The Power of Positive Boredom

I usually write about messaging and marketing, but this topic hit me too hard not to share it. A great Fresh Air interview with reporter Matt Richtel gave me new insight on the creative wellspring that messaging, or any kind of creative work, bubbles up from. The magic (and increasingly rare) ingredient? Boredom!

As I’m writing this, there’s a guy walking by my window looking at his phone. He’s checking his email, just like I often do. He’s not bored. Too bad for him.

Why is boredom, or at least downtime, so vital? Because it gives your brain room to come up with new ideas, and some incentive to do so. Let’s say you’ve got an idle moment at Peets waiting for a friend to show up. If you’re bored, you may daydream a bit, and entertain yourself by coming up with a new idea. If instead you play a casual game on your phone, or look up at that news headline screen that every coffee shop now seems to have, the mental space is filled. There’s no mental vacuum to fill and no boredom to motivate you to do so. Why do so many great ideas pop up in the shower? Because, except for the minimal attention needed to soap the important parts, our brains aren’t busy doing anything else!

Richtel says that information is like food; we need it but suffer when we consume too much junk, or just plain too much. And now an endless supply is always around us. In his NY Times series Your Brain on Computers, he reports that the average person today consumes nearly three times as much information today as as in 1960.

What’s wrong with that? Our brains aren’t evolved for it. It turns out we don’t really multitask. We just switch between tasks very quickly. People working on computers typically switch programs something like 36 times an hour, with some stress and loss of concentration each time. And now with portable screens like smart phones and iPads, we carry distraction with us everywhere.

I’m far from innocent in this “screen invasion”. I help companies market technology. And, in the words of the infamous Hair Club for Men ad, “I’m also a customer.” My home contains 5 computers, 2 servers, and an iPad. Both human occupants have iPhones, and the cat wants one! And of course there are great upsides to all of this information technology. But it’s come on so quickly that we are still learning how to deal with in our lives.

The research on how information overload affects our brains will, at the very least, make you think about turning off that popup that alerts you to every new email. Lab rats and humans alike need breaks from input to form memories and process new learning. Both performance and well-being suffer when they don’t get those breaks.

So I’m going on a bit of a digital diet. The iPhone, the laptop, and the iPad aren’t going anywhere. But I’m going to cut down a bit. I’ll stop kidding myself that “multi-tasking” is actually productive; at least until humans evolve multi-core brains. If I’m lucky, I might even get bored.

Want to try it along with me? Drop me a comment if cutting down on digital distractions makes you more creative and productive; or if you just need help turning off that damned email popup!


  • rae September 28, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    lovely. you have talked me into turning off the computer more – now more likely to miss good articles like this in the future, tho.

    • jeffrey September 28, 2010 at 8:55 pm

      Yep, that’s the irony. We either miss some things or have no room left and miss everything.

  • Nigel October 1, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    My solution, take longer showers! 🙂 the down side there is the negative impact on the environment. I could NOT agree more with this article. Indeed I have practiced this and forced my kids to practice this for years. I would turn off the television with the comment that no more until – such and such a program (perhaps several hours later or even tomorrow), next thing the box in the corner became a space ship, etc. The creative mind started to flow. For me my best think time is at the gym. I am exercising and my mind clears and then my mind wanders and I do get some of my better ideas just hoisting a weight or spinning on the bicycle (and going nowhere) – so boredom it is!

  • Dave Rumsey October 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Agreed. One friend of mine in business schedules daily “think” time so that he can be completely unplugged to just think about a topic, or no topic, without any distractions to see what pops into his head. He also refuses to limit the size of his ideas with amazing results. He does this at the end of each day.

    • jeffrey October 25, 2010 at 7:00 pm

      I think I might join your friend in carving out some unplugged “think” time. I’ve become far more aware of info overload and distraction, but am still grappling with reducing the noise level.


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