Looking for a Breakthrough? Embrace Boredom

December 10, 2015

Working tirelessly on a big project but feeling stuck and uninspired? Looking for your next big idea? You may think you should simply hunker down or continue analysing all the other big ideas out there on the World Wide Web. But what may really lead you to your next breakthrough… is a little boredom.

We recently came across this infographic on how to become more productive. Most of us seek out ways to become more productive, and berate ourselves when we’re not. But what many of these productivity suggestions reveal is that the ability to step away from the work may be the key to getting your game on.

Breakthroughs in science have often been attributed to moments of pure idle. The chemist Kary Mullis came up with the technique for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method of DNA duplication on a drive into the mountains. Leo Szilard reports he realized  the core reaction for nuclear fission while walking across a street in London.  Albert Einstein is famously known for crystallizing his theory of relativity, after years of frustration in the lab, by intentionally taking a sabbatical from his office (according to his biographer) to “let his imagination wander about the concepts of space and time.”

Now more studies are showing that by doing something intentionally boring, your brain can be motivated to become more creative. The most often cited study on the power of boredom comes from Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire. They tested the creative-boosting power of boredom in two studies both of which showed significant increases in creativity after people were asked to do something tedious, such as reading a telephone book. The more boring the task, the more the study subjects came up with interesting uses for a pair of plastic cups. In their conclusions, Mann and Cadman suggest that activities which require less concentration, such as reading phone numbers (though not trying to remember them) and doodling were more effective in boosting creativity than writing down those numbers.

So next time you pull out your smartphone during a lull in your day, consider this: your constant interaction with the internet may be pushing you further from your creative potential. Whether that’s problem solving, writing, or imagining the missing link to a cure for cancer, that eureka moment is not likely to come while you’re checking out Facebook. Try stepping away from busyness, multitasking and relentless productivity. Try not thinking for a change. Try boredom.