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3 Ways Boredom Can Unlock Your Creativity

Feb 21 2018

In our always-connected world, it’s easy to fill every spare moment with another feed to scroll through, notification to check, or calendar to update. Each activity may feel productive in the moment, but at the end of the day we have nothing to show for it. 

I recently tested myself and found I was averaging four hours per day on my phone, with most of that time lost to Instagram and Facebook. This mindless scrolling was primarily happening in the day’s in-between moments—while waiting in line for a coffee, sitting on the train, and even in the bathroom.

A recent talk by Manoush Zomorodi got me thinking: When was the last time I put away my devices and chose to do nothing instead? When was the last time we all let ourselves experience pure, unadulterated boredom? And is it possible that replacing time sitting around checking email with time just sitting could help us be more creative in both the short- and long-term?

I dug into some research and found that moments of boredom often allow us to take our biggest imaginative leaps. Here are three ways to get yourself there:

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1. Schedule time to let your mind wander

Research shows that daydreaming ignites a collection of brain regions known as the default mode network. According to psychologist Dr. Sandi Mann, as our minds wander, our thinking stretches beyond the conscious and dips into the subconscious. It’s in this zone that we’re often able to connect disparate ideas, solve some of our most nagging problems, and do autobiographical planning—reflecting on our lives and setting goals. It’s no wonder that so many of us come up with our best ideas in the shower.

Where and when do you daydream? Allow time in your calendar to stretch those moments out. Skip the express for a slower train. Try designing new routines into your day, like walking around the block during lunch, to help spark new thoughts.

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2. Do something mind-numbing before your next brainstorm

To test the creative-boosting powers of boredom, a group of researchers from the University of Central Lancashire conducted a study where half of the 80 participants were instructed to copy numbers from a phone book (experimental group), and the other half were not (control group). They were then asked to brainstorm as many uses as they could for a pair of plastic cups. The phone book group came up with significantly more ideas.

The researchers ran the same test again, but added a third group tasked with something even duller—reading the phone book. These participants came up with even more ideas.

Before your next creative meeting, try tackling those boring-but-necessary tasks that clog up your to-do list. You just might unlock your next big idea.

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3. Tap into your childhood self

According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the capacity to be bored can actually be a developmental achievement for children. Unstructured time motivates kids to invent their own entertainment from scratch, and gives them the freedom to explore what truly interests them.  

When I was younger, I would pretend to teach a Harry Potter-style “Intro to Spells,” complete with paper wands. Today, teaching design classes at Stanford and leadership workshops for girls brings me the same joy and inspiration. And when I get bored, my mind still races around new design curriculum.

Need a reminder of the things that used to inspire you? Call your parents, siblings, or old friends to help playback stories from times past.

There will always be another something to check, update, or scroll through on our devices, but if we let our minds run free instead, who knows what brilliance our boredom might lead to?

  • Katie Kirsch

    Senior Marketing Specialist, IDEO Palo Alto
    A designer, marketer, and girls leadership coach, Katie is happiest helping others turn passion into purpose and bring impact-driven ideas to life.
  • Steve Har

    Communication Designer, IDEO Shanghai
    In his previous life, Steve was a restless soul, moving from being a barista, an IT network administrator, a bartender, and restaurant manager, to working as an illustrator, photographer, mover, and van driver. He finally found his true calling as a communication designer and a home at IDEO.

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