Boredom and creativity, an unlikely duo?
“And I am bored to death with it. Bored to death with this place, bored to death with my life, bored to death with myself,” says Lady Dedlock in Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House.
Lady Dedlock isn’t alone – that unbearable sensation of time dragging on with no end in sight, mixed with underlying feelings of pointlessness, apathy and emptiness? We’ve all felt bored at one point or another. In my case, boredom strikes on the London tube.
Though Dickens is often credited with creating the word ‘bored’, the concept of boredom stretches further back than the publication of Bleak House in 1853. The Victorians weren’t the only ones bored though – even the Mesopotamian King Uruk (thought to have ruled between 2500–2800 BC) was “oppressed by idleness” and set out on a journey captured in the epic, Gilgamesh, as a result. If you want to read more about the history of boredom, check out Peter Toohey’s book ‘Boredom: A Lively History’.
So, back to the 21st century.
Have you ever felt inspired, or thought of a creative idea, when you’re doing the most routine of things like washing dishes, ironing or taking a walk? If yes, you’re not alone. According to Jonathan Smallwood, reader at the Department of Psychology at the University of York, when our mind wanders (which it often does during these routine tasks) it “(i) allow[s] us to connect our past and future selves together, (ii) help[s] us make successful long-term plans and (iii) can provide a source of creative inspiration”. You can read the full paper here.
Boredom, therefore, might not be a pointless emotion after all. In fact, this premise underpins Dr. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman’s study where, for 15 minutes, participants were asked to copy telephone numbers from a phone book (a regular snooze-fest). In a subsequent divergent thinking task – geared to getting the participants thinking outside the box – participants were asked to come up with creative uses for two polystyrene cups. The result? Participants created pencil pots, earrings and a Madonna-style bra to name a few.
Creative thinking happens because when we are bored, our brain goes into what Manoush Zomorodi calls the ‘default mode’, and we’re able to tap into: “a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are.” It gives us the space and time to think – even though boredom might feel excruciating – and come up with creative ideas or actions that might alleviate this feeling of utter ennui.
Yes, that’s right – boredom can actually spur motivation. Andreas Elpidorou dubs boredom as our ‘internal alarm’ that goes off when we find ourselves in an unmotivating and meaningless situation. It drives us “to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting”.
I mean, even Kierkegaard thought boredom helped spur creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings”.
Boredom can strike anywhere, including the office. Let’s face it, we’ve all been bored at work at one point or another – but if boredom can spark creativity, how can we channel boredom into something innovative at work? It turns out, a lot of it comes down to your manager. Creative thinking isn’t some elusive element, but it can thrive in the right context; one which your manager can help create. No, I don’t mean office beanbags or a bar installation by the HR office.
Encouraging collaboration, thinking outside of the box, providing challenges, granting employees independence and taking risks when it comes down to testing out ideas are all ways that a manager can help generate creativity. Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire (Harvard and Cornell professors respectively) elaborate on this concept, and state that: “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity”.
So, in those moments of boring downtime, when you feel like you’re watching the paint dry on the office walls, don’t despair – you never know, given the right context, you might just come up with your next creative idea.