The benefits of boredom

Jane Murphy 21 October 2021

Feeling a bit bored? It could be just what you need to generate your best ideas, unleash your creativity or simply give your brain a rest...

Back in 1973—when the internet, on-demand TV and games consoles were still the stuff of science fiction—the BBC launched a new show to keep kids entertained during the school holidays. Its not-so-snappy full title? Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead?

Children from across the UK attempted to inspire their peers to try out various activities, such as creating portraits out of staples or rustling up some mini ham and cheese sandwiches (I'm not making this up, by the way. I just watched an entire episode on YouTube).

Nowadays, in the age of round-the-clock entertainment, it's (technically) trickier to be bored. If the show you're watching has lost its spark, you can select an instant high-octane alternative or amuse yourself by scrolling through social media without even leaving the sofa. But that's not necessarily a good thing. Feeling disengaged from the task in hand—or simply devoid of stimulation—does have its benefits, according to researchers.

"Feeling disengaged from the task in hand—or simply devoid of stimulation—does have its benefits, according to researchers"

Does boredom make us more creative?

A woman painting on a canvas

First and foremost, being bored motivates you to search out something less boring to do. Feeling bored at work, for example, could inspire you to explore a change of career. Or if you decide there’s nothing worth watching on TV, you might choose to switch off and make your own entertainment by taking up a new hobby.

This, according to researchers at the University of Central Lancashire, can explain why the lockdowns of the past two years saw a surge in creativity among people stuck at home. From banana-bread-making to picking up a paintbrush for the first time since childhood, many of us realised there are only so many times you can watch Tiger King on Netflix before you need to find other ways to amuse yourself.

But what about those times when you have no choice but to stick with the boring situation—carrying out a mundane task at work or waiting for a bus, for instance? The good news is that the boredom you’re feeling now could spark your creativity and help you come up with some of your best ideas, says a 2019 study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal. People who’d taken part in a boring bean-sorting task later performed better at coming up with creative ideas than another group who’d been given something more interesting to do first.

What’s the point of daydreaming?

Without distractions such as social media and TV to quash those feelings of boredom, we may well fall back on that age-old failsafe: daydreaming. And, despite what parents and teachers may have told you when you were young, daydreaming is good for you. Letting your thoughts wander without the distractions of technology can be a useful way to “allow your mind to unwind, alleviate stress and solve problems, boosting your productivity and creativity in the process,” writes the University of Central Lancashire’s Dr Sandi Mann.

"Despite what parents and teachers may have told you when you were young, daydreaming is good for you"

In fact, if you find it difficult to stop your mind from straying during boring meetings or tasks, it could be a result of your impressive brain capacity, says a 2019 study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. People who reported more frequent daydreaming scored higher on intellectual and creative ability and had more efficient brains. Put simply, some people seem better equipped than others to focus on more than one thing at a time.

Likewise, doodling during a tedious meeting or call can provide just the right amount of stimulation to help you stay alert and pay attention, University of Plymouth researchers have found. People who doodled while listening to a dull, rambling voicemail message were better able to recall details from the call than those who’d simply sat and listened.

Are we more easily bored nowadays?

A bored woman scrolling on her phone

Still, why daydream at the bus stop when you can simply scroll through your phone like everyone else? For starters, spending every spare moment staring at a screen can have a well-documented negative effect on your mental wellbeing, sleep quality and eyesight. But that’s not all: over time, it reduces your boredom tolerance levels and means you become less able to think creatively, problem-solve and simply notice what’s going on around you. 

Ultimately, if we take it for granted that there’ll always be something close at hand to entertain us, we start to lose the ability to entertain others, think creatively and allow our minds to switch off and relax. We stop coming up with new ideas and we’re less motivated to find ways to do something less boring instead. Whisper it: we run the risk of becoming boring ourselves.

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