On the surface, it appears that in order to be productive, we need to ward off boredom, keep ourselves busy and do everything we can to keep moving forward. Every idle minute is wasted because we could have spent it doing something that needed to be done.
But is there something to be said about sitting back, twiddling your thumbs and doing absolutely nothing?
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
It turns out science backs up Gaiman’s claim. A recent study found that boredom can actually make us exceptionally more creative by helping us think outside the box.
Here’s how the study worked: Forty test subjects were required to copy phone numbers from a telephone directory for 15 minutes. After that, they were asked to come up with different uses for a pair of cups. The results from those tests were compared to 40 other subjects who weren’t required to copy phone numbers prior to figuring out what to do with the cups.
The findings? The folks who copied down the phone numbers were noticeably more creative than the control group. Being bored helped them come up with better ideas.
Boredom leads to better ideas
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, author David Burkus talks about having to endure quarterly sales meetings that quite simply bored the hell out of him and his team members. After a full day of being “talked to,” Burkus and his colleagues would run out of the hotel, find a nearby restaurant and unwind. Anecdotally, Burkus’ experiences seem to indicate once again that boredom is the bedrock of innovation.
“Despite our best efforts, these dinner conversations were always about work—and good thing, too,” Burkus writes. “These chats were filled with new ideas for dealing with problem clients or increasing sales of new products. Late-night dinners became the source of the new and exciting our meetings were supposed to elicit.”
The idea that boredom can help us come up with our best ideas is not that new. Elightenment philosophers like Schopenhauer have had a lot to say to say on the subject, and more recently at least one very hip American author—David Foster Wallace—has weighed in on the importance of boredom for insight and self-awareness.
Wallace, one of the most prolific essayists and fiction writers of the last 20 years, created some of his most important work on the back of his own alleged stint working for the Internal Revenue Service. Whether Wallace actually worked for the IRS is almost irrelevant; he spent countless hours studying the IRS and how it works, at the very least. In notes he left behind for his unfinished work The Pale King—which chronicles the lives of several fictional IRS examiners based in Peoria, Illinois—Wallace describes the importance of boredom as follows:
It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.
If you don’t know boredom, it’s impossible to know euphoric joy and contentment.
How to become bored once again
There are a number of ways you can bring boredom back into your life. Over the years, we’ve discussed many of them on Knote. Delete your Facebook account. Stop checking your email a zillion times a day. Take a sabbatical. Stop answering your phone. Go for a long walk somewhere in the woods. Or just paint an empty office wall taupe and stare at it for as long as you need.
Studies show that when you do less work, you can free your mind to focus on the big picture and create better outcomes. When you’re overloaded with too many thoughts, it’s impossible to get things done well.
So next time you catch yourself dozing off or daydreaming when you’re supposed to be working, don’t fight it off. Embrace boredom to become a more creative worker. Not only is your boredom validated, it’s warranted. You’ve earned it.