When was the last time you were bored? If you're anything like me, you probably can't remember. I think it's safe to say that every gap in our day has been conveniently filled by a dopamine-delivering device - our smartphones. Waiting in line at the supermarket or the doctor's rooms? Sitting in traffic or on the subway during your morning commute? Our smartphones have managed to infiltrate every spare moment in our day. But this article is not about the smartphone -- it's about how our inability to be bored is holding us back.
Boredom has an evolutionary purpose and is critical for brain health. In a study led by Dr Aaron Kuyci, a neuroscientist and principal research scientist at Northeastern University, participants' brains were scanned by fMRI during periods of mind-wandering. The results show that our brain networks are more active than ever during boredom. "Virtually the whole brain was involved", said Kuyci. So what are our brains doing while we are bored and why should we start embracing boredom?
Ever had a great idea in the shower? I certainly have. There's a scientific reason for that. Boredom causes us to shift our thoughts from the external to the internal. When the task that we are doing bores us, or when doing nothing at all bores us, our attention shifts to our inner thoughts and experiences. We also begin to think about other areas of our lives and think of creative solutions to unsolved problems. Some of my most creative and innovative ideas at work have come to me on a walk or during my lunch break.
Daydreaming and boredom are very similar and, in most cases, are inextricable from one another. When we become bored and our thoughts shift from the external to the internal, we begin to daydream. Unfortunately, much like boredom, daydreaming has inherited a bad reputation for being unproductive -'snap out of it!' The science however suggests the opposite to be true.
An article published in Newsweek described daydreaming as a 'propitious mental state for creativity, insight and problem solving' through which 'truly novel solutions and ideas emerge'.
Dr Sandi Mann, Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and author of The Science of Boredom, put these ideas to the test. In a study, she had participants copy numbers out of a telephone directory for fifteen minutes. Those participants who admitted to daydreaming during the task went on to the next phase where their creativity was tested. They were given the challenge of designing creative uses for a polystyrene cup. Their solutions were not very creative -- most suggested using the cup to hold different objects. Professor Mann then upped the boredom levels. She got participants to simply read the telephone directory for fifteen minutes. After the cup task, the participants came up with far more creative solutions than before -- making musical instruments, jewelry, and even bras.
The study concluded that 'boredom can be a force for good' and it would be worthwhile to 'embrace boredom in work, education, and leisure.'
These results directly contradict society's perception of boredom as negative, lethargic, and unproductive. Instead, boredom should be seen for what it is. A motivator for change, creativity, and a catalyst to action. Jonathan Smallwood, Professor of Psychology at Queens University, claims that boredom's ability to trigger action is responsible for the evolutionary success of humankind: "This reflects a human skill set that is important in generating novel solutions to problems."
When we are bored our brains go into what scientists call 'the default mode network'. This takes place in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain as well as other regions whose names are difficult to pronounce. More recent studies have shown that in addition to the default mode network, other areas of the brain are active during boredom. The executive network of the brain has been shown to work in parallel with the default mode network. The executive network is responsible for high-level cognitive functions such as memory and attention. This came as a surprise to neuroscientists, who had always believed the two networks to work in opposition to one another. All of this suggests that when we are bored and our mind is wandering, we are in an extremely unique and valuable mental state.
During this time we not only do some of our most imaginative thinking, but our brains also engage in something called 'autobiographical planning'. This is the cognitive function of reflecting on our pasts and predicting and organizing the goals significant to where we want to be in the future. We imagine different scenarios, weigh up highs and lows, and problem-solve for our future. This is what Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant, refers to as 'writing our story'. 'It's about a sense of possibility,' she explains.
Unfortunately, boredom is hard. That's why we are quick to grab our phones or to look for something to instantly fill the gap. But it's time we start changing the way we think about boredom. The evidence has clearly shown that it is not counter-productive nor should it be 'fixed' or 'busted'. In a culture that glamorizes busyness and is obsessed with productivity, boredom should be embraced.
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, aptly highlights this: "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets... it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
** Re-evaluate Your Relationship With Your Smartphone**
If you're anything like me, and probably the majority of the population, your smartphone is your biggest boredom buster. So how can we begin to manage our mindless smartphone usage and social media scrolling? Awareness is the first step. How many hours a day are you spending on your phone and which applications are taking up your time? Most smartphones have applications built-in which track your usage. You'll be shocked to see the stats -- I certainly was.
If you want to get a bit more practical. Start small. Keep your phone in a different room, or on the other side of the room, when you get into bed. That will stop you from scrolling just before bed and from reaching for your phone the moment you wake up. At Coachbit, we call this the Long Distance Alarm Habit. We ask our students to place their phones away from their bedsides at night. This also forces them to get up to put their alarm off in the morning.
Once you've done this, check your tracking app and see how much your usage has gone down. It will also do wonders for your quality of sleep -- killing two birds with one stone.
** Go For a Walk**
Some of the extremists in behavioral science will suggest sitting in silence for several minutes and forcing yourself to be bored. But at Coachbit, we are about tiny steps. Ease yourself into it. Going for a walk a couple of times a week can be a great way to let your mind wander. Ditch the music or the podcasts which normally keep your mind occupied and instead let it wander. Even better -- think of an idea or a problem that you are currently facing and try to solve it during the walk.
As Nietzsche once said: 'It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth'. He was quite right. Some fresh air and Vitamin D will do you good too.
Let Your Kids Be Bored
Some of my most boring experiences were as a kid, but some of my most imaginative ones were too. I remember how quickly a table and a sheet could become a secret hideout on a rainy day, or a couple of flowers become a 'fairy garden'. These days, things are a little trickier. Video games, television, and smartphones are quick to fill the void. Boredom, though, is just as important for kids as it is for adults.
Ease them into the idea. Start with an hour a day where electronics are put away and they are left to rely on their imagination and resources. This may seem torturous at first, but results will come. This is sometimes easier when they have a companion. When your child has a friend over, rather than letting them watch tv or play video games, why not take away the screens for an hour? There will certainly be nagging at first, but it won't be long until they have invented a game or built something.
Boredom is a problem faced more intensely by children who already struggle with attention difficulties. We recommend leaving out activities for them to find such as puzzles, old or broken electronics to fiddle with, new Lego sets, arts and crafts materials, or even new and interesting books. Let them think it's their idea and let their creativity flow.
Embracing boredom will be uncomfortable at first. For both you and your children. If you start to feel triggered or frustrated by the boredom, that's completely natural, in fact, it's expected. But remember, you don't have to be doing 'nothing' for the brain-boosting benefits of boredom and mind wandering to kick in. Folding the laundry, going for a jog, or sitting in the sun will do the trick. Mundane tasks, which require little thinking, are a great way to let your mind wander.
Sandi Mann, The Science of Boredom: The Upside (and Downside) of Down Time
Manoush Zomorodi, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Creative and Productive Self