Think back: when did you last have a creative breakthrough or come up with an intriguing new idea? Was it when you were watching Netflix, scrolling on your phone or rushing between appointments? Or did it happen during empty stretches of time when your mind was unstimulated: in the shower, on a walk, or when you were lying in bed ready to go to sleep?
If your idea came to you in a quieter moment, you’re not alone. Silence, stillness, and particularly boredom are often discussed negatively, as things we should avoid at all costs, but research indicates that boredom might be better for us than we realize. In fact, it could lead to positive outcomes, including increased creativity.
This idea was tested by psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. They asked a group of participants to copy out telephone numbers and names from the phone book for 15 minutes, a boring task by anyone’s standards, before they gave them a creativity test. The result? The ‘bored’ participants performed better on the test than the control group.
Researchers then reran the experiment with two separate groups of people doing different types of boring tasks before testing their creative responses. One group copied out the phone book while a second were given a job even more mind-numbingly passive: reading the phone book without writing anything down. What they found? The second even more bored group performed better on the creativity test than any of the others.
“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, said one of the study’s co-authors, Dr Sandi Mann, “but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.”
Boredom’s Impact on Your Imagination
Precise definitions of boredom are debated by psychologists, but it’s generally considered to be an unpleasant feeling, brought about by a lack of stimulation or interest in what’s happening around us. It reduces our attentiveness to our environment, according to Texas A&M University researchers Shane Bench and Heather Lench, and causes us to seek out more appealing alternatives.
This is one of the reasons that boredom helps people think more creatively. When we are bored out of our minds, researchers say, we seek out and make up our own . “social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation,” , entertaining fleeting thoughts or daydreams that might have otherwise have passed us by.
The fact that creativity comes from the very nature of boredom’s unpleasantness - the actual deprivation of stimulation - also explains why quiet but more relaxing or entertaining activities like yoga, reading or swimming don’t necessarily have the same impact on creativity. . In a study, conducted by scientists at Pennsylvania State University, Scientists found that subjects who were made to watch boring videos performed better on creativity tests than those who watched videos that were designed to make them feel relaxed.
What does this mean for you? If you’re thinking about incorporating a little empty time into your day in order to fuel your imaginative impulses, make sure you don’t get too comfy. It may be the feeling of wanting to tear your hair out due to a truly tedious situation that inspires the magic to happen.
Boredom is Linked with Creative Success
Many creatives have discussed how valuable boredom has been to their creative process. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said on a podcast last year that the first time he wrote for enjoyment—and stayed up all night writing—he was driven purely by boredom; his friends weren’t around, the TV and stereo were broken and the only thing in the apartment was a typewriter.
“I feel like that night has never ended,” he said. After having had one taste of that writing buzz, he went on to become an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but had he come of age during the smartphone era, with constant distractions, things might have been different. Now, he said, “there are too many easy boredom killers.”
Other artists and entrepreneurs have expressed similar sentiments about the value of being bored. J.R.R. Tolkien started writing The Hobbit, he said, when marking exam papers as an Oxford professor, a task that he described as “very laborious, and also very boring.” It was on a blank page of one of these papers that he wrote down the first words of his world-changing book series.
Steve Jobs also said that he was a “big believer in boredom” because of the way that it had pushed him come up with imaginative ideas. Boredom can promote curiosity, he thought, and “out of curiosity comes everything.”
Channeling your Boredom Productively
Before you clear your schedule and prepare to bore yourself to tears, there’s one other factor to keep in mind: it turns out that boredom is important for boosting creativity, but only in the right circumstances. While a bit of boredom can be good for you, chronic boredom has been linked to drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression, anxiety and an increased risk of making mistakes. One study even associated increased boredom levels with a shorter life span.
In March 2019, a study suggested that those who get the biggest boost from being bored are the ones already goal-oriented, liked mental stimulation, valued novel experiences and felt that they had control over their lives. These people are best able to channel their boredom productively, rather than just descending into lethargy.
Perhaps this was what GK Chesterton had in mind when he said “there is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” If you can cultivate in yourself drive, curiosity, and an appetite for playing with ideas, you’re in the best position for a bit of stimulation deprivation. Turn off your phone, sit in an empty room, stare at a wall, and maybe, like Tolkien, Sorkin and Jobs, you might just come up with a masterpiece.
Feeling imaginative? Take some time to develop your interests or take on something new. Lord Gris’ Skillshare Original class, Digital Character Illustration: Transform a Photo Into a Stylized Portrait is a great place to start.