“It’s so boring…. Daddy, I feel bored,” said my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zoë when entering my home office. The next thing I heard was, “Oops, I have an idea!” She rushed off excitedly to engage in a new play activity that absorbed her for the next hour. The situation inspired me to explore the interesting connection between boredom and creativity. Counterintuitively, boredom can be a springboard to help you come up with extraordinary ideas. Here’s why.
A few words on boredom
“I am convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored,” noted the German social psychologist Erich Fromm. Most people consider boredom a rather negative emotional state that leads to poor outcomes and is best avoided. Feeling bored can even be considered slacking to be weeded out in the productivity- and efficiency-oriented business world.
The word “bored” can be defined as “feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one’s current activity.” As this definition pointedly suggests, boredom can both constitute an emotional state of being and an act of doing. In other words, when you’re bored, you either experience something happening that is boring (like being stuck in a boring meeting) or you’re doing something boring (such as filing away documents for hours).
What is the impact of boredom on creativity?
“I think one of the most important things for creativity is boredom,” said the American musician Maggie Rogers. While seemingly counterintuitive, she does have a point when we consider findings of more recent research study. In their 2014 research paper titled Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? published in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman confirmed that boredom can indeed enhance creativity:
- In their experiment, the two researchers asked a group of participants to first perform a dull task (copying numbers and names from a telephone book) and then to take a standard creativity test (i.e., finding areas of usage for an everyday item). Compared to a control group that wasn’t tasked with a prior dull work assignment, the bored group produced notably more ideas, and more divergent ones.
- When the researchers introduced a third group and assigned this an even more boring task (i.e., reading out names and numbers from a telephone book), this group creatively outperformed both group one and the control group.
Mann & Cadman concluded that in their experimental study, performing boring activities resulted in increased creativity. So, it seems that boredom can positively impact creativity, as also the American writer Robert M. Pirsig noted: “Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.”
Why can boredom inspire creativity?
In the above research experiment, the participants in groups 1 and 3 had to perform a mind-deadening routine over and over again. When engaged in such repetitive work, our brains tend to switch off automatically after some time and begin thinking of other, more exciting things.
Think about what happens if you perform a monotonous task on autopilot for a longer time (such as driving on a long, straight stretch of highway). Your mind tends to drift off after some time in search of a more exciting place. You might engage in a daydream, indulge in a fantasy, or let your imagination fly. In short, your mind escapes the boring routine by shifting to the creative side of your brain. As the American sociologist Sherry Turkle put it: “Boredom is your imagination calling to you.”
Likewise, when you are somewhere feeling bored, like waiting for a train to arrive, your mind goes often into a “blank” state that makes it receptive to ideas.
Where can we use boredom in the creative process?
Grounded in the work of the German physicist Herrmann von Helmholtz, the English educationalist Graham Wallas developed a well-known creative process model of subconscious creativity that distinguishes four phases: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Boredom is linked to and might be experienced in the second stage, incubation, as the Irish Comedian Graham Linehan explains: “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process.” But being able to bear boredom can shorten the time needed to produce a creative breakthrough solution, as the Israeli cognitive and mathematical psychologist and Noble Prize-winner Amos Tversky suggested: “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
Interestingly, boredom subsides immediately once you’ve got an exciting idea (illumination) as you get busy taking action on it in the final verification stage. That’s probably why the American author Earl Nightingale observed: “You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea.”
Boredom signals your disconnected from your creative self
Boredom is an emotional state relating to three fundamental destination stops of Genius Journey, Thinkergy’s creative leadership development method that can guide you how on how to reconnect to your creative self and tap into higher states of creativity. Regularly feeling bored is a signal that the following three fundamental creative mindsets are out of balance and need realignment:
Stop 1: Stop your doubts, worries, and fears. Start being an action-oriented, persistent believer.
Stop 2; Stop your ego. Start being yourself.
Stop 5: Stop being indifferent or working only for the money. Start being passionate and love what you do.
Boredom hits most of us from time to time. But when you feel bored frequently by what you’re experiencing or doing, it’s a clear sign of a misalignment of your current circumstances with your true essence:
- Who you are (=your Self).
- What you’re good at (= your talents).
- What you love doing (= your passion), and why you’re doing it (= your purpose).
“When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored,” commented the American social philosopher Eric Hoffer in this context. “Boredom is the fear of self,” observed the French author Marie Josephine de Suin, or to be more precise: It’s the fear of your true soul and of parting from an often comfortable life that nevertheless prevents you from living up to your full potential and true calling. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted in this context: “Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.”
“Boredom means you develop your own interior life,” suggested the American writer Hilton Als — or at least, it provides you with an opportunity to do so: Boredom invites you to probe what’s dissatisfying in your current life; to find out who you are and what you want to do, and then to make the necessary changes that align you with your true essence. The American mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn has a point: “When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.”
Boredom in the 21st century?
Nowadays, what do most people do when they begin feeling bored? They take out their mobile phones and immediately distract themselves with a mixture of information, entertainment, and the noise of their favorite social media network. (As a modern saying goes, “Facebook is like a fridge. When you’re bored you keep opening it.”)
The desire for instant distraction is prevalent by the digital natives of Gen Y and the digital addicts of Gen Z. So, if you’re a member of these generational cohorts, then take note of the words of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”
Because many people prefer digital distraction over feeling bored, the creative blessings of boredom —becoming an instigator of exciting ideas or highlighting inner conflicts and misalignments from your true creative self— are relegated to the back of our minds’ consciousness. The American cartoonist Lynda Barry comments in this context: “The phone gives us a lot, but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.”
Conclusion: Creatives can temporarily tolerate being bored, even when they’re not boring
“Everyone is a bore to someone. That is unimportant. The thing to avoid is being a bore to oneself,” said the British writer Gerald Brenan. I agree. Being boring is boring. But being able to bear boredom temporarily might be a valuable ability to seek creative distraction and inspiration and can also help you notice when you’re out of step with your creative self. Last but not least, if your child is bored, follow the advice of the American creative artisan Julia Cameron: “Don’t try to ‘fix’ the child’s boredom – rather, let the child find his or her inner resources.”
- Genius Journey is Thinkergy’s creative leadership development method that empowers you to reconnect to your essential creative core and play on the higher states of subconscious and superconscious creativity.
- We offer experiential Genius Journey training courses (of one to three days) for companies. Also, we can compose a tailored, more extensive Genius Journey development program for a group of executives who are eager to rediscover their inner genius.
- Contact us if you need support to help you deliver on your innovation agenda that can set your organization up for success in the turbulent, disruptive 2020s.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be copublished in a shorter version in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.