, ironing in the morning did wonders. According to Mason Currey, the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Balanchine claims that ironing helped him find inspiration. Apart from ironing, tidying the house and washing dishes were significant creativity boosters for the writer Doris Lessing, the author of The Golden Notebook.
- Birdwatching. Here’s another thing you can try during your walks. Birdwatching is the routine that Margaret Atwood, a novelist and a poet famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, found very inspiring. Atwood says that birdwatching helped her with her writing process.
So, how about a little experiment? Try some boredom-triggering activities we described here and see how they work for you and whether they increase your creativity.
The time you spend while being bored is definitely not time wasted. Many experts agree that boredom is a motivation state, a call to action that pushes you to change your environment. In line with that, numerous studies show that boredom can trigger your creativity and enhance productivity. Moreover, in some cases, being bored can motivate you to be empathetic, and even help you make significant changes in your life.
So, next time you feel bored, try to resist the urge to take your phone. Embrace these moments of mind wandering to see how boredom can activate that imagination network in your brain. Plus, be sure to keep a notebook nearby, in case you come up with some creative ideas.
✉️ Do you have an interesting story of how boredom helped you be more productive and creative? Feel free to share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include it in this or future posts.