Manoush Zomorodi on harnessing the power of boredom to your creative advantage

Published 6 years ago on Jul 01, 2018 4 minutes Read

There is no question that we are at an unprecedented point in history, where our attention is in hot demand. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, mobile consumers now spend an average of two hours and fifty-seven minutes each day on mobile devices and about eleven hours a day in front of a screen. Although we don’t know if all this screen time will have longer-term harmful effects, we know technology is changing us (and it’s unclear whether it’s for the better).

Parents fret about how to raise healthy and confident children in the digital age. If our children are constantly engaged with bits and bytes of information, what is happening to their ability to imagine, concentrate deeply, reflect on past experiences, decide how to apply those lessons to future goals, and figure out what they want for themselves, their relationships, and life?

It isn’t just parents who worry about the shift in how we use our brains in the tech age. The implications for business are significant as well. There is evidence that people could be better at their jobs if they weren’t always plugged in. The Bank of England’s chief economist said he fears that skills building, innovation, and entire economies could be at risk because “fast thought could make for slow growth.”

And what does all this scrolling, processing, blue light, and more mean for our health? All you have to do is stay up hours past your bedtime, playing Two Dots (as I shamefully have), to know the answer — sometimes it’s relaxing, but most of the time, not so much.

With so many big questions stemming from my central quandary, I dived into trying to understand what happens when we constantly keep our brains busy and never give ourselves time to mentally meander. I spoke with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists about “mind-wandering” — what our brains do when we’re doing nothing at all, or not fully focused on a task.

We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds wander, we activate something called the “default mode,” the mental place where we “solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as “autobiographical planning,” which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.

When we let ourselves space out and our minds wander, we do our most original thinking and problem solving; without distraction, your mind can go to some interesting and unexpected places. Creativity — no matter how you define or apply it — needs a push, and boredom, which allows new and different connections to form in our brain, is a most effective muse. It’s what the futurist Rita King calls “the tedium of creativity.”

For King — someone whose job it is to conceive of anything from how a town might look two hundred years from now to actions business leaders should embark on to take advantage of trends coming down the line — creativity is her business. “The mistake a lot of people make is to assume the euphoria of an idea is going to persist all the way through the countless little steps that all the way through the countless little steps that need to happen before the idea becomes real,” she says. “Many lose heart or momentum because those little tiny things that have to get done are so dull.” The tedium of creativity can be daunting, King explains, especially when compared to the satisfaction of crossing things off a to-do list — which explains why I make my to-do list so long.

But if we let it, inspiration can strike if we give ourselves permission to take time to focus on nothing in particular — before drifting off to sleep, in the shower, while taking a walk in the woods. The default mode is not surprisingly also called the “imagination network.” Being bored gives us the space to ask “What if?” That’s an essential question regarding not only any creative endeavor but also our emotional health and personal growth.

According to Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, professor of cognitive neuroscience and an expert in mind-wandering at the University of York, “In a very deep way, there’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.” In other words, you have to let yourself be bored to be brilliant.

This is an extract from Manoush Zomorodi's Bored and Brilliant published by Macmillan