It was a lazy summer afternoon. JRR Tolkien, a professor at the Oxford University at the time, was plodding through a mound of exam papers, marking them one boring paper at a time.
In the course of this mundane task, he came across a blank page – a student had missed a question. “Glorious! nothing to read”. Tolkien told BBC in 1968. “So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why”, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ – the opening line of one of the most beloved and fabulous works of fantasy.
Late one warm evening, after dinner, young Issac Newton strolled to his garden. He lounged under an apple tree and engaged in some ‘wool gathering’. He let his mind wander, contemplating the universe and it’s secrets, when ‘plop’ an apple fell to the ground – and Newton’s mind exploded with ideas. One of the biggest mysteries of the universe was solved.
King Hieron II of Syracuse, assigned Archimedes with a difficult task. He ordered Archimedes to find out, if his newly made crown was pure gold or had some silver mixed in it. Archimedes spent the next few days slaving away to find the answer. Exhausted with all his ruminations, he set out to wash away his troubles in a relaxing bath. Lolling in his bath, he noticed his weight displaced some water out of the tub. The ‘Eureka’ moment hit him. And the rest is history.
What did Tolkien, Newton and Archimedes have in common, right before their iconic moments? They were bored.
The boredom panic
“Only boring people get bored”, “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop”. Boredom is equated to mediocrity, passivity, a stand still with no progress.
Who wants to be bored? – Absolutely no one. Boredom is like the flu, all of us go to amazing lengths to avoid.
We stream netflix while folding laundry, listen to music or podcast while running , scroll through twitter and facebook while riding the subway and squeeze in a text or two while driving.
The media is always touting ways and means to add more productivity into our lives. Why not read and walk to your office? Waiting in line ? Don’t waste time, listen to a podcast. Productivity is equated to consuming constantly.
Tom Wilson and Dan Gilbert conducted an experiment, to see how uncomfortable, people get, when there was nothing to do. And the results are shocking.
The experiment was conducted on 55 undergraduates. Each participant was asked to go alone into a plain room, with no pictures or windows and simple furniture – to reduce any visual stimulation. They were then given some mild stimuli, like pictures, music and electric shocks.
After that, the researchers asked the students if they would pay to avoid the electric shocks and unsurprisingly 42 out of 55 said “Yes”. They were then asked to go into the room one at a time and spend the next 15 minutes, thinking. A button was placed next to them and they were informed that, they can hit it if they wanted an electric shock.
And here comes the interesting part. Do you think any of them hit the button?
According to the results published by Tom Wilson and Dan Gilbert, one-third of the men and a quarter of the women were so uncomfortable with doing nothing, that they would even shock themselves, just to have a distraction. One participant shocked himself 190 times.
Why boredom is you productivity vitamin.
Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist and author of the book “The upside of downtime: Why boredom is good”, says “Every emotion has a purpose – an evolutionary benefit”.
Imagine what your life would be without boredom. You would be amazed with every speck of dust and every drop of water, constantly.
Apart from these evolutionary benefits, what does boredom do?
Imagine this scenario. You are cutting up vegetables for dinner, and in your mind you are replaying the argument you had, with your co-worker earlier in the day. Your mind goes over all the details that led to the argument, wallows on how unfair the whole thing was, comes up with witty things you could have said at that moment.
At first glance it might seem like you are wasting time on unwanted thoughts. But what your mind just did, was amazing.
- Your mind went over, what led to that argument and stored that information. Now, when you come across a similar situation in the future, you are ready to take it on.
- By wallowing in the unfairness of everything, you got a free therapy session . You are now tougher , to overcome future disappointments and negative emotions.
- After that, your mind went on to problem solving mode – how you could have reacted in that situation.
The mundane everyday things we do, like folding socks , running, showering, are the times, our brains engage in problem solving, making connections between the things we learnt and learning life lessons.
It is these mundane tasks and wool gathering , that sparks goal setting, strategizing, planning and even figuring out the meaning of our existence.
People who engage in day dreaming, research says, are more likely to stick to long term goals.
A bored mind is a wandering mind. Just because we are not doing anything active, you might think our mind isn’t working. Surprise, surprise. Our mind is still working at 95% of it’s capacity and more importantly, it delves into realms usually unexplored – our subconscious mind for example.
This is the time, our mind takes everything we have consumed so far, via media, a book, podcasts, radio, remark from a stranger, that billboard you noticed on your way to work – and puts them all together to make connections. It is these connections, that spark creativity. Makes your mind explode with new ideas.
Think back to the time, when you were a child – bored out of your mind. What did you do?
I found shapes in the clouds, named them and made up stories in my head. Things I wouldn’t have attempted in front of the TV.
I just have to let my kids be bored enough, for them to come up with new games, new stories and ideas for activities to do with their friends. I find they are at their creative best, when they are bored.
Wake up call
Being bored with something means, it’s no longer alluring or exciting. A boring job has ceased to add any value to your life or has placed you firmly, in the comfort zone territory. It’s now time for you to switch things up or shake things a bit.
Boredom gives you a wake up call. Being bored, becomes so painful, that you will be ready to take that next step in your life, no matter how scary it is.
Makes us better people
How do you feel when you are bored?
We feel listless, meaningless and useless. We start longing for something different and purposeful. It motivates us to do something challenging , something that will make us feel good about ourselves – like donating to a charity or donating blood.
A series of 7 studies established that boredom can inspire people to be altruistic.
Wijnand van Tilburg, co-author of the paper, ‘Bored George Helps Others’, found, “when people feel meaningless, they are more likely to engage in behaviour they believe will re-establish their sense of meaningfulness. They do not, simply turn to distractions that are fun and interesting”.
How can we build our boredom muscle?
Being bored is excruciating. Our mind rebels against it with everything it ‘s got. Remember the shocking experiment?
Checking, tweeting and retweeting will make our commute zoom past, but the question we should ask ourselves is – is this helping us connect with people, or disconnect from ourselves?
We’ve been super engaged for so long that we have to build up our boredom muscle bit by bit, just like we do with our physical body. So maybe, start with 5 mins a day. Schedule some time to be bored.
- Put away your phones and laptop. Don’t put them in your pocket, or on a table where you can see it. Having easy access to it means, you will be tempted to check it every now and then. Can you ignore a buzzing phone?
- Do your everyday tasks like, cooking, mowing the lawn, folding laundry, walking your dog – without any other entertainment. Go for a walk without music. Fold your laundry without TV.
- Stare out the window on your long commute to work.
- People-watch while waiting in line for your lunch.
- Sit out in your patio after dinner and look up at the night sky.
It will be dull at first. You will find yourself reaching for a phone or a book. But your muscle for boredom will slowly build up.
And soon, you will be finding ways to build up a habit, write that creative article, be a better parent, perform better at work. All because you were bored.
You might want to learn of one other lazy way to boost your productivity and creativity.
- Thanks to my kids who drove me completely insane with their, “what can I do now” and “are we there yet”, for the entirety of our 3 hour drive – made me look up boredom and what it does to us. PS : None of the above actually helped with the drive, maybe just the thought that being bored is actually helping my kids build up their boredom muscle. My poor sanity is still at risk.
- The book “Bored and Brilliant – How time spent doing nothing changes everything” by Manoush Zomorodi.