It might happen while you’re taking your morning shower, or maybe you’re in the middle of your morning commute when a flash of creativity strikes: a great idea for a mobile app, a way to hack your Ikea bookshelf to solve a pressing storage problem or a brand new business idea. Why does it seem like our best ideas come when we are doing absolutely nothing?
Studies show connection between boredom and creativity
The idea that “bordem” is somehow a catalyst for creativity is not as crazy as it sounds.
Researchers at Penn State University asked subjects to watch a video and then attempt two creative tasks. Those who watched a boring video performed better on a creativity test involving word association than those who watched videos evoking happy, relaxing, or stressful emotions.
Which argues against running that motivational video just prior to a brainstorming session.
As one study doesn’t prove a theory, a second study at the University of Central Lancashire provided more evidence for the phenomenon of boredom driven creativity by asking one group of participants to copy numbers out of a phone book, while a control group did their normal tasks. Then each member of the study was asked to come up with as many ways as possible to utilize two plastic cups. The group forced to do the menial, boring task of copying phone numbers outperformed the control group in creativity.
And when the researchers changed the task to passively reading out of the phone book (“the rough equivalent of hearing someone drone on in a monotome voice at a meeting”), the subjects were even more creative than the ones who performed the active task of copying numbers.
What is it about boredom that leads to creativity? Why is it that our best ideas come to us when we are in the middle of cleaning the bathroom or mowing the yard?
One theory is that boredom is motivating. When you’re bored, it reminds you of your desires to do something more, or something different, or better than what you are currently doing. In other words, boredom can help motivate you to change your life and pursue activities that are more stimulating.
And beyond that, boredom encourages daydreaming. When you let your mind wander, it can lead to interesting connections between seemingly disparate ideas, or novel solutions to problems that you wouldn’t have thought of if you were constantly engaged in activities that held your full attention.
Take advantage of boredom
The connection between boredom and creativity is borne out in the real world. In 1905, a then-unknown Albert Einstein wrote his four groundbreaking papers on the theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect, the mass-equivalence relation now known as the famous e = mc2, and the Brownian motion of particles. Einstein’s ideas, which now form the basis of modern technology and scientific understanding, were enormous creative leaps in thinking so advanced that other scientists initially thought they were completely ridiculous. And he came up with all of them while working a boring, menial job at the patent office.
Many writers and artists swear by the practice of cutting themselves off from all opportunities to entertain or distract themselves – they disconnect from the internet, lock themselves in a room with completely blank walls, or force themselves to perform dull, repetitive tasks in order to call forth their creative muse.
Take a page out of their book. When you next find yourself bored, let your mind wander. Resist the urge to check Facebook or play a game on your phone, and consider using programs to block those distractions when you’re really trying to get creative. You could even mimic the above-mentioned studies’ by giving yourself a boring task like counting your ceiling tiles. You never know what brilliant and inspiring idea you may come up with by depriving your brain of engaging external stimulation.