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An unexpected ingredient for creativity

I’m never bored

I used to write songs.  A few lyrics, sometimes with a melody, would bubble into my awareness, like the results of some unplanned dialogue between my experiences and my mind.  Rarely would I sit down and decide to write a song. It just sort of happened.

I wrote down my first song at 9 and had a folder full by the time I graduated college.  Now at 30, I realize I haven’t written a song in years, my longest stretch without contributing to my Lisa Frank song folder (yes, I still have my original third grade song folder with rainbow-hued dolphin pod on the front).  I’ve asked myself why I haven’t written anything new. Do I have less emotional inspiration? I would guess not; the agony and ecstasy of love and life have only become more poignant with age. Have I become less musically inclined?  Do I lack the free time that I used to have? Did I use up some finite reservoir of lyrical creativity? Again, I don’t think so. And in fact, I have a different theory altogether.

I think back on the moments where pieces of songs would first float across my mind.  I’m in trouble and my parents have confined me to my TV-free room. I’m sitting in computer class in 2004 mastering the fine art of copying and pasting in a word doc, without the escape of a new browser or social media.  I’m on the road in the late 00’s and my iPod is out of juice. Essentially, I’M BORED. And there’s no noise, no connectivity, no technology to fill my time and my mind. And that’s what I realized: I’m never fully, truly bored anymore.

These days, I wouldn’t describe myself as busy as much as I would describe myself as distracted, commonly euphemized as “connected” or “engaged.”  I can stream almost anything (and do). I can live vicariously through the “influencers” I follow. I can shop online. I can divert my attention to something – anything – other than my own simple being.  And that leads me to my theory: I’m no longer bored enough to write songs.  Put another way, I’m no longer bored enough for creative inspiration to take hold.  

Is “never a dull moment” a bad thing?

It would be logical to assume that boredom would lead to further mental stagnancy.  In actuality, it’s often a critical ingredient to creative thinking. Boredom fosters a cognitive environment where creative thinking can flourish, and there are multiple studies documenting how and why this works. One example is a 2014 study testing the relationship between boredom and performance on subsequent creative tasks.  Participants were first asked to complete either a boring activity (a boring reading or writing activity) or they were in the control group (no boring activity).  Those who completed the boring activity first demonstrated increased creativity on the later tasks, and the results were even more pronounced for those in the boring reading group.  This suggests that the more passive the boredom, the more likely you are to be creative (theorized to be mediated by the potential for daydreaming).

A separate study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology sheds further light on the perhaps unexpected relationship between boredom and its performance outcomes. Participants in one of four mental states (elated, relaxed, bored, or distressed) were measured on two scales of associative thought, or the ability to connect one idea or thought to another (a key part of creativity).  Those in the bored and the elated states performed better on the associative thought measures and showed an increase in divergent thinking, or the ability to think of new solutions, ideas, use cases, etc. to replace or supplement those that currently exist.

What are the implications today?

These findings are of the utmost relevance for a culture that’s leaning into the overstimulation of constant connectivity.  Today’s technology means our attention can always be directed to something; the mind won’t wander if it always has someplace to be.

Professionally, I’m in the business of “open innovation,” also known as crowdsourcing.  I work with corporate teams who are seeking bold new ideas from people (the “crowd”) who are often well outside of their industry. Our platform literally sells creativity, and having worked in this industry for several years, I see no shortage of the necessity for good ideas.

I think about the culture of the companies we work with, as well as the lifestyles of those in the crowd contributing ideas.  Would both sides of our platform benefit immensely from slowing down, disconnecting, and making time to be bored? The science shows that it may be one of the best things you can do in order to be more creative.  To our participant crowd, our company teams, or anyone else reading, I recommend doing the unthinkable in today’s culture of unrelenting engagement – allow yourself to truly and intentionally be bored, and put your mind in a position for creativity to flow!

  1. Mann, Sandi, and Rebekah Cadman. “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” Creativity Research Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014, pp. 165–173., doi:10.1080/10400419.2014.901073.
  2. Gasper, Karen, and Brianna L Middlewood. “Approaching Novel Thoughts: Understanding Why Elation and Boredom Promote Associative Thought More than Distress and Relaxation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 52, May 2014, pp. 50–57., www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103113002205.

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