When was the last time you were well and truly bored? Reading-the-back-of-the-cereal-box bored? Staring-at-the-walls-and-going-slightly-batty bored?
With our gadgets providing nearly constant distraction these days, most of us who are old enough need to think back to the pre-internet era to remember such times. If you’re younger, maybe a power outage or a long plane ride is the best you can do. These days, real, deep boredom is an endangered experience.
This is largely considered to be a good thing, but for those who are creative these distractions can prove to be a hindrance. Many writers, creatives, geniuses and scientists have found that boredom is actually an essential part of producing good creative work.
Acclaimed author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou famously wrote in hotel rooms with all the art removed from the walls, just to make them extra boring. George Orwell wrote 1984 while isolated on a remote Scottish island. Mark Twain penned his classics while locked away in a small octagonal shack others were forbidden to enter. Henry David Thoreau is another recluse whose most famous work, Walden, details a year spent alone in a remote cabin.
If history's greatest thinkers are anything to go by, you might be surprised where a little enforced boredom will take you.
More recently, writer Neil Gaiman talked about the benefits of daydreaming, saying: ‘The trouble with these days is that it’s hard to get bored.’ The writer explained that he combats this by setting strict rules for himself that combat distractions and allow him to write.
If all of these great minds produced some of their best work when they were a little bit bored, then maybe more of us should follow suit. However, if you’re not convinced by these examples then here’s some more evidence:
Research conducted during pandemic lockdowns showed that as unpleasant as the experience was, for many it was also generative, nudging them through boredom to rethink their lives in creative and productive ways.
Lab studies come to complementary conclusions. When volunteers are forced to do mind-numbing repetitive tasks or listen to agonizingly dull lectures for short intervals, their scores on standard tests of creativity rise substantially directly after.
Succumbing to a state of boredom allows your brain to reflect, make connections, and face the thoughts that we’ve been avoiding. It appears that, when experienced in moderation, boredom can be a tool that is used for good.
One expert suggests scheduling empty “non-time” into your days. An extreme writer and his wife actually went so far as to cut their home internet connection (they reportedly love their less-wired life). Or you could take the more doable route of just forcing yourself to sit and experience boredom the next time it creeps up on you instead of reaching for your phone.
Scheduling empty time may seem counterintuitive to those looking to make progress, but the research suggests the opposite. Perhaps ‘non-time’ is the secret ingredient to the perfect creative process?
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