The Unexpected Value of Boredom for Well-Being and Creativity
The how and why of boredom.
Posted June 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- With so many forms of entertainment at our fingertips, we never need to let ourselves be bored.
- When we don't allow our minds to wander, we miss opportunities to become more creative, reboot mental health, and reconnect.
- Instead of shunning boredom, we should embrace our mind's need to wander.
It’s almost impossible to be bored these days.
Visit any park, restaurant, or other public gathering place, and you’ll notice people checking and rechecking our primary mode of entertainment (and distraction): Our phones. We reach for our phones to verify a fact during a conversation. To record our toddlers at the playground. To check our email while waiting for a crosswalk.
An infinite amount of information, movies, social connection, and games are at our fingertips. What more could we ask for?
According to a new survey, 74 percent of Americans feel uneasy leaving their phones at home, 71 percent check their phones within the first 10 minutes of waking up, and 47 percent consider themselves “addicted” to their phones. Shocking percentages of us reach for the phone during activities such as driving, dating, and even while in the bathroom.
This behavior isn’t surprising, or even new. It stems from our very human desire not to be bored. In fact, one study found that 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women would rather inflict a small electric shock on themselves than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.
What are we missing when we fill every moment of our day with entertainment?
Is boredom necessary for creative work?
Nearly five years ago, I booked a retreat to work on my book, Tracking Wonder. I knew I worked best with limited distraction, but when I finally was able to carve time away from the world to do this creative work, I found it very difficult to focus.
Instead of being inspired by the solitude, I felt completely sapped of creativity. My restless mind was demanding entertainment, rather than staying in sustained focus. My capacity for deep work had vanished. Where to?
That frustrating experience was one of the sparks that put me on a years-long journey of studying focus, flow, and attention. And it didn’t take me long to uncover the link between our capacity to be creative, and our capacity to be idle without reaching for distraction.
If we want to achieve focus as well as consistent creative insight, we need to work on something counter-intuitive: our ability to be bored.
Learning to let yourself be bored can have three surprising benefits.
1. Reboot your mental health
Just as our muscles need rest days between workouts to grow stronger, our minds need periods of idleness to process the world around us. We do so at night while dreaming; during the day, our minds tend to process through daydreaming.
In his book The Inner World of Daydreaming, psychologist Jerome L. Singer identifies a form of mind-wandering he calls positive-constructive daydreaming. It is a playful form of mental idleness that engages your imagination to explore possibilities for the future.
You’ve probably experienced it during moments of boredom when you begin envisioning plans for a backyard remodel project or entertain fantasies of uprooting yourself from your current job to pursue a dream position.
Innovators in times of crisis and adversity actually grant themselves space to be bored and daydream deliberately. This kind of daydreaming can lead to positive mental feelings of hope, renewal, and forward motion, but it requires boredom and space.
2. Become more creative
As I hypothesized during my own writing retreat years ago, the capacity to be bored and the capacity to be creative go hand in hand. Looking at the science shows there might be something to that.
In a series of studies, researchers found that subjects who were asked to do mundane, boredom-inducing tasks were more creative afterward. Boredom is a “variety-driving emotion,” meaning that it primes us to seek out new and different — therefore creative — experiences and solutions.
Boredom naturally fosters the foundational facet of wonder, openness. A ready openness to new experiences and to one’s environment leads to more potential creative insight.
Want to increase your creativity? The answer may not be more stimulation, but less. Embrace those periods of boredom that are built into your commute, break time, or meals. Turn off the podcast, stop scrolling through the news feeds, and let your mind lie fallow so that the seeds of your next idea have space to grow.
3. Reconnect with what matters to you
These days, current events — and the resulting analysis, opinions, and Twitter hot takes — come at us so quickly that it’s difficult to process one issue before the next takes its place.
But to truly be an informed citizen, you need to allow time for idleness. Rather than reaching for stimulation by searching for the next event to be entertained or enraged by, boredom gives you space to think through the information you’re gathering and begin to challenge ideas.
Boredom allows you to tap back into what you care about, and engage with it in a more powerful way.
The next time you find yourself compelled to reach for your phone, I challenge you to ask what you’re seeking.
- Escape? Try deliberate daydreaming
- Creative stimulation? Try embracing the boredom so your mind can become more fertile
- Connection with the world? Try sitting with what matters to you, and letting your idle mind discover surprising connections
When you cultivate a deliberate practice of boredom, I think you’ll be surprised at the places your mind might take you.
Wheelwright, T. "2022 Cell Phone Usage Statistics: How Obsessed Are We?" (2022) Reviews.org. https://www.reviews.org/mobile/cell-phone-addiction/
Wilson, T.D., Reinhard, D.A., Westgate, E, Gilbert, D.T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C.L., Shaked, A. "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind." (2014) Science. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1250830
Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim, and Hui Si Oh. "Why Being Bored Might Not Be a Bad Thing after All." (2019) AMD, 5, 78–92, https://doi.org/10.5465/amd.2017.0033