Want to Be Creative? Try Getting Bored

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When Manoush Zomorodi was eight years old, she walked around her house gathering up all the houseplants. She arranged them in rows, gave them all name tags, and then performed a concert for their benefit. Why? Because she was bored. But Zomorodi — host of WNYC’s podcast New Tech City — says her kids will never do anything so charmingly pointless, because old-fashioned boredom is a thing of the past, for fidgety kids as well as their parents. “When I’m on the subway, I look at my phone,” she tells Kurt Andersen. “When I walk down the street, I look at my phone. Is that bad? Is there a consequence to not having that time when you are literally getting bored?”

A growing body of research suggests that there is. Neuroscientists have seen fMRI evidence of organized, spontaneous thinking when the brain is supposedly idle. “When you’re given nothing to do, it certainly seems like your thoughts don’t stop,” says Jonny Smallwood, professor of neuroscience at the University of York. “[You] continue to generate thought even when there’s nothing for you to do with the thought.”

Work by Sandi Mann of the University of Lancashire suggests that time for aimless thought could be important for creativity. In a study called “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” she gave research subjects tasks of varying degrees of boringness, and then used a standard measure of divergent thinking involving plastic cups. Those given the most boring task — reading the phone book — came up with more interesting uses for the cups. "You come up with really great stuff when you don’t have that easy, lazy, junk food diet of the phone to scroll all the time," she tells Zomorodi.

While there’s no conclusive proof that phones are inhibiting our creativity, the podcast New Tech City is trying to use technology to bring back the quiet, reflective time our gadgets have disrupted. In a project called Bored and Brilliant, they invite participants to track how much time they spend on the phone. Then on February 2, they’ll launch a week of creative challenges aimed at regaining control of phone use and making time for constructive mind-wandering. 

Still, Zomorodi cautions that we shouldn’t be too quick to blame our tools. She relates a story told to her by Alex Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction. In his research, Pang talked with a group of Buddhist monks who were heavily connected — active web and social media users. “Why is it that you think tech is any more distracting than your own mind, or anything else in the world?” the monks asked him. “Distraction comes from within.”

You can find out more about Bored and Brilliant here, or subscribe to New Tech City here.

Music Playlist

  1. Put the Phone Down

    Artist: Pilot Speed
    Album: Wooden Bones