Is The Lack of Boredom Killing our Creativity?

I’m convinced that one of the big reasons I’m creative is because as a kid I was bored to death at church.  My dad was the pastor, so I had to sit with my mom and sister on the front row of the sanctuary every time the church doors opened. As a little kid, I was bored out of my mind, so I went through two stages:  The first was counting.  Looking around, I counted ceiling tiles, chairs on the stage, choir members – anything that could be counted.  The second stage was daydreaming.  I learned that in the most boring situations – church services, my sisters dance recitals, funerals – whatever, I could think up some amazing stuff.  The problem is that today, we don’t have time to be bored.  Waiting in the doctor’s office, or standing in line, we can check our email, play Angry Birds, or Twitter on our mobile phone or iPad.  Plus, there’s even a trend with businesses to make waiting rooms more interesting.  I was at an car dealer the other day who had a complete playroom for kids, computers for mom and dad, and an arcade area.   They told me that their business had doubled since they put in the distractions.

There are more cell phones and TV sets in America than we have people, so now we have a television in every room in the house and our phones help if there’s no TV.  There’s literally no downtime anymore.  No time for well, just thinking or daydreaming.

Creativity doesn’t happen to people obsessed with “productivity.”  It doesn’t happen during sessions of “Angry Birds.”  Creativity happens during the down-times – those moments when your mind wanders and makes connections you wouldn’t normally consider.  As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane next to a guy who’s played a card game on his Android phone for the last 3 hours.  I doubt much creative insight is coming out of that.  There’s no question that a new generation will have to deal with how technology is filling our time with trivial pursuits instead of deep thinking.  But until they figure it out, never forget the wonderful value of boredom.

Those moments when you don’t have anything to do, may be the most productive moments of all.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 23rd, 2011 at 6:18 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Steve Anderson

    Perfectly true. My own way seeing this is we have become a “Pac Man” culture. Like the game that mindlessly gobbles up anything and everything, we have become like this. Useless info on the web, U tube videos and such fills out time and minds. The never ending possibility that some thing better is on a different station. Our minds are full. Why can’t we just stop, breathe and unplug? Is it fear that we could lose a step to our competition?
    The quest for answers has out shadowed the pleasure of just being curios.

  • http://twitter.com/samuelchua Samuel Chua

    Absolutely. Boredom begets creativity.

    One of my life’s turning points was when I discovered how to “harvest” surplus attention from periods of enforced boredom (many classes, lectures, talks) and direct it to mind-wandering. I’ve even started taking up going to meetings/talks that I know are going to be boring when I have some mind-wandering I need to do. There’s something about the combination of time sunk cost (I’m stuck here for the whole hour/day anyway), surplus attention, and lack of immediate stimulation that leads to particularly fertile creative thinking. Just blocking out an hour for “brainstorming” doesn’t have quite the same effect.

    Paraphrasing Steve Jobs: boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, everything follows.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      I love the phrase, “enforced boredom..”

  • Guest

    i agree in the sense that distractions can often capture and actually ‘take over’ our imagination.  but in another sense, distractions open us to the possibilities we were not cognizant of before.  i like your point about making connections you wouldn’t normally– and to expand on that point, i believe in ‘deliberate creativity.’  deliberately forcing ourselves to watch, read or listen to something we normally would not, in the search for inspiration.  this just happened to me last night.  i was sort of ‘forced’ to watch a video clip I had no interest in watching; and it actually solved another creative challenge i had.  i would have never even thought of the solution had i not been ‘distracted’ and then made that connection.  so while i do completely agree our culture often numbs our minds by distractions… i think if we purpose to stay aware of actually what is distracting us, we may find connections that otherwise have alluded us.  (PS  I was a PK too, but I had to sit on the back row to keep from ‘distracting’ my dad while he preached.  lol!)

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Good point – being “aware” of our distractions is a good starting point…

  • MARK YARGER

    The truth of this is that most people are so busy that they don’t even realize this pattern their lives have turned into.  My question is how much more “busy stuff” can society persuade us to become addicted to?  Most importantly, as followers of Christ, all these things take the place of cultivating a rich relationship with our Saviour – I’m guilty, so no finger pointing from me!  

  • MJ

    I spend my down time cramming information in my head to become more knowledgeable. I make sure I have something to do at all times. After all, it’s all about productivity. But lately I’ve noticed I’m coming up with lots of creative ideas for a project I’m currently writing when I don’t put a CD in the car and while I’m in the shower… of all places. I’m learning that silence is really my friend. I’ve also remembered very recently that I do have a creative imagination – I think I forgot that part about me. It got lost in the productivity, pursuit of knowledge, distractions and responsibilities. I’m starting to rediscover what I forgot I had.Boredom kills me, it’s like torture… rethinking what boredom can do is a new challenge. Thanks Phil!

  • http://twitter.com/justinkintzel Justin Kintzel ✔

    This couldn’t be more true. I’m 25 now, and in the last year I became the “Creative Arts Director / Worship Pastor” at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. I find that the older I get and as more responsibilities fall on me, the more I spend brain power planning and organizing those responsibilities…even more so than I should. Having the word “creative” in my title only makes that even more ironic. My job is to be creative, yet, having a minute to do so is few and far between…plus when I do find a minute to be creative, digging into it is almost impossible. It’s almost like that same brain power that was used to think creatively when not bombarded with email, planning, meetings, etc is re-directed and used for all those things instead. It’s surely one or the other when playing all in. I was the same kind of kid. At church, I would draw, daydream, and even think of ideas for videos and stuff…almost without any effort. I remember about a month ago, I was talking with my wife and told her that in several months, I felt like I hadn’t had a single creative thought. Not a video idea, not a song, not even a joke. Two weeks ago, my boss came to me and told me that he simply wanted to take some things off my shoulders SO THAT I could be more creative. ANSWER TO PRAYER. I willingly handed over some of the responsibilities that I felt were killing my creativity and over the next week, each night that I laid down to go to bed, I may as well have plugged my brain straight into some creative pipeline. With my brain not using so much energy emailing, planning, meeting, blah blah blah…the creativity had a place to flow! Now, each night after the ideas show up and I write them down in my notes app on my phone, I can quiet my mind and go to sleep without worrying about endless emails about things that won’t matter in 12 hours.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Brilliant thought…

  • Roberto

    Scott Adams of Dilbert fame was on the same page in a Wall Street Journal article http://tinyurl.com/43dj9r4

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  • http://twitter.com/brewerpatriot01 brewerpatriot01

    I listened to a podcast from Accidental Creative that interviewed a guy who said that creativity really flowed when given constraints (like walls and a ceiling). And that creativity fueled within these very constraints is what allows the idea to rocket into space. It ties the unusual connections of creativity right to strategic problem solving.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      I agree.  Constraints make a really positive difference when it comes to creativity.  Few people realize the friction Michelangelo had to deal with painting the Sistine Chapel…

  • Brian Godawa

    I do agree with the notion that we need some time to let our minds wander, and I avoid filling my mind with wasteful activity like just playing games or listening to music. 

    BUT most of my creativity comes from putting something INTO my mind. So, watching thriller movies inspire solutions in my current thriller script. Or doing research gives me breakthroughs. I find that the act of writing is my means of finding most answers, about 80%, and only about 20% of solutions from letting my mind simmer over an idea or problem.I would also suggest that we improve our moral and personal character by seeking to give our attention to our “boring” church service, our sister’s event or a funeral. I consider it narcissistic of artists to become absorbed in their own little mental world instead of giving attention to people who are supposed to be important in our lives. It is selfishness, not creativity that renders us incapable of giving to the real people around us, while engaging in the faux relationships of digital social networking. We are human beings who need to give to other human beings in personal presence.

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  • Brian Lorenz

    Great thoughts, Phil. I agree completely.
         As a person who earns a living in the creative field, I do all I can to protect myself from invading electronics and time thieves. There are many times when I feel a bit out of touch in regard current events or the latest version of Angry Birds, but I rarely lack time for crazy, stoopid, inane, silly and occasionally innovative thought.     I use my iPhone while I’m cycling to record random thoughts that flow through my mind as quickly as sweat through my pores. The iPad is for Skype-ing the family while I’m on the road. I’ll admit, I like a game of Boggle from time to time, but I’m more addicted to the connection between free-flowing thought than between scrambled letters.     Oh, and as you know, few things refresh one’s creativity like small children in the home.

         Another thing I realized years ago… knowledge is the key that can open the door to wisdom and
    close the door to wonder. It’s sad because for many people the more they KNOW, the less they have to wonder about things or think creatively.

         You seem to do an excellent job of defending yourself against the technological campaign for mindlessness by living at the creative edge. Carry on.

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  • Nancy

    Genesis 1:2
    The Message (MSG)

    Hmmm…was God bored here?

  • http://twitter.com/steveOnTheEdge Stephan Gregoire

    Two days ago, I was about to take my smartphone to the bathroom with me. Then I remembered this post and decided against it. Sitting there, God flashed a design idea for a poster, which turned into a search for famous revolutionary’s most famous quotes, which turned into a name and brand for the youth ministry we’re starting. We had spent weeks trying to come up with it.

    I’m definitely going to disconnect more.

    • http://twitter.com/steveOnTheEdge Stephan Gregoire

      The antithesis to this, of course, is that too much boredom is worse, and stimulation is needed.

      But this is a blog for busy people, so there’s no need to say that.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Love this story Stephan.  Really great!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_275G5DXXYIHGQY7OROR6AXZEKY Mari B

    Although I was initially inclined to agree, I believe the really interesting set of issues is more complex than that.

    I suppose it’s *the drive to keep ourselves constantly entertained* that can keep ourselves from having more meaningful experiences, solving problems, deep thinking, etc.

    Along related lines, I came across your blog while looking for an article I read a couple years ago on leisure time and the brain.  The article suggested studies had shown that cognitive processes by which we define and shape our personal identity can only happen when we are free to enjoy relaxing time. Still searching for this article, or associated research, was going to cite it for something else. 

    There are different kinds of boredom… I would say that boredom is most often associated with an inability to escape a situation that is not actively engaging … but you *can* be bored and busy at the same time — also, even if you aren’t busy — there is relaxed boredom and irritated boredom.  I’m sure there is a more scientific way to discuss these points, but I’m not a researcher, and I’m actually in a bit of a hurry now (eep!).

    Lack of stimulation can present it’s own kind of stress. I think it’s more the dimension of “free time to play or just relax” that fosters creativity.

    Still, any down time can be creative, and a preference for entertainment that doesn’t engage any creative or analytical thinking is associated with cognitive decline in the elderly – and I would be surprised if this correlation with general lack or suppression of cognitive ability didn’t extend to young people as well.

    A link to related info for activities that do and don’t support cognitive decline, according to somewhat limited study information from China.  Regrettably, artistic activities were discincluded from the study due to their relative rarity.
    http://www.headstrongbrain.com/Science/Resource_Library/Leisure_Activites_Build_Better_Brains

    I think we can understand boredom and creativeity per se better by looking at people who don’t have to work any more, and who tend to have less social connections.  Although it’s true that the brain changes with age, not all age-related changes are endogenous.

    The positive effects of boredom, I think, come more from leisure, or from choosing to spend leisure time actively engaged in such pasttimes as solving problems, healthy physical activity, acute observation, creative activity, or deep/analytical thinking.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Mari – brilliant insight, and thanks for posting.  I agree on the two kinds of boredom.  Certainly worth thinking about more…