Productivity

The Surprising Benefit of Being
Bored at Work

bored at work

No job is challenging and exciting all the time. But what do you do when you’re bored at work?

If you answered, “Check Facebook” or “Play online Scrabble” you may be wasting an opportunity to harness more creative thinking. Two recent studies found it may be best to just stay bored for a while and use that as a way to enhance your creativity at work.

Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK conducted two studies to look at how boredom heightens creativity. Their findings, in the paper, “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” involved having participants both copy and read a phone book. The participants then took a creativity test and their results suggested that the boredom we feel during passive activities–like attending meetings or data entry–boosts daydreaming and that makes us more creative. Mann says tedium encourages the mind to wander and that leads to more associative and creative ways of thinking. If we’re not finding stimulation externally, we look internally, in our minds.

Another study of boredom by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood at Penn State University, found similar results using a different boring activity and creativity test. Similar to what Mann and Cadman found, participants in the bored group of this study outperformed the others. The researchers say boredom enhances creativity because of how people alleviate it; they are motivated to try new activities. David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity, wrote of the studies, “Taken together they suggest that the boredom so commonly felt at work could actually be leveraged to help us get our work done better.”

The next time you find yourself facing a vexing problem at work, it might be wise to switch to a more mundane task for a while. Afterwards, your mind may be better equipped to come up with creative solutions.

Denise Jacobs, founder of The Creative Dose, a consultancy that helps technology teams and organizations collaborate better and be more creative, has a few other suggestions for boosting creative thinking at work:

  • Tap into your alpha brain. Alpha brain waves are present when we’re awake, and give us relaxed and effortless alertness. Jacobs says this is how we feel in the shower, when working with our hands or when we’re doing mundane tasks like organizing and filing. “We all have a story about getting a great idea in the shower,” says Jacobs. “That’s because the alpha state gives your brain a chance to switch gears.” You may feel like the work you’re doing is boring, but during those times you’re likely to have some of your most innovative ideas or find solutions to difficult problems. “When you’re not pushing for answers, they will often come to you,” says Jacobs.
  • Don’t mistake boredom for overwhelm. “Sometimes we say we’re bored or creatively blocked, but we’re actually disengaged because the task at hand seems too large and unwieldy to get our head around,” says Jacobs. Don’t look at a huge project all at once, break it down into much smaller, manageable tasks that allow you to actually accomplish something, one step at a time.
  • Work in short, undistracted sprints. Jacobs swears by the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working in short, uninterrupted stretches of time. Jacobs sets a timer and works in 25 minutes increments, not doing anything other than the task at hand–no checking email, answering the phone or spending time on social networking sites. She says it keeps her focused and productive. It’s often during the breaks in between those work sprints that creativity is stimulated and the unrelated concepts that come into your mind prove useful when you get back to work.
  • Listen to the rain. Any kind of white noise, says Jacobs, be it actual, grainy-sounding white noise, or something more pleasant, like the rain, ocean waves or a the sounds of a busy café, often help the brain go into a more relaxed and creative state.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.