Embrace Boredom

We live in a wonderfully stimulating world. Where we once had to sit idly through traffic, we can now turn on our favorite podcast and be mentally transported. What we once had to stand in line waiting for, we can have delivered to our house in only 2 days via Amazon Prime. While you might have once found yourself flipping through a few dull tv stations, Netflix now dishes out an addictively endless stream of on-demand entertainment.

In today’s hyper-optimized, digitally-connected world, boredom is hard to come by.

And while I’m all for convenience and making the most of our time, there are some benefits to intermittent boredom that we shouldn’t shy away from – no matter how unbearable boredom can be.

One team of psychologists found that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. [1] Boredom, it seems, is more painful than an electric shock.

But despite our human intolerance of idleness, a growing body of research shows that boredom can be quite good for our brains. In one study, when participants were given abundant time to complete word-association exercises, they gave more and more inventive answers. [2] Another study took the exercise a step further. Subjects were asked to take part in a creative challenge that involved coming up with a list of alternate uses for everyday items. But first, half of the participants were forced into a completely mindless, boring activity. The other half went straight into the creative challenge exercise. As it turned out, those who were forced into boredom beforehand came up with more prolific responses. [3]

Anyone who’s ever felt stuck on a problem, only to have a sudden creative breakthrough after finally giving up and going to fix yourself a snack knows exactly what I’m talking about. Our brains can often work things out through background processing, the kind of problem-solving that happens when we’re not actively pursuing a solution, but rather, daydreaming.

But that same brain activity can’t happen if we’re constantly streaming an endless amount of information and entertainment into our consciousness. So today’s boss tip is: embrace boredom. In fact, try building some boredom BACK into your life.

The next time you’re taking a break for lunch, leave your smartphone and computer behind and dare to sit down without anything in particular to read or watch. Just let your mind wander or practice mindful eating by focusing on every bite of your lunch. During your commute, turn the podcasts like this one and music stations off for a few minutes and practice feeling boredom wash over you. See where your thoughts take you, with no expectations of any particular outcome.

If you give this boss tip a try, I want to hear about it. Was it excruciating? More painful than an electric shock? Or did you find calm in your idle state? Did you return to the rest of your day with a more creative, inventive mindset?  I’d love to hear about it on social media at @emiliearies and @bosseduporg, or in the comments section below.



[1] Wilson et al., “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind” (Science, July 2014)

[2] Schubert, “Boredom as an Antagonist of Creativity” (Journal of Creative Behavior, Dec. 1977)

[3] Mann and Cadman, “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” (Creativity Research Journal, May 2014)


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