The Case for Seeking Out Boredom

What does boredom feel like? I almost can’t remember.

What does boredom feel like? I almost can’t remember.

As a kid I would kick rocks or tricycle figure eights in the cul-de-sac groaning, “Ugh I’m so bored!” (#summersinthesuburbs) But these days, even my dreary bus commute is full of Instagram double taps and Words with Friends victories. Thanks to Reddit, my smartphone, and a Hulu subscription, I don’t truly feel that itchy, scratchy feeling of boredom anymore.

But that’s a good thing, right?

No, actually, it’s not. As a society, boredom is killing our creativity. New studies are finding that boredom is actually a powerful stimulus for innovation and problem solving.

Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, authors of Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?, write that “Boredom is, paradoxically, a catalyst for action.” In their study they found that boredom acts as an “alerting phenomenon” that motivates change: “It could stimulate the need to redecorate, take up a new hobby, or look for a new job. The feeling, then, can induce challenge-seeking behavior.” Looked at from this perspective, boredom is actually energizing—not lethargic, as many of us remember it—motivating us to look for change and variety. This explains why many of us have eureka moments in the shower or on a run.

Although shower thoughts can be great, one researcher thinks that the benefits of boredom go far deeper. Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, who researches mind-wandering neuroscience, writes that when we “decouple” our attention from our external environment (“zone out” if you will), we focus on self-generated thoughts and feelings. This capacity, he argues, may be partly responsible for the evolutionary success of our species: “This reflects a human skill set that is important in generating novel solutions to problems.”

But though there are benefits, not everyone embraces the racing mind of boredom, nor is it ideal everywhere. As yogis, mind-wandering has a negative association. We make a conscious effort to cut out rambling thoughts in order to be more present, focused, and mindful on the mat. But the benefits of boredom shouldn’t just be cast aside, so while we definitely don’t want to zone out during practice, I encourage you to allow mind-wandering in other moments of your day. Try this: Take time post-meditation, maybe after a particularly deep savasana, to let your mind wander. This can serve as an excellent way to follow newly opened neural pathways and unlock creative solutions.

If you’re like me and barely remember what boredom feels like, there are several ways to get “more bored.” Expert research suggests that repetitive, low-stimulus activities are best. For example, Mann and Cadman found that participants who induced boredom with a writing task were less creative than those who performed a reading task (writing demanded too much attention, and therefore decreased the available capacity of mind-wandering). Try this: Sit by water, pull weeds, sweep, or wash dishes by hand.

Still not bored? Here’s an easy fix: Put down your phone. Many of us could benefit from lessening our cell phone use. We spend an average of three hours and 45 minutes on our phones every day. Think you’re an exception to the rule? Track phone time with Moment (iPhone) or BreakFree (Android) to find out (I thought my tech time was pretty balanced … turns out I spend more than 95 minutes a day staring at my screen). If you’re convinced smartphones are draining your creative boredom, try this: “boredom bootcamp” from the Note to Self podcast. This six-day program helps you use your smartphone more mindfully (and sparingly), with challenges such as deleting time-sucking apps, not responding immediately to texts, and photo-free days.

Here’s to reconnecting with that childhood rock-kicking. By inviting more boredom into each day, we can transform morning commutes and daily chores into moments of reflection and creativity.

Let us know how it goes! Share your experiments in “creative boredom” and tips on increasing productive mind-wandering during your day.

Photo by Jake Laub

sizedEmily Hill 16Emily Hill is a nomadic health and wellness journalist. In her travels from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Auckland, New Zealand she’s reported on everything from underground electronic music to nerdy nutrition science. Emily is an avid women’s cycling advocate and amateur yogi. Her favorite food is red wine. Follow her @EmilybyNight.