In a world where entertainment is just a smartphone away, you’re constantly connected and you never have to be bored. There will always be some new app to tap through, a social media post to like, or a notification to read. But a new book is arguing that we lose key moments for creativity, reflection, and growth when we don’t let our minds space out and wander away from technology.
Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC’s Note to Self podcast, is arguing in her new book “Bored and Brilliant,” that we need monotony to be great. She uses her own life as an example, noting that the last great idea she had to host a podcast came when she was bored and “pushing that damn stroller” in the early months of motherhood.
Talking to neuroscientists, Zomorodi learned that there’s a scientific reason why her brain was most creative when she was bored. When we’re bored and doing humdrum administrative tasks, our body goes into autopilot mode and that’s where our brain’s synapses start firing in new ways.
“I learned that in the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called ‘autobiographical planning.’ This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them,” she said in her TED talk on the topic.
But in a modern, connected workplace, idle time is seen as counterintuitive and multitasking hustling is prized. You can always be writing more emails, clicking open more tabs, and attending more meetings. But that line of thinking goes against science.
In her book, Zomorodi cites neuroscientists who have found that the more we switch our attention, the higher our stress levels go. Worse, the game of attention is rigged against us as our brains compete with engineers, whose success is measured by how much attention we spend on their devices.
“On one side is a human being who’s just trying to get on with her prefrontal cortex, which is a million years old and in charge of regulating attention. That’s up against a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen, whose daily job is to break that and keep you scrolling on the infinite feed,” ex-Google designer Tristan Harris told Zomorodi in her book.
Boredom is where the best ideas are born
Zomorodi’s findings are backed by other studies on the value of daydreaming and boredom. When University of Central Lancashire psychologists forced a group of participants to complete the mind-numbing task of copying numbers out of the phone book, those 15 minutes of monotony paid off in a later creative experiment. It was the bored group that figured out the most uses for a polystyrene cup, not the group that got to do the creative task right away.
“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity,” the researchers concluded.
So if you want to get more creative, you need to embrace the mind-wandering opportunities boring tasks give you.
Get creative while you sleep
If you want to carry this practice into your sleep, try keeping a dream diary. One study found that people who kept dream diaries got more creative in the daytime, because remembering your weird, abstract subconscious helps you expand your definition of what’s possible.
Proverbs warn against the dangers of idle minds, but what these new case studies show is that boredom is not always the sign of a lazy mind.
At their best, those moments of idle solitude can be the foundation for building new connections in your brain — and one of these connections could even be the start of a great new idea.