Dave woke up to his alarm and hit snooze. After repeating this three times, he finally grabbed his phone and sat up to greet the day. He looked at the latest weather and headlines, exchanged texts with his girlfriend, played a few rounds of his favorite game and then rolled out of bed to get ready for work. The subway was busier than usual so he tucked into a corner and caught up on his social media feeds. When he arrived, he scanned the large open office, filled with rows and rows of desks. Most people were already fixated on their computer screens, many wearing headphones to combat the constant din in the room. He settled into his workstation, opened his laptop and went online. He noticed with a sense of dread that he already had twenty new emails, five marked urgent, and a bunch of questions on the team messenger app. Everyone was asking about his progress on the latest project he’d been assigned. But he was having a tough time with this one. He just couldn’t seem to generate any new ideas. It wasn’t just writer’s block – he knew what that felt like and always knew it would pass. But this felt different and it didn’t seem to be passing. It had been going on for days, maybe for weeks. In fact, for so long that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an original idea. He didn’t know why this was happening but he had to figure it out and fix it – fast. His success depended on creativity and without it, he knew his job and future would suffer.
Dave isn’t alone in his struggle with creativity. And I’m sure the number of people who can relate to Dave’s situation is growing, every day. If you search Google using the term “how to improve creativity,” you will see 162 million results. It’s a popular topic. “How to develop creativity and innovation” yields 98 million results and “techniques to enhance creativity” has over 80 million results. It’s clear that there are many people seeking answers to this problem. And, though there are many good solutions, there is one that stands out and is, I think, more important than all the rest. Boredom.
Boredom sounds boring and it is boring. Which is why we usually try to avoid it. But boredom is a crucial ingredient for creativity. Science has shown that allowing our minds to wander leads to better creative problem solving. When we daydream, our mind starts accessing memories, emotions and random information, allowing us to see things with a new perspective. Often, this is when we figure out a solution to a problem or come up with a new thought. These eureka moments happen when we access an internal attention system in our brain called the default state network. This particular state of mind is only engaged when we are not involved in a task that requires focused attention. But these days, we are spending more and more time on those tasks requiring our attention as we spend more time on our devices.
A Nielsen study in early 2017 found that the average time American adults spend consuming media (in all forms) totaled 11 hours and 36 minutes per day. In other words, time spent on all devices combined has ballooned to almost half of the 24 hours we have for sleeping, working and doing all the things we need to get by, such as eating. How has it come to this? Well, the days when we would listen to the radio on our commute and watch an hour or two of TV after dinner are gone. Now we fill all the little empty bits of our day with content of one type or another. The ability of technology to catch our attention and keep us engaged has created a desire for distraction that few can ignore. It’s so strong that some people would rather be mildly electrocuted than be left alone with nothing to do, as a study in 2014 proved. But this distraction is costing us more than just time. It’s also costing us our creativity. And, if we don’t do something about it, we’ll end up like Dave.
So if you want to improve your creativity, allow yourself to be bored. Encourage your brain to kick into the default state by spending time doing simple external tasks that don’t require focused attention. Fold the laundry, walk your dog or go sit in a park. Make sure you don't succumb to the lure of your devices at the first sign of boredom. They are great for feeding our distraction but not for feeding our creativity.
I have a curious mind and many interests. I like to spend time musing about things and this is where some of my musings end up. I would love to hear from you if you have a thought or question you'd like to add. Conversation is always appreciated.