The University of Central Lancashire conducted two rounds of a study in which researchers asked a group to complete a boring task, such as copying names from a phone book or just passively reading it. Other groups either skipped the task or did something more interesting. Next, all the groups tackled a task that required creativity. Each time, the group that had done the most boring task outperformed the other groups.
Penn State University had a similar study. Groups watched video clips to elicit feelings of either relaxation, distress, elation, or boredom. Again, the bored group excelled at a subsequent creative task.
Why does boredom spark our creativity? Neuroscientists speculate that feelings of boredom signal the brain that it’s time for different work. The brain seeks out something interesting. Our minds wander, plunging down tangents and meandering toward new connections.
The problem is we seldom give ourselves a chance to be bored. We fight boredom by looking at screens instead -- our smart phones, tablets, TVs, and laptops. By filling our time with gadgets, we short-circuit our creativity.
Many past writers experienced downtime. Robert Louis Stevenson and John Keats spent many days in sickbeds. Emily Dickinson led a quiet life, and it’s hard to imagine her making keen, quirky observations about nature if she were busy tweeting instead.
So what to do? Unplug occasionally. Allow yourself to be bored. The next time you’re waiting in line, leave the smart phone in your pocket. Listen to what people say. Observe. What details do you notice about your environment? How would you describe the people around you?
Or just let your mind wander. Let it go where it will. Write down later what you thought about. You may be surprised by the results. After all, as author Francine Pirola noted: “Boredom is the crucible of the imagination. It creates space in a busy mind for creativity to be explored and expressed.”