The Power of Being Bored

Boredom, in today’s world, is fleeting. Because of our phones — supercomputers, but pocket-sized — we’re never more than a moment away from something to distract us from our idle time (battery life permitting). That may seem like a bad thing — our brains need a rest and chores, like doing dishes or taking out the trash, need attending to. But it turns out, there may be an even greater benefit to being bored. To figure out why, let’s read a phone book.

Nah, that sounds terrible. Instead, let’s read about other people who were instructed to read a phone book.

For those of you who are too young to know what a “phone book” is, there’s one pictured above. That section or book was called the “white pages,” and it contained a listing of people, addresses, and their phone numbers. (Some businesses or municipal offices were sometimes published in larger type and/or highlighted, but you get the point.) If you want to read a good, engaging book, there are plenty of other options. If you want to read something boring, read the phone book.

That’s what Dr. Sandi Mann, a philosophy professor at the University of Central Lancashire, decided to have her test subjects do. Dr. Mann, who studies boredom (which, if you think about it, creates a personal paradox for her), co-authored a paper with student Rebekah Cadman investigating the impact that boredom had on creativity. The Harvard Business Review explains the set-up:

Participants were either assigned the boring task of copying numbers from a phone book or assigned to a control group, which skipped the phone book assignment. All participants were then asked to generate as many uses as they could for a pair of plastic cups. This is a common test of divergent thinking—a vital element for creative output that concerns ones ability to generate lots of ideas.

The result: those who copied from the phone book came up with notably more creative uses for the cups. Being bored, it seems, resulted in more creative juice flowing.

Their theory was that when the brain is seemingly idle, it wanders, and we daydream. So, Mann and Cadman decided to continue the experiment and turn the boredom up a notch in hopes of finding more evidence to support this thesis. In this second phase, there were three groups. One group read entries from the phone book to the second group, which recorded what they heard. The third group — the control group — skipped the phone book portion altogether. Science Daily summarizes the results.

Again the researchers found that the people in the control group were least creative, but the people who had just read the names were more creative than those who had to write them out. This suggests that more passive boring activities, like reading or perhaps attending meetings, can lead to more creativity — whereas writing, by reducing the scope for daydreaming, reduces the creativity-enhancing effects of boredom.

So if you’re looking to do something creative, it may be a good idea to find something boring to accomplish first. Not only will you get a chore out of the way — those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves! — but you may also unlock some added brilliance.

Bonus fact: In 2013, a few firefighters in Oregon were bored — and one of their friends decided to do something about it. A then-23-year-old named Sadie Renee Johnson lit a firework and tossed it into some roadside brush, aiming to give her friends a fire to put out. Unfortunately, her plan went much better than she intended. As Digital Journal notes, “although the blaze was discovered within 15 minutes, it could not be controlled immediately. Eventually, the fire, named as the Sunnyside Turnoff wildfire, spread to about 80 square miles — 51,000 acres — costing nearly $8 million to fight and took two months to bring under complete control.” Johnson was arrested and earned herself some boredom; she was subsequently sentenced to 18 months in prison.

From the Archives: Japan’s First NHL Player: He’s a creative creation borne from boredom.

Related: “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self,” by Manoush Zomorodi. I have it and recommend it, and it just came out last week so there aren’t a lot of review on Amazon yet.