We all know what boredom feels like. It’s sitting on the sofa on a Thursday evening when all your friends are busy, there’s nothing on TV and it’s raining outside. It’s waiting for your train that is 30 minutes delayed on a Tuesday morning. It’s reading 8 30-page articles for that essay that you really don’t want to do. We often define boredom as having ‘nothing to do’, but thinking about it, being in a situation where there is not a single thing you could physically do is quite difficult. Rather, being bored is the feeling of having many potential things that you could be doing, but not being particularly interested in doing any of them. And this quite often leaves us feeling unhappy, frustrated and lethargic.
Because of this, boredom is generally considered to be a negative feeling in our society. We are usually encouraged to find a solution to our boredom – to get out of the house or do something productive – but what if being bored is actually an important part of our lives?
Psychologists think that when we lack excitement in our surroundings, our focus turns inwards and we turn on what is called ‘the default network’; that is, the state your mind naturally returns to when lacking external stimulation. We more commonly call this, daydreaming. Daydreaming is thought to have a whole host of knock-on effects. Some researchers think that daydreaming is a coping mechanism that helps us deal with the tension caused by feeling bored. Others think that it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate old experiences and memories allowing us to problem-solve and to be creative in our reasoning. Daydreaming can bring together unrelated facts and thoughts and is often linked to that ‘Eureka moment’ when we finally come up with a brilliant new idea or new way of seeing things.
One particular study found that giving people a boring task to do helped them to be more creative in their responses to another task immediately afterwards. Participants were asked to spend 15 minutes copying out phone numbers from a phone book before being asked to come up with as many ideas as possible as to how use two paper cups (who comes up with this stuff?!). Participants who did phone number copying first gave way more ideas than people who only did the cup task. The researchers suggested that 15 minutes of boredom ‘turned on’ the creative thinking part of the participant’s brains as they started to daydream, so that when they were given a task in which they had to think outside the box, they were more likely to think creatively about their answers. Interesting, huh?
However, the time we spend ‘being bored’ is becoming less and less frequent. More and more we are filling the little pockets of unused time in our lives scrolling social media, checking emails, online shopping; basically, being on our phones. I know I often find myself on my phone in situations where I usually would have been doing ‘nothing in particular’: waiting for a train, walking between meetings and even in the bathroom. But what happens when we do this? Those little pockets of time we had to plan, to daydream, to make connections between ideas and experiences, are gone. And what is worse, we’re filling that time with images of unrealistic beauty, stresses about work and desire for new things. We’re shutting off our brains and not engaging with our thoughts.
And there might be another problem with our frequent phone-checking. Every time we turn our attention to a new task, opening a new app on our phone for example, we are using up energy or ‘mental resources’ in our brains. Mental resources are limited and tiring them out has been linked to all sorts of phenomena including increased mistake making, reduced willpower and mental fatigue. A decade ago, we shifted our attention at work every three minutes. Now we do it every 45 seconds, and we do it all day long. The average person checks their email 74 times a day, and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day. Every single time you make a switch, your brain uses us more and more glucose; no wonder we feel so mentally exhausted after a day at work.
So, I challenge you, the next time you’re waiting for a friend for lunch, or you finish your book 15 minutes before getting off the train, keep your phone in your pocket. Relax into yourself and let your mind wander. Don’t fight boredom, embrace it. When we are bored is when we are at our most creative and our most open. Next time you go to check your phone, ask yourself: ‘What am I really looking for?’ If it’s to check email, that’s fine — do it and be done. But if it’s to distract yourself from doing the hard work that comes with deeper thinking, take a break, stare out the window and know that by doing nothing you are actually being your most productive and creative self. It might feel weird and uncomfortable at first, but boredom really might lead to brilliance.
Inspired by the 2017 TEDtalk by Manoush Zomorodi, ‘How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas’. Watch it here: https://www.ted.com/talks/manoush_zomorodi_how_boredom_can_lead_to_your_most_brilliant_ideas