Creativity and boredom

Liz Sebag-MontefioreToday’s author is Liz Sebag-Montefiore, 10Eighty’s Founding Director who has provided HR solutions to a wide range of industries since 2005, working with numerous firms to understand their needs and is a great believer in the power and intelligence of networking. 

Do you ever have those ‘glazed over’ moments at work? Almost unconsciously you cease concentrating and your mind wanders, often from a completely anodyne thought such as what you fancy for dinner that evening, roaming to the more fantastical or off-the-wall.

The most common reaction to this daydream experience is guilt, a sense that we have been ‘busy doing nothing’ and didn’t even notice the time passing. Worse still, that we were bored with our work.

It turns out, however, that a certain level of boredom may enhance the creative quality of our work.

creativity and boredom

That’s the implications of two recently published papers that focus on the link between feeling bored and being creative. 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”, In other words, to seek out activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centres.

This type is more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas. The study concludes that “Boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought.”

Another 2014 study by the University of Central Lancashire tested 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 come up with as many possible uses for plastic cups as they could.

The groups completing 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.”

So boredom felt at work could help us get our work done better…or at least get work that requires creative thinking done better.

It’s possible that 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, brainstorm or examine a problem and produce a concise, effective solution (convergent thinking) you could try spending some time on humdrum activities such as washing the dishes, going through emails or inputting data – the better to set your brain roaming for bright ideas.

You could schedule your creative task after a particularly dull staff meeting (that’s not to say all meetings are boring, but many are unnecessary or loaded with too many people – read our recent pizza blogpost for elucidation.)

So next time you’re feeling bored at work, treat it as an opportunity, not a negative. As author Neil Gaiman says: “Ideas come from daydreaming. They come from drifting.”

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

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Michael Moran – CEO 10Eighty

A blog about career and talent management, things that might help you with your career and in your job.

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