Is Boredom Our Generation’s Most Untapped Resource?
A couple of months ago I was trying to solve a problem with The Twenties Club. So I did what I usually to do when faced with a business-related challenge, I made Dad take me out for bacon and eggs so I could seek his counsel. Because nothing says I love you Dad! like, Will you help me solve all my problems and could you also please pay for breakfast.
His prescription this time around was a little less tangible than I would have liked: “Spend the next few weeks walking, commuting and exercising without any podcasts, music or phone calls. Nothing. You need some silence to give your brain the space to wander.”
Riveting stuff, Dad. But it turned out he was right on the money – except what he was actually prescribing wasn’t so much silence as it was boredom. Earlier this year, researchers at the Academy of Management Discoveries conducted studies on the importance of boredom for sparking productivity and creativity, and the results were fascinating. In the study, people who had gone through a boredom-inducing task – methodically sorting a bowl of beans by colour, one by one – later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. The bored people outperformed their peers both in terms of idea quantity and quality.
These findings probably weren’t surprising to Dr Sandi Mann, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime and Why Boredom Is Good. I listened to Mann on Radio New Zealand earlier this month discussing this research in the context of parenting, “Today’s parent is so terrified of their child getting bored – it’s what we call ‘competitive parent thinking’ and it’s when the mother or father feels like they need to constantly stimulate their child with activities.” Competitive parenting is usually associated with wanting a child to be successful or not fall behind, but as Mann explains, boredom is crucial, “When you do something mundane or repetitive, like sitting in a waiting room or washing the dishes, your brain will seek to entertain itself.” The brain might visit an old memory, day dream about future plans, or ruminate on a problem – it’s basically coming up with ways to stimulate itself and Mann said it’s a brilliant resource. But before you get too excited, she was quick to point out that mindlessly watching Netflix doesn’t count, “We call that ‘passive stimulation’, which is when your brain isn’t actually required to stimulate itself.”
So now we know about the science of silence – the brilliance of boredom, if you will – but that doesn’t change the fact that we are a generation accustomed to being constantly entertained by external forces. We hate silence. The emptiness of it all. Like a vacant room we demand be filled with sofas and tables and drawers and mirrors. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the irony in all of this; that we are a generation plagued by burnout, constantly complaining about the busyness and fullness of our schedules, and yet when presented with ten minutes of empty time – whether because we’re waiting for a delayed flight, or our sushi to be made, or an Uber to arrive, or a meeting to start – we immediately seek to fill it. With emails and Instagram, Twitter and texting.
What would happen if we reframed those pockets of air in our days and saw them as mini vacations? A rare opportunity to just be. I can hear you saying, Ah that’s a really cute sentiment Mads but if I’m on a one hour flight to Wellington for business I can’t just sit there doing nothing – I’ve got work to do. But what this research is telling us is that if you simply allowed yourself to sit in your boredom, rather than attempting to fill it, you’d likely solve all those things you’d been worrying about anyway.
Ultimately, Dad’s advice was – as always – perfect. Not only did I make progress with TTC’s problem, I now find myself tapping into that elusive silence (whenever I can muster the courage) on walks or commutes just to see where my brain goes in it’s boredom. It’s usually somewhere interesting. Go figure.