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3 reasons boredom is good and ways to make space for it

January 24, 2023 - 19 min read

 

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Is boredom really good for you?

The benefits of boredom for your brain

How boredom inspires the workplace

5 steps to embrace boredom

Make your next move

Boredom can make us feel a bit restless, especially in a world where we’re used to consuming everything so quickly. We can Google a question and have the answer at our fingertips in a mere matter of seconds. So when bored at work or in our daily life at home, it can almost feel like someone has hit the pause button on our lives.

Boredom is good for you, really. From boosted creativity to more balanced well-being, boredom is good for both the mind and the soul.

Is boredom really good for you?

We can feel bored for several reasons. Performing an overly simple task or lacking passion for a particular project can leave us feeling underwhelmed. Isolation may also cause us to feel bored. Many of us felt quite a bit of that during the Covid-19 pandemic of these last few years. 

So how and why is boredom good for you? Though it’s common to associate boredom with feeling stuck or unfulfilled, it can be a motivating factor. Boredom can sometimes even point us in the direction we need to go. There is actually psychology behind leveraging boredom for good.

James Danckert and John Eastwood are coauthors of the book, Out of My Skull – The Psychology of Boredom. In an interview on the psychology of boredom, Danckert and Eastwood discuss how boredom can be useful.

They explain that boredom serves as a moment of reflection and an opportunity to figure out what matters to us most. Once we do, we can look for activities that give expression to who we are and satisfy our intellectual curiosity and creativity. So, as it turns out, hitting the pause button can be the perfect way for us to reflect and reset. 

History is filled with examples of talented artists creating works of genius from otherwise mundane moments. George Balanchine, the famed choreographer, once said that he does most of his work while ironing his shirts

Many authors have also created works of art while they were bored. In fact, English writer Neil Gaiman encourages aspiring writers to embrace boredom. In an interview with WNYC Studios, Gaiman speaks of how he took a four-month social media break because he wanted to be bored

“I want dead time,” Gaiman said. “I want to stare out of the window if I’m in a cab and just think about things,” he added. An unoccupied mind, generated from boredom, can be the blank slate we need to inspire our own stroke of genius. 

Frequent and prolonged episodes of boredom can have some negative consequences. But boredom can also work to our benefit. To leverage boredom for good, Danckert and Eastwood have a few suggestions. 

  • Firstly, remain calm. 
  • Secondly, reflect on the situation at hand. 
  • Lastly, use that reflection to look towards the future by thinking about new goals and next steps.

woman sitting in front of computer screen looking bored

The benefits of boredom for your brain

Working memory

Just like our bodies, our brains sometimes need a break. When we overstimulate our minds, we may experience mental exhaustion or mental fatigue. The result is decreased work and employee satisfaction and a decline in productivity. 

But boredom is believed to be connected to mind wandering, which may be a sign of greater working memory capacity. Working memory is a form of short-term memory that allows us to retain information for immediate use. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers explored mind wandering and working memory. Students participating in a study were assigned a simple, monotonous task to perform. Students were then scored on their ability to remember a series of letters shown in combination with basic math problems. 

Students with higher working memory reported allowing their minds to wander more while performing the task. This led researchers to conclude higher working memory leads to more mind wandering.

High working memory capacity is linked to certain measures of intelligence and other benefits. So rather than feel guilty about allowing our minds to drift from time to time, embrace it. Allow yourself to daydream a little. Mind wandering and daydreaming signify that our working memory is putting itself to good use.

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Default mode network

The default mode network refers to regions of the brain that are active when our mind is at rest, such as when we’re bored. The default mode network supports internally focused thought, such as the thoughts we have when we allow our minds to wander.

But research suggests that the default mode network also activates during tasks in which we need to interact with and relate to others. This overlap means that activating the default mode network can assist in our social understanding of others. 

The default mode network can impact our emotional perception, empathy, theory of mind, and morality. These social benefits are useful in both our personal lives at home and our professional lives in the workplace.

How boredom inspires the workplace

1. Social benefits

By enhancing our social awareness and human connection, boredom fosters a deeper connection with others. We have a better relationship with others when we understand their motivations and desires. That understanding also helps us meet their expectations better. 

In one study, researchers explored how radiologists interpret medical results with patient photos. The patient’s photo was displayed automatically when their electronic medical file was opened. The radiologists admitted to feeling more empathy towards patients whose photos they viewed. 

But beyond simply feeling more empathetic, the study demonstrated empathy can improve outcomes. The radiologists’ interpretations of medical imaging results with patient photos were more detailed.

Radiologists were then presented the same patient file three months later. But this time the patient's photo was absent from the file. As a result, the majority failed to pick up on abnormalities in the imaging results that were originally detected.

The results show that empathy can have positive outcomes and practical implications in the workplace. For instance, including a patient photo in all medical files may help radiologists produce more accurate results.

In addition to being more empathetic, boredom may also cause us to feel more charitable. Researchers at King’s College London and the University of Limerick found that boredom can promote altruism.

In one experiment, researchers found that participants were more likely to donate to a charity when they were bored than when they were not. The study suggests that people who are bored are often in search of meaningful engagement, which surfaces in a desire to help others.

2. Boosted creativity

The examples of Balanchine and Gaiman welcoming boredom in the creative space are the rule rather than the exception. Many people left with their thoughts discover that boredom can spur creativity.

Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman examined whether boredom makes us more creative and found promising results. During their study, participants were tasked with a boring activity followed by a creative assignment. Mann and Cadman found that those who performed the boring activities exhibited more creativity than those who did not.

Creative thinking has many benefits, including sharpened focus and improved critical thinking skills. So while at first glance boredom may seem counterproductive, it can actually lead to better performance outcomes.

bored woman staring out of car window

3. Increased engagement

One study found that allowing the mind to wander, a key aspect of boredom, can help us perform the task at hand even better. Washington State University Assistant Professor Sammy Perone studied the brain activity of people who were bored.

In an interview with MedicalNewsToday, Perone explained how the study worked. Participants were assigned the tedious task of turning virtual pegs on a computer screen. But Perone noted that one study participant rehearsed songs from an upcoming concert in her head as she performed the task. 

In fact, she ended up turning the pegs to the beat of the music. Thinking about something else kept the participant engaged in the task. It also provided her with a proactive way of coping with her boredom. 

It’s yet another example that boredom isn’t something we should avoid, but instead something we can channel for good. When we positively react to feelings of boredom, it can improve our overall mental health and well-being.

5 steps to embrace boredom

1. Make space for mental health

Boredom is good from time to time, but it also affects everyone differently. Take a mental health day when you feel you need a break. 

Data shows that neglecting our mental health impedes our creativity and innovation. Stress, anxiety, and burnout can overwhelm us and leave little room for creative thinking in the workplace

When we give ourselves the time and space we need to think creatively, we miss less work and are more satisfied with our job. By engaging in adequate self-care, you will return to work a more productive, Whole Person.

2. Balance work with rest

Mental health is only one piece of the puzzle. If we fail to properly manage fatigue in the workplace, we’re prone to burnout and even physical injury. So take a holistic approach by concentrating on mind, body, and spirit. 

When we’re always on the go, it may seem like we have little time for rest. But by seeking out those slower, quieter moments, we give ourselves the ability to relax, recharge, and rejuvenate. 

So what exactly do we mean by rest? Glad you asked because there are actually seven types of rest our bodies need. 

In addition to mental rest, we should also seek out creative, physical, social, emotional, sensory, and spiritual rest. Regularly seeking out different types of downtime can boost energy and motivation levels. Increased motivation can reignite the spark within us and the passion that drives us.

3. Encourage digital detox

One of the ways we can rest is by steering clear of the screen. That means occasionally putting down the smartphone and closing up the laptop. Temporarily reducing our time in front of the screen, otherwise known as a digital detox, is good for our health. 

So in your free time, avoid the urge to check your work email every five minutes. If you’re on a walk to the park or standing in line for a cup of coffee, avoid the temptation of pulling out your phone to check your social media pages. Just allow your mind to drift and see where it takes you. 

You may need to stay digitally connected for work purposes. But even at work, there are steps you can take to digitally detox. For instance, try to limit yourself to one screen at a time. So, for instance, if you’re working on your computer, put away your smart device.

4. Take work breaks

How many times have you skipped your lunch break or been so busy that you even put off going to the bathroom? The United States is one of the most overworked countries in the world so it’s easy for us to convince ourselves this behavior is normal. But working too much can be harmful to our health. 

We can all use a breather once in a while. Learn to recognize your stressors and take a few minutes now and then to clear your head when the need arises. 

There is a common misconception that taking work breaks could be perceived as laziness. In actuality, taking regular breaks can help increase productivity levels and improve your focus. 

woman with gray hair smiling and staring out a car window

5. Welcome a beginner’s mindset

Embracing boredom is good practice because it encourages us to get out of our comfort zone. Boredom inspires curiosity, which is essential to cultivating a beginner’s mindset

Adopting a beginner’s mindset helps us abandon preconceived notions. Instead, we approach situations with a fresh perspective and clarity. A beginner’s mindset also helps us to be more childlike, seeing the wonder in new experiences as well as the day-to-day ordinary ones. 

Boredom is often the catalyst we need to learn something new or try a new approach to a familiar activity. When we allow ourselves to experiment, it opens us up to a world of possibilities. We can break out of our regular routine and discover new hobbies, habits, and dreams

Refusing to make space for boredom, on the other hand, can lead to disengagement in the workplace. Disengaged employees produce less and perform more poorly than their more engaged counterparts. Choosing to see the upside of boredom and harnessing its power for good can be incredibly beneficial, both for ourselves and those around us.

Make your next move

Plain and simple, boredom is good in the short-term. But if you’re consistently bored, it could be a sign that you need to pursue a new path or course. Sometimes boredom is the breather we need to step back and determine where we’re headed next. 

Regardless of whether we’re satisfied with where we’re at in our personal and professional lives, we should turn inward on occasion. Doing so helps us reflect on our progress and hopes for the future. 

If you need some guidance, the BetterUp team is here to assist you. We can help you refine your goals and provide insight on exactly how to get to where you want to go.

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Published January 24, 2023

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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