Do you identify yourself as a boring person? Of course not. What if I told you that boredom is one of the most definitive predictors of how creative you could be?
Creativity, defined as the ability to produce novel and useful ideas, is increasingly becoming the sine qua non of human survival and evolution. With machines inching closer towards being intelligent we are left with little to claim for ourselves. If creativity would be our definitive feature going forward, there might be some counterintuitive and uneasy realizations that would pave the path, and one such insight is on the importance of boredom.
Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton school of business and the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, presents a compelling case on how some of the most creative people, including Nobel laureates, kept a sizable portion of their lives dead boring. Having a part of life as far less exciting and predicable allowed these people to focus their energies on the things that mattered: their inventions, discoveries and creations. Forget adults, even when it comes to children, there’s sufficient research that suggests that they tend to find creative uses of everyday objects when left on their own. When bored, children would intuitively improvise and surprise adults as to how ordinary stuff can be of value, the study shows. What drives creativity The apparent utility of boredom stems from the fact that our cognitive capacities are finite. By seeking excitement incessantly, we are often spreading our capacities across buckets of tasks, whereby excelling in none. The only way to go beyond ordinary in a certain domain is to firstly converge our attention and secondly, conserve. We converge by prioritization and conserve by rationing our mental faculties, by engaging in certain automatic, routine, even mindless chores where we manage to almost hibernate, and then bounce back to the more vital tasks.
What does a bored person do? She daydreams, fiddles with objects around, looks around and perhaps starts to take interest in otherwise ordinary stuff—all these are starting points of creativity. The opposite of boredom is anxiety. What does an anxious person do? Still fiddles around, still seeks interesting stuff to engage with, but doesn’t stay at anything for long enough. And by not engaging in an activity for a sufficient time, there’s no apparent output.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a famous psychologist and the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, laments that a person is in the best state of creation when she’s in the state of flow. The flow happens when the challenge offered by a task matches one’s own skill required to accomplish the task. If the challenge is far greater than the skill. it results in anxiety, whereas if the challenge doesn’t consume the skills adequately, it leads to boredom. The contention however is that, in today’s busy world there is far more anxiety in one’s life than boredom, and to open the channel of flow, it’s important to introduce some boredom. The curse of technology The big question today is—has our threshold of boredom come down? I reckon so, and that’s not a pretty sign at all. With an average adult checking her mobile phone several times a day, boredom is despised all the more.
The incessant messages, unlimited videos streaming on an unlimited bandwidth and unsolicited content clamouring for our attention and cognitive load, we have started fearing boredom. We loath alone-time. Alone not in terms of physically aloof, but of not being connected, electronically. This push to be always online, on the move, and social is leading to one not being attentive to anything for a longer period of time, and hence, not challenging oneself sufficiently with the available skills.
So, how to be boring again? Three simple ways. Firstly, keep some “my time”. Away from people, away from gadgets, and away from activities. This would help you get comfortable with yourself, without much of an agenda. Secondly, narrow down your challenge set, in other words, prioritize. There’s no point in dispersing your energy into numerous activities. Pick your challenges. Thirdly, don’t impress anyone with your achievements. You would once again get into the anxiety loop. Let it be. Keep it boring. Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.
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