Get Bored Now

Is boredom a negative emotion? It is defined as a feeling of discontent with something that is dull, repetitive, tiresome or tedious. We prefer to stay away from anything that is boring to us. But boredom is largely a complex emotion that can have a very positive impact. It can make us more creative and productive.

Are you able to comfortably sit alone with your thoughts?
Do you look for external stimuli the moment you feel bored?
Does boredom make you less creative or productive?

This is episode 41. Get Bored Now

Hello and welcome to the Incrementalist, a productivity podcast on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach and host for this show.

Is boredom a negative emotion? It is defined as a feeling of discontent with something that is dull, repetitive, tiresome or tedious. We prefer to stay away from anything that is boring to us. But boredom is largely a complex emotion that can have a very positive impact.

In July 2014, the journal Science published an article titled Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind. Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University tackled the question of why it’s so hard for us to do nothing. In 11 studies, they found that most participants did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.

They hated being left alone to think, regardless of their age, education, income, and how much they used their digital devices. They preferred to do mundane activities. They also had a button they could click to give themselves an electric shock. 67% of men and 25% of women pressed the button, i.e. chose pain over boredom.

In sum, they opted for external activities (like read a book, listen to music, or scroll their cell phone) and even negative stimuli (like an electric shock) rather than think. This explains why toxic, sensationalist news is so addictive even though it’s bad for our mental health and physical wellbeing.

The researchers concluded that the untrained mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Psychologist and lead researcher, Timothy Wilson, notes we have readily available stimuli to avoid being alone with our thoughts. There are podcasts, books, videos, TV shows, movies and social media. There are so many ways to escape boredom, especially through consuming information and entertainment in our free time.

Boredom can lead to negative outcomes like bad habits and unhealthy behavior. But it can also make us more creative and productive.

If you’re in a creative rut, you could try embracing boredom first. Boredom is a little-known way to increase creativity. That’s the takeaway of a March 2019 study published in the journal, Academy of Management Discoveries.

In Study 1, they found that boredom helped boost individual productivity on an idea-generation task. In Study 2, boredom manipulation increased boredom but did not trigger other negative emotions like anger and frustration, which makes boredom a unique factor in sparking creativity. In Study 3, they found that boredom did not always improve creativity for a product development task. Rather, the parties needed to have a high learning goal orientation, high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and high internal locus of control to get more creative when feeling bored.

Participants who had to complete a boredom-inducing task — sort a bowl of beans by color, one by one - performed better on an idea-generating task than those who first did an interesting craft activity. The ultimate goal was to come up with excuses for being late that wouldn’t make someone look bad. The bored group generated more unique, creative ideas and a higher number of ideas.

The researchers concluded that boredom is a cause of divergence-seeking, exploratory tendencies. Feeling bored will drive you to change and do something different, seek challenges, switch to goals or tasks that better serve you, and motivate you to engage in unusual ways of doing things that are contrary to typical or predictable responses. Boredom may be important to the survival and adaptation of living beings.

Doing nothing or sitting with your thoughts is hard when there’s so much to do and so much to pull your attention. But if we want to be more creative and productive, it’s good to experience boredom.
Boredom sparks creativity, which involves generating new solutions or unique ideas to solve a problem.

Anger triggers an approach-and-fight response. Fear evokes an avoidance-and-flight response. Boredom, however, often elicits divergent thinking and novelty-seeking, and prompts you to move out of your comfort zone and seek different and often better conditions. Listen to Episode 12 for more on how to encourage divergent and not just convergent thinking.

Being bored can lead to Aha, “Eureka!” moments and breakthrough ideas for problem solving.
Sandi Mann, a senior Psychology lecturer in the UK says boredom is “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied.” Our mind will create it if we can’t find it.

Boredom can also make you more productive. Reflecting on and sitting with your thoughts give you an opportunity to daydream, destress, take a mental break, and plan for the future. You can get some space for ideas to incubate and to recharge for the next task.

You can do Autobiographical Planning, which involves mind wandering and engaging the default network part of the brain. You need spontaneous thought to set future goals and identify and organize the steps to reach a desired outcome.

Boredom is not the same as relaxation activities. Yoga and meditation, for example, are purposeful activities that are not about failing to find stimuli.

To experience true boredom, you could just sit with your eyes closed, or look out the window, or walk a familiar route and let your mind wander. There is no music, no podcast, and no other stimuli to engage your senses. It’s just you and your thoughts.

Unplug from digital devices and do a digital detox. If you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, stopped at a red light, or in a long meeting, keep your hands off your phone and just be present. Train yourself to welcome boredom and be with your own thoughts so you rely less on the dopamine hits of constant stimuli and inputs.

You do need to be interested in the task or project to stay focused on it. Interest can work in tandem with boredom to create the best possible solutions to a problem, whether it’s through a process, product or service. And if you’re getting bored, you could intentionally switch to a more interesting task instead of scroll through social media or binge watch YouTube videos.

Boredom can get you to experiment with a new medium, indulge in a creative hobby, or try novel things. It can help you expand your repertoire, view things from another angle, and think more holistically. Even if it doesn’t move you out of a long-existing profession or field, it can lead to more interest in what you already do.

Give yourself some space, freedom and flexibility to notice what’s around you. Don’t just repeat and replicate what’s already out there. Process your own thoughts and explore and expand your own thinking to see where it takes you. Boredom is not a bad thing if you know how to use it as an opportunity for idea generation and creative breakthroughs.

Okay, what are you still doing here? Thank you for tuning in to The Incrementalist and go get bored now.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams