Being bored can make you more creative

The surprising link between boredom and creativity

This will make you re-think your relationship with social media.

You stare at the screen, eyes skipping over reams of information, data and numbers. The phone beeps with a text from a friend; a flashing pop-up on your desktop alerts you to a new email in your inbox; another alarm reminds you of a meeting you had scheduled; an alert reminds you to take your vitamins.

At the end of the workday, exhausted, you scroll through Instagram, beautifully curated photographs flashing in front of your eyes as you mindlessly throw hearts around like confetti. Too tired to think, you log on to Twitter to catch up with the day’s news. Then you check your email only to realize you do not have the bandwidth to process any of the messages that have hit your inbox.

By this time, your brain has all but shut down. It’s screaming for a break — it needs some quiet, to not have to process any more information or crunch through any more data that you keep throwing at it. But the problem is that you’re not used to being bored anymore.

Since your brain refuses to process what you’re trying to read, you decide to log on to Netflix to “unwind”.


A child playing in a field is the perfect example of how boredom sparks creativity
Photo by JESSICA TICOZZELLI on Pexels.com

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember that usual summer holiday refrain, “but mommy, I’m bored!” And mommy would tell you to go out and play, or to go to your room and draw.

I remember summer holidays when I had my fill of reading, of drawing, and even of going outside to play. I remember making up stories of my adventures as I traveled across the country in my horse drawn caravan, spending the nights in open fields, gazing up at the starry skies.

A lot of those stories that I made up in my imagination had their origins in my lived reality – of going for “buggy rides” with my aunt who had a horse-drawn carriage; of spending evenings lying on my back as I looked up at the stars. I took bits from the stories I had read and the cartoons I had watched, mixing them all up in the cauldron of my imagination to come up with stories of my brave {imagined} adventures.

I belong to the generation that grew up without the internet. I remember creating my first email account when I was in college. Back then, we had to visit an internet cafe to go online, and the speeds, compared to now, were laughably slow. {Who else remembers waiting for the dial up modem to connect to the internet? Do you also remember how much more patient we were then?}

It’s really with the launch of the iPhone in 2007 that we’ve become accustomed to going everywhere with a small, always-on computer in our pockets. Thanks to which, we have forgotten how to be bored.

And that, I think, is a tragedy.


How boredom sparks creativity

How social media scrolling and an always-on culture kills creativity
Photo by Kerde Severin on Pexels.com

Standing in line at the grocery store, you groan at how slowly the line seems to be moving. In your mind, you’re flipping through your to-do list, mentally planning how you’ll get to your next task. At the same time, you pull out your mobile phone and log on to Instagram, waiting to check-out from the store and get on with the rest of your evening.

And that, right there, is a moment when you could have been bored, but you gave in to the distraction of the attention economy instead.

A study on boredom published in the Academy of Management Discoveries found that boredom can spark individual productivity and creativity.

We are typically bored when we have nothing to do – like standing in line to pay for our groceries, waiting for a friend, washing dishes or walking down a familiar route. Our brains lack stimulation at this time, which leads to boredom, which leads to the ignition of the “default mode” in our brain.

This is when our body goes into autopilot. But our brain — it gets really busy!

According to Sandy Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good:

“Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place.”

In this mode, our brain is able to connect disparate ideas and solve nagging problems. It’s also when we tend to hit eureka moments, get new ideas, or find some much needed clarity or next steps with a particular goal or project.

But these days, we check our emails while standing in line at the grocery store or listen to a podcast or audiobook while doing the dishes or going for a walk. We call it productivity, but what we are really doing is shifting our attention between multiple things.

It’s not efficient or effective. Your brain is literally using up nutrients to make rapid switches as you hop between multiple apps or multi-task your way through life.

But if we reduce our co-dependency on our gadgets and allow our minds to wander, we can fire the problem-solving and creative neurons in our brains instead.


Don’t confuse boredom with relaxation

Allowing yourself to be bored and daydream is the key to sparking creative ideas and creative problem solving
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

At this point, you may be thinking that you’re doing quite ok with this whole boredom thing. You meditate. You practice mindfulness while walking. You have a regular yoga practice.

But are you just confusing boredom with relaxation? To tap into true boredom, pick an activity that needs little or no concentration — like washing dishes, walking a familiar route, or just sitting on the couch with your eyes closed, and letting your mind wander. Don’t listen to music, definitely don’t plug into a podcast, and don’t jump up every few minutes to check your phone.

Once you allow yourself to experience boredom a few times, you’re likely to find that your mood and your creative ideas improve. As Jonny Smallwood, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York, says:

“There’s a close link between originality, novelty, and creativity…and these sort of spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle.”

And in an always-on environment, we can agree that our minds are rarely, if ever, idle.

So here’s my challenge to you: This week, spend at least 30 minutes getting bored. Let your mind be idle. Let it wander. And come back here and tell me what happens. Deal?

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12 comments

  1. I so agree with your points, Shinj. Washing dishes is one crucial activity in my routine when musings wander into my head. We have found a million ways to keep boredom out of the way and be productive, but at the cost of what? And this multitasking productivity which is so appealing to the mass now is killing our creative juices. I see my husband always watching or reading something on his phone, he just doesn’t know how to interact with his family like he used to before his smartphone era. Thankfully he shows better manners when we have company, but I have had experience where others keep checking their phones, watching random videos in the midst of a conversation. And our kids, they have no idea how to behave when boredom is around. I remember the many bus and train rides where I got sit on the window seat and let my mind take a different journey around the world. Sadly even I’m checking my phone more often than I care to admit. 30 minutes a week you say, how challenging would that be!

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    • I hear you, Vini! My husband is also constantly watching or reading something on his phone. It can get really annoying, sometimes, how the phone has overtaken our lives. It’s not easy to beat the addiction, but still, we need to. We lose out on so much more than just our creativity.

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  2. This is an interesting post. I have started questioning so many things. I remember those childhood summer time when we used to get bored. I and my cousin used to role play, we used to become dacoits, fairies and so many things. These days kids play online games. We have forgotten how to get “productively” bored. LOvely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely spot on, Shinjini. I’m of the generation where we didn’t even have television growing up. Even when it was available, my parents didn’t get one until all of us had finished with college. I do remember running out of books to read, things to draw, stuff to embroider and whingeing about being bored. But we our imaginations took us to places we had never been where we had conversations, meals, sang, acted and danced in our heads!
    That’s why I enjoy mundane tasks like dishwashing, washing, hanging out and folding clothes and all the stuff I can do with my hands while my head spins off into another orbit.

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    • Oh yes, Corinne! We did have television growing up, but even though cable TV had started, my parents didn’t get it until I was doing my post grad! TV time was limited, so there was a lot of time to read, draw, play and still run out of things to do!

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  4. I totally agree with what you’ve said, Shinjini. Reading about your childhood reminded me of mine and how often we delved into our own imaginative worlds. You know, I think we now have access to so many distractions that boredom gets us that much faster into social media than we care to admit. It’s always a handful who will be motivated to tap into their creativity at any given point in time, when bored. Ironically, creative ideas come to all, but most individuals won’t allow themselves the much-needed quiet time that will allow them to engage creatively. We see kids busy on their phones as much as the grown-ups. Not only that, even the elderly are seen to be busy with their own interactions on social media—the very same generation who once harped on how much they miss the old ways of life!

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    • This is so true, Esha! Everyone, from children to the elderly are immersed in their phones and on social media. So often people check their phones even when they’re out with friends and relatives – it has almost become a compulsion. You’re right, too, that we are all creative – but so many people just don’t give themselves the gift of silence and space that will allow those ideas to surface.

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  5. This was quite the eye-opener. When I had to wash bartan regularly, I used to plot my novel. It was the best time I used to have and it ended up making me feel more relaxed than any other “relaxation” activity.

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  6. I completely agree with you! When our minds are free, or bored, new ideas are born. The days without Internet were slow and different. Memory and creativity were practised more than we do today.
    Now, when I need to write something creative, nothing less than cutting off from the internet works:)

    Liked by 1 person

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