I travel pretty frequently between JotForm’s headquarters in Turkey and San Francisco. On a recent flight, just after boarding, I realized that I had left my laptop at home. I hadn’t packed a book, either.
It was either the window or the tiny overhead screen. As much as I appreciate an old rom-com, I chose the former.
Staring out at the clouds, I let my mind wander. I thought about an issue with a new JotForm feature and developed a few solutions to share with my team. I mulled over my family’s summer vacation plans, and I considered some points to make at an upcoming panel discussion.
In the end, it was a productive flight, because I decided to embrace a little boredom.
Lately, it feels like we hardly ever sit idle with our thoughts. Devices make it easy to avoid boredom at all costs.
This “boredom-phobia” is nothing new. Back in the 19th century, British philosopher Bertrand Russell had already diagnosed it:
“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom.”
That’s because most people see boredom as an unpleasant experience.
But a reasonable dose of boredom can actually be a good thing. Recent studies have shown that boredom has a surprising effect on our creativity and productivity. So, it’s worth exploring how we can leverage boredom in the workplace — and even become more innovative in the process.
Before we dig in: what do we mean when we talk about boredom?
It’s a state of mind
“Are we there yet?”
As any parent will tell you, taking your kids on a road trip will inevitably produce some complaints.
“I’m bored!” my eldest will yell from the backseat as we drive through small towns en route to my family’s farm. “There’s nothing to do!”
True enough, there are no physical activities. But boredom, it turns out, comes from a shortage of mental stimulation.
Sandi Mann, a psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, describes boredom as “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied.”
That perceived lack of stimulation increases neural arousal in search of variety, and if our brains can’t find that variety, the result is boredom.
Rather than reach for the iPad, I try to let my children sit with their boredom. Pretty soon, they’re staring out the window, presumably daydreaming, and watching the changing landscape whiz by. By the time we arrive, the kids hardly remember their boredom — and they’re willing to do the same trip the following year.
Writes New York Times editor Pamela Paul:
“The ability to handle boredom, not surprisingly, is correlated with the ability to focus and to self-regulate… It’s especially important that kids get bored — and be allowed to stay bored — when they’re young.”
Dealing with dull moments, Paul argues, prepares them for what the future holds: the occasional bout of boredom, including some dull moments at work.
Rather than try to eliminate boredom at the workplace, we can actually use it to our advantage. Because, let’s face it, we all have some tasks that leave us wanting for stimulation.
The benefits of boring tasks
Though it sounds counterintuitive, boring activities can spark creativity.
Experts chalk it up to daydreaming. When you do something boring, your mind has the opportunity to wander.
Like when you watch a dull movie — as New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis explains,
“In [mental] wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”
Researchers at the University of Central Lancaster found that completing a boring task, like reading numbers from a phone directory, boosted creativity on a subsequent creative exercise. They reasoned that daydreaming during a dull task stimulates imaginative thinking.
In the researchers’ words:
“The act of daydreaming [provides] individuals with the opportunity to re-examine a problem or situation that is preoccupying their mind as many times as they wish, in varied ways and each time incorporating new information and possible solutions.”
Before doing creative work, the researchers suggest that we undertake a boring task to promote more innovative outcomes. For example, reviewing contracts or organizing your expense receipts — anything that doesn’t require out-of-the-box thinking.
Engaging in a dull activity may also kickstart your motivation… to do something more stimulating.
Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described boredom as “the root of all evil.” But he also acknowledged its power to motivate.
“It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion,” wrote Kierkegaard.
“The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.”
While boredom isn’t good in and of itself, the productive aftermath just might be.
A study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal supports this idea. Research participants who sorted a bowl of beans by color before an idea-generating task performed better on that task than participants who first completed a more interesting, crafty activity.
The bored participants generated both more options and higher quality ideas — meaning the boring task made them more creative and more productive.
It makes sense. Put me in a monotonous meeting or lecture, and afterward, I’ll be itching to do something more stimulating. I’m supercharged to get some real work done.
3. Stress relief
Finally, we shouldn’t overlook boredom’s capacity to calm.
Consider the South Korean phenomenon of “mukbang.” A host eats a large amount of food and broadcasts it on a video platform like YouTube.
Seems pretty boring, right?
And yet millions of people tune in to watch (and listen) to the host slurping down noodles or hoovering a pizza.
As it turns out, this literal food porn causes the pleasurable sensation known as ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. British journalist Rhodri Marsden found that people watch intentionally dull videos, from folding towels to running hairdryers, for the enjoyable sensations they generated.
Whatever constitutes a boring task for you — be it organizing your desk or entering data into spreadsheets — it could also be calming.
No matter how great your company culture might be, the workplace can be stressful at times. Making time for calming activities can be helpful for all of us. Here are some ideas you might want to put into practice.
Fostering a small dose of boredom
Generally, I don’t want our 140 employees to be bored. As much as possible, I want them to feel engaged and inspired by their work.
However, I would rather an employee sit with her thoughts between meetings than try to squeeze in an extra task — even if it means feeling a little bored.
We can all start here: by encouraging daily pauses and snippets of downtime instead of celebrating constant busyness. That could mean creating a quiet space at the office for reflection or daydreaming. Or, by encouraging employees to take walks. We’re talking short, familiar routes, though, not adventurous hikes. A workday stroll has to err on the dull side to promote mental wandering.
I’ve had some great ideas pop into my head during an afternoon walk by the waterfront, a path I’ve taken hundreds of times.
Also, we can recommend that employees handle less-stimulating tasks before undertaking creative ones.
For example, before our JotForm hack weeks, when product teams have five days to explore new ideas, regardless of how outlandish they might sound, I urge employees to knock out any lingering logistical items on their to-do lists. By the time the hack week rolls around, they’re eager to unleash that pent up creativity.
The goal is to strike a balance between deep work, when our minds are totally immersed in the task at hand, and deliberate pauses, when we allow our minds to relax, wander, and explore.
Author Washington Irving sums it up well:
“There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed.”
When we daydream, we can build our air castles — or your company’s next big idea — undisturbed.