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Boredom - The First Step to Your Next Great Idea?

I wrote poetry one summer many years ago. It wasn't great poetry or even good poetry so I'm not going to share any of it with you here. I was working a summer job on the night shift at a local refrigerator manufacturing company. My place on the assembly line was several yards away from anyone else so there was no possibility of interaction with other workers. There was also little possibility of intellectual stimulation as I methodically moved refrigerator parts from one assembly line to another. I'm sure that job has been replaced by a robot by now. I never had a more boring job but it was also the only job that inspired me to write poetry. I wonder if I would have become a truly good poet if I had kept the job longer. I'll never know. But it does lead me to wonder if there's not some connection between boredom and creativity.

As a child I remember hearing the warning that "an idle mind is the Devil's workshop." I'd suggest a more positive spin on that statement. An idle mind won't stay that way for long. Yes, there's potential for some real mischief but there's also the possibility of something good. If you want to create something you may need to give your brain a break. Admittedly, that's not easy to do today. Quick relief from our mental anxiety is seldom more than a click away. Thankfully, we never have to endure a moment without something to occupy our thoughts - and interfere with our creativity.

But the very thing we're trying to avoid may be just what we need to think more creatively. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, David Burkus cites two studies in support of the value of a little creative boredom. The first one by the University of Central Lancashire suggests "that boredom felt during passive activities, like reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the 'daydreaming effect' on creativity - the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward."

The second study done by Penn State University, found that "boredom boosts creativity because of how people prefer to alleviate it. Boredom, they suggest, motivates people to approach new and rewarding activities. In other words, an idle mind will seek a toy."

Obviously there are limits to the value of boredom but moving too quickly to alleviate the anxiety it causes and our constant access to interesting diversions may be a significant barrier to creativity. A mind that is always focused on an interesting (though trivial) task has little interest in creating something new. On the other hand, a mind that is at rest will find something and some way to relieve the anxiety caused by inactivity and maybe even write some poetry.

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