As an only child who grew up before the rise of the Internet, boredom was my constant companion. Summers were an endless stretch of riding my bike around town, reading, and staring up into the sky, imagining stories that I later wrote into my tattered journals.
This tendency toward unscheduled downtime carried over into adulthood, and it frequently fed my creative writing process. Then, in my late 30s, I got my first smartphone—and pretty soon, my dreamy, idle periods began filling up.
As a freelance writer, it made sense that I’d check my email frequently. But I also enjoyed surfing the Internet to break up the dull moments of child-rearing. Checking Facebook was a great way to keep tabs on far-flung friends. Before long, I was never bored: not at the post office, the grocery store, or while getting my oil changed. None of this seemed like a problem—until I noticed a creeping feeling of mental clutter, and a significant decline in my creative writing.
It hit me while I was driving one day: I no longer let myself be bored. I wondered just how bad that was for a writer—or for any other creative type. And so I decided to dive into the research on the unexpected benefits of boredom.
The wandering mind
One of the most common questions that writers receive is: “Where do you get your ideas?” The best answer for me is that I get ideas for stories during periods of associative thinking—that is, letting my mind wander, just musing and reflecting.
For example, a while ago, I read a story in the New York Times travel section about the popular beach town near where I grew up. It mentioned a man who’d been a friend of my father’s. On my drive to pick up my son from school, I got to thinking about how much I adored this man as a child, even though I saw him rarely. He’d always show up with little gifts for me—beach glass, rare chocolate—and I imagined him to be some sort of wandering pirate. I later found out he had a bit of a criminal past. But as a child, I’d had no clue; if I’d known, I wouldn’t have cared. Suddenly, I had the idea for a novel that wouldn’t let me go.
Indeed, research suggests that people who want to come up with creative ideas would do well to let their minds drift. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking”—that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers. These people are more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas. “Thus, boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought.”
In another recent study, researchers at the University of Central Lancashire set out to test the link between boredom and creativity. They asked 80 participants to perform boring tasks like copying and reading numbers from a phone book and then to drum up as many possible uses for plastic cups as they could. The groups that completed the boring phone book tasks beforehand came up with more creative answers than the control group that had not.
“Coming up with a boring task (especially a reading task),” the authors conclude, “might help with coming up with a more creative outcome.” This may be because boredom can inspire “lateral thinking”—a form of engaging your mind to seek a more creative solution to the problem at hand because the obvious one is just not very interesting. So before you sit down to write, paint, or brainstorm a new project, it may be smart to spend some time washing the dishes or weeding the lawn—the better to set your brain roaming.
A kick in the pants
There’s another big upside to boredom: It encourages us to take action toward a non-boring alternative. Since most of us don’t like feeling bored for too long, the feeling motivates us to seek out new goals and experiences that we might otherwise let pass by. If I’m bored while I’m writing a particular passage of dialogue, for example, I can bet that readers will feel the same way. Better to scrap the scene and move on to a new one.
Rachel Kazez, a Chicago-based therapist and founder of All Along, which connects people with mental health resources, sees boredom as a set of mental cues that can reveal important information about our true feelings. “One of the cues our boredom gives us might be ‘I don’t like this anymore, or I feel trapped here, or I’m not being challenged,” Kazez says. “In that case it’s useful because it allows us to get to know ourselves. And it’s a cue [that] something needs to change.”
And so, if we turn straight to Candy Crush or Twitter whenever we feel bored, we might rush right past an important observation. A under-stimulating job might be made more bearable by chatting with your friends on Google Hangouts all day—but the very fact that you’re less bored may mean that you’re less motivated to find a new job that would truly challenge you.
And when you consider that the average American devotes about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day to consuming media, approximately 65% of waking hours, according to a 2016 Nielson report, there’s a good chance we’re missing some inner reflections.
This is your brain on boring stuff
Armed with this information, I decided to reacclimatize myself to boredom. But how?
The first step, according to researchers, is to get in the habit of spacing out again. When we engage in activities such as social media or online shopping, we activate our brain’s reward system—very same pathway that releases its dopamine and other feel good chemicals when you have a drink or use a drug. The more you perform a brain-rewarding activity, the more your brain will crave it.
“The more a behavior is practiced, the stronger neurological connections grow,” says Michael Bishop, a psychologist with an expertise in neuropsychology, and founder of the Summerland camp for screen-time addictions. And so the best way to cure an internet addiction is to start disrupting the neurological connections immediately. Every time we resist the urge to pick up the phone while waiting in line or to fire up the laptop as soon as we get home, we’re giving our brains a chance to rest and reset, he says.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up your technology. Rather, you just have to “make sure that you’re not mindlessly using it to distract yourself,” Kazez says. I’ve certainly noticed that when I stay away from my phone and the Internet during the day, I don’t feel as tired in the evening. That over-stimulated feeling of mental clutter goes away—and I’m itching to enter the worlds of my fictional characters again.
As for those of us who worry that time away from our phones will mean that we’re not responding quickly enough to emails and messages, Kazez says it’s time to reframe social expectations.
If you’re an American like me, you are probably familiar with the sense of pressure to always be busy and productive. That’s great for your paycheck, but it’s a challenging way to approach creativity and your inner life. “We don’t always have to be productive,” Kazez says.
Moreover, in our flight from boredom, we’re also often fleeing from uncomfortable feelings—which are raw, messy and not always easy to contain. When I have a fight with a friend or get bad news, I’m drawn to distract myself with my phone as if it were a cigarette or a drink. Like those options, it may make me feel better in that moment, but it does nothing to help ease those feelings in the long run.
Boredom, by contrast, is an opportunity for us to meet our own needs—to turn inward rather than outward and tend our emotions, interact with our creativity, and give our brains a break. “It’s important to have downtime and to be able to have our emotional needs met just by existing,” Kazez says, “by knowing that we’re enough just as we are.”