The Hidden Power of Boredom

The Hidden Power of Boredom

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We do almost anything to avoid feeling bored.

As soon as our interest in an activity begins to decline we quickly turn to playing games, replying to messages, or engaging with some other easily-accessible distraction. We do this to avoid the mental discomfort of boredom. We're never too far away from something to stimulate us or give us a quick dopamine hit.

This may not sound like a massive problem. After all, what's the use in being bored? I certainly don't enjoy the feeling and I’ll always try to find a way to avoid it.

But as I’ve recently discovered, being bored is actually a very good thing for us. Its benefits include:

  1. Boosted creativity
  2. Enhanced productivity
  3. Effortless goal setting
  4. Novelty exposure

So while most people are chasing ways to keep their brain stimulated, we can level up our own lives by doing the opposite: learning to unplug, slow down, and embrace boredom.

What is Boredom?

Contrary to popular belief, we don't just get bored because we've got nothing to do. There's always something on our to-do list, a chore we need to complete, or an essay we need to write. If anything, we've got way too much to do.

The problem then - and the real reason we get bored - is that none of these activities appeal to us right now. So although we've got lots of gadgets to play with and a stack of work we need to finish, if it doesn't immediately excite us we think "ughh, there's nothing to do". This is boredom.

"Boredom stems from a situation where none of the possible things that a person can realistically do appeal to the person in question. This renders the person inactive, and generally unhappy." - Sandi Mann

For most of us, boredom is a negative experience. In fact, one study described boredom as "an extremely unpleasant and distressing experience" that left respondents "feeling stressed, agitated, [and] lethargic".

As such, there's some evidence to suggest that being bored has a negative impact on work and learning. Studies show that bored workers have lower levels of performance, are more likely to make errors, or simply not show up. In the education context, bored students tend to receive lower test scores and are more likely to give up.

No wonder we're constantly trying to avoid it.

The fantastic book 'Bullshit Jobs' contains lots of testimony from people working in boring and meaningless jobs - Here’s one of my favourites, from a guy whose job involved scanning application forms:

"It is hard to explain what this level of entranced boredom was like. I found myself conversing with God, pleading for the next record to contain an error, or the next one, or the next. There was really nothing of any value riding on how we did the job, [which] made it feel like some sort of personal test of stamina, like Olympic endurance boredom for its own sake."

Resisting Boredom: Our Personal Shock Buttons

In a 2014 study called 'The challenges of the disengaged mind', participants were placed in a room alone, for up to 15 minutes, with nothing to do but think. They also had the choice to give themselves an electric shock by pushing a button placed next to them.

Even though there was absolutely no pressure on the participants to shock themselves (and many of them said they'd pay money to avoid the shock beforehand), 25% of women and 67% of men still chose to push the button.

Put simply - people would rather experience physical pain than be bored.

This may sound ridiculous, but in a way, we all do the same thing every day.

Any time we engage in an otherwise pointless distraction to avoid boredom, we’re pushing our ‘personal shock button’. Or, as Knapp and Zeratsky put it in their brilliant book 'Make Time', we enjoy diving into 'infinity pools'. Whether it's checking social media, the news, or reading emails, there's an infinite supply of content helping us to stave off boredom. And it keeps refreshing.

Another common 'personal shock button' is our unhealthy obsession with being busy all the time. I'm definitely guilty of hopping on to the 'busy bandwagon' to avoid boredom. We try to squeeze productivity into every minute of the day and move at a hundred miles per hour as a way of handling the discomfort of doing nothing at all. By staying busy there's literally no room for boredom to creep in, even if that means our work is unfocused or unfulfilling.

It's a pretty crazy way to live our lives. And we're missing out on some serious learning benefits as a result.

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." - Pascal

So what’s the solution? I haven’t the foggiest.

But one helpful idea I’ve been playing around with, is to embrace ‘boring brilliance’.

Embrace 'Boring Brilliance'

There are four key ways in which boredom can help us to become better learners. And reveal what I like to call our 'boring brilliance'.

1. Boredom Boosts Creativity

When we're bored our minds wander to interesting (and surprisingly productive) places. So instead of having a narrow focus on any specific task, we begin to adopt a more diffuse mode of thinking, as Barbara Oakley put it in 'A Mind for Numbers'.

In other words, our brain is free to jump between different ideas and concepts, which is the ideal state for creative problem solving and lateral thinking.

Many studies also recognise the link between boredom and creativity. In one of these studies, two-thirds of the participants were told to do something really boring - reading or writing the numbers from a phone book - and the rest were the control group (with non-boring conditions). After a short period of time both groups were asked to do a creative activity that involved listing as many uses for two polystyrene cups as they could. It was found that the participants in the 'boring group' listed significantly more creative ways to use the cups compared to the control group.

"On an individual basis, if one is trying to solve a problem or come up with creative solutions, the findings from our studies suggest that undertaking a boring task (especially a reading task) might help with coming up with a more creative outcome." - Sandi Mann

I've found this to be true too. Some of my best video ideas come when I'm doing some mindless task, like washing the dishes or cleaning my flat. There's just something about disconnecting from focused work that works wonders when it comes to being more creative.

2. Boredom Enhances Productivity

As well as increasing our idea quality (i.e. creativity), boredom also increases our idea quantity. Seriously, doing less work can apparently make us more productive.

A 2018 study got participants to sort a bowl of beans by colour. When they were later asked to think of some creative reasons for being two hours late for work, they came up with far more ideas compared to the control group (who’d completed an interesting art activity beforehand).  

So if we ever feel like we've got no good ideas for an essay or some other project, it may be worthwhile allowing ourselves to be bored for a bit.

"Boredom [helps] boost individual productivity on an idea-generation task." - Park, Lim and Oh

Perhaps surprisingly, boredom also helps us to increase our levels of concentration. The idea is that if we can endure feeling bored, without reaching for any of our 'personal shock buttons', we can train our brain to be comfortable with mentally unpleasant experiences.

The problem is, many of us seek to avoid feeling bored by constantly jumping from low-stimuli, high value activities (like deep work) to high-stimuli, low value activities (like social media). As a result, we build up zero tolerance to boredom and develop an inability to concentrate.

So, instead, we should be embracing boredom. That way we become more resilient to its discomforting feeling and stay focused for longer.

“Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.” - Deep Work by Cal Newport

3. Boredom Helps us Establish Meaningful Goals

The distressing feeling we get when we're bored acts like a mental alarm bell to tell us an activity isn't particularly pleasant, stimulating, or interesting. And therefore helps us to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

In other words, boredom can make us reevaluate what we're doing, and motivate us to shift our goals to another activity that better meets our expectations or desires.

This is known as autobiographical planning. Essentially, when we're bored our mind-wandering becomes largely future-focused and we think a lot more about what we want from our life.

In one study, researchers found that 'bored' participants frequently turned their minds to their future plans, helping them to set more meaningful long-term goals and subconsciously plan the next steps they need to take to get there.

My general philosophy is that we can't expect to learn anything without knowing what our objective actually is. Letting our brain wander and engage in autobiographical planning can be incredibly helpful in discovering and realising our learning goals.

"A significant proportion of the imaginative opportunities afforded by the mind-wandering state are devoted to prospection." - Baird, Smallwood and Schooler

4. Boredom Exposes us to Novelty

Finally, boredom is what gives us a taste for adventure and encourages us to seek out novelty - the ingredients that help cultivate humans as an intelligent and curious species.

For instance, Charles Darwin had an expansive curiosity often sparked by boredom. On one occasion, in his early life, he quickly got bored of searching for orchids and decided to take a look at some sundews instead. As this was a carnivorous plant, he was interested to see what these plants would eat. So, Darwin conducted a "fool's experiment" (as he liked to call them) where he fed the sundews his hair and toenail clippings. It turns out the sundews weren't too interested in eating Darwin's toenails (I can't blame them really).

But that's not the point of this story. The key takeaway is that Darwin's seemingly unremarkable beginning, seeking novelty from boredom, is what led to an interesting series of studies culminating in The Origin of Species, which completely changed the way we think about nature.

So if we want to become better learners we need to be more comfortable exploring the adventure and novelty that boredom offers us. If we don't allow ourselves to be bored we'd be less motivated to challenge accepted ideas and practices. And therefore miss out on opportunities to further our own knowledge and understanding of the world.

"Boredom is a discrete functional emotion, and serves to encourage people to seek new goals and experiences." - Bench and Lench

Incorporating Boredom

To tap into my 'boring brilliance', I've recently started trying to incorporate more boredom into my life. As such, I want to share the three methods that I've found work best:

  1. Do mindless activities - to experience true boredom we need to find an activity that needs no stimulation or concentration. For example, walking a familiar route, sitting with our eyes closed, or standing in a queue. But, it's important not to conflate boredom with relaxation. Activities such as meditation and yoga, for instance, don't make us bored as they're designed to remove those feelings rather than encourage them.
  2. Disconnect - our constant scrolling is the main reason why we're unable to take advantage of our 'boring brilliance'. Every time we decide to go on social media or randomly browse the internet at the slightest hint of boredom, we're destroying our ability to be creative and curious. We can't let our mind wander if we're always filling our time with stimulating activities. Using an app like Flipd or WasteNoTime can help those of us who find disconnecting particularly difficult. I’ve personally found the bedtime feature on iOS to be great for blocking my notifications at night, so I’m less likely to turn to Twitter or Instagram when I’m bored before bed.
  3. Schedule boredom - we're so used to living busy lives with never ending to-do lists, we rarely have any time to ourselves. This is why it's so important to actively schedule time for boredom into our calendar. It could be giving ourselves just 10 minutes to sit quietly during a lunch break or first thing in the morning. If there are other opportunities during the day where we're feeling bored and tempted to whip out our phone, try to do nothing at all. Accept our boredom, observe our surroundings, and explore our 'boring brilliance'. In all honesty, this is the one I struggle most with, but it’s a work in progress.

Conclusion

Boredom shouldn't be something we fear or avoid. Although it's an uncomfortable experience, it's also responsible for unlocking huge amounts of personal creativity and productivity.

If we decide to distract ourselves every time we feel a little bit bored we're seriously limiting our ability to learn, to discover our life mission, and achieve incredible things. Scheduling time for mindless activities is more important than ever and, in my opinion, is totally worth it.


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