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Feature / Miscellaneous

In praise of doing nothing: How to turn boredom into brilliant ideas

Illustration:

Kati Szilagyi

Think back to when you were a child. Filling up the empty days when you weren’t at school was easy, whether drawing on walls, acting out plays or den-making was your thing. Since those simpler times, scientists have proven the link between boredom and creativity. When we’re not interested in what we’re doing, we create new ways to occupy our minds.

But now that we carry an endless stream of entertainment in our pockets, we are almost never left alone with only our thoughts to amuse us. Our imaginations have been replaced by Instagram and our own fantasies by dramas on Netflix. To reclaim our creativity from the stranglehold of our devices, we first need to get comfortable with boredom – both the idea and the reality of it. Picking the brains of scientists and creatives alike, we decided to learn how to channel boredom in the right way.

“Being bored is a state of dissatisfaction with the neural stimulations you’re getting,” says Sandi Mann, Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and author of The Science of Boredom. “You’re searching for more neural stimulation. If you can’t find that externally, you will find it internally, because our minds are always active.”

We often experience this search for neural stimulation as mind-wandering or daydreaming. This state is similar to when we are actually dreaming, as we’re able to access our subconscious and make connections between things. These new connections can lead to new ideas, as Wayne Deakin, Executive Creative Director of London design agency Huge, puts it: “When you shut stuff out and are left with your thoughts, you start to think. I mean properly think. It’s that stillness of mind that lets you create and connect.”

For illustrator Cécile Dormeau, boredom even led to a career change. She’d become fed up with her advertising job, always working for the same old clients and uninspiring briefs. “I started to do little gifs and illustrations to escape the boredom of my work,” says the illustrator, who is now well-known for her witty and empowering images of women. “I was looking for a different style because I was tired of making vector illustrations. I hated it and needed a change. The boredom and frustration helped me be more creative.”

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Despite the clear benefits of boredom, it is increasingly being squeezed out of our lives. “I personally don’t remember the last time I allowed myself to be bored,” says Ana Balarin, ECD at Mother in London. “Or rather, I do, which goes to show how unusual boredom has become. About a year ago, I had an idea while breastfeeding, and at that moment I realised that the only reason I’d arrived at that specific thought was because, in the absence of any stimuli other than a sleepy toddler, my mind was wandering, which it hadn’t done in quite some time.”

As devices and the internet permeate every corner of our lives, we have access to infinite stimulus almost everywhere. “Until quite recently the bath and the long-haul flight were two of the few remaining bastions of boredom,” says Balarin. “But with the popularisation of water-resistant touchscreens and the ubiquity of decent WiFi, not even those places are immune to a Netflix binge or a quick Instagram hit, leaving us no time for daydreaming, a conduit for creativity.”

Mann is concerned that as technology increasingly overstimulates us, the next generation will grow up unable to cope with boredom or use their imaginations. “If you go to cafes and restaurants, kids are on their iPads instead of looking around and absorbing things,” she says. “We’re losing the ability to get stimulation from within and be creative.”

A word of caution, though. Boredom isn’t always helpful, and can become a destructive emotion if left unchecked. Dr. Thomas Goetz, Professor of Empirical Educational Research at the University of Konstanz, discovered that there are five different kinds of boredom. His study concludes that, while all shades of boredom can be uncomfortable, “reactant” and “apathetic” boredom are the most unpleasant. Reactant boredom involves strong feelings of restlessness and aggression, whereas apathetic boredom is a more helpless and depressive state, when people feel little emotion at all.

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Goetz’s other types of boredom – “indifferent”, “calibrating” and “searching” – are not so painful to experience. With indifferent boredom, we are withdrawn from the world but perfectly relaxed; during calibrating boredom we are prone to wandering thoughts, while searching boredom is when we actively look for something else to do. While his study doesn’t directly link these different states to creativity, he suggests that the latter, less distressing types of boredom would be more artistically fruitful. “When you experience boredom that’s neutral or positive in nature, the chance this might lead to creative ideas is much higher,” he says.

Mann, who studied the link between boredom and creativity specifically, also recognises distinctions between different types of boredom. “Destructive boredom leads to people smashing and vandalising things,” she says. “Active boredom is more creative.” She believes it’s possible to channel any kind of boredom into one that is active and leads to positive outcomes. “The first thing to do is actually allow yourself to be bored. A lot of people are frightened of boredom,” she says. “People swipe and scroll boredom away as soon as it threatens.”

Perhaps sometimes we are afraid of what might bubble up to the surface if we allow our minds to be still, so use our phones to avoid darker emotions. But it’s also no wonder we are often averse to downtime when you look at the pressure we are under to have visibly successful, interesting lives. The idea that “only boring people get bored” has modern society in its grip. We treat boredom as a personal failing and as a waste of life, rather than an important part of it.

Dormeau believes we feel guilty about boredom and try to hide it, explaining, “Unfortunately it has more value to say, ‘My work is so exciting! And this weekend I went shopping, to an exhibition, saw friends for brunch and worked out. I’m SO busy!’, rather than ‘I did absolutely nothing for two days and my job is boring as hell.’”

The social pressure to be in a state of constant fulfilment, whether online or otherwise, has a lot to do with our shame around boredom. But our need to always feel productive existed long before social media told us to “workhardplayhard” or busy-ness became a status symbol. “Physical work and practical results are the measures of one’s worth – that idea is at fault for our resistance to boredom,” says Jovan Todorovic, the Director at Stink London, behind films like The Belgrade Phantom and commercials for Adidas and T-Mobile. According to the director, this idea comes from our capitalist society.

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So allowing ourselves to be bored is not as simple as just managing our screen time better. We need to change our attitude to boredom if we are to help it fuel our creativity. “You need to give yourself permission first and foremost,” says Deakin from Huge. “And allow yourself to say, ‘Fuck you, world, I’m busy getting bored.’”

Similarly, Balarin describes boredom as a pillar of self-care. “The same way we exercise to become healthy, soon we will have to train ourselves to be idle in order to be more creative,” she says. “I guess that’s why so many creative types are turning to meditation.”

Importantly, it’s not going to have much effect if we just sit there willing ourselves to be bored and waiting for genius to strike. “We cannot control creativity, so sometimes boredom will lead to great ideas, sometimes not,” says Dormeau. “The most important thing is to allow ourselves to have these boring moments. As soon as we let it go, accept the situation and give ourselves time, then change and creativity can come in.”

What we can control is making sure we have those boring moments regularly and build them into our day-to-day lives. Here, then, are a few unorthodox New Year’s resolutions for you all to try in 2019: celebrate the tediousness of a queue or waiting room by not grabbing immediately for your phone; stare out the window during your commute; and do a repetitive activity like cleaning without tearing your hair out at the banality. Instead appreciate that such activities can make life gloriously boring. Welcome them in and watch your mind wander off to somewhere more interesting – all on its own.