Want To Be More Creative? Get Bored

Where and when do you do your best thinking? For me, it's in the pool. As I power up and down the lanes, I rethink what I’ve learned. I now have the time and space to solve whatever problems have arisen. It’s an important meeting with myself, and I keep it religiously. Because the day I lose it, I’ve lost myself.

Quick: Survey your friends, your family, and colleagues and ask them when it is that they get their best and brightest ideas. How do they come to solve insurmountable challenges? And when despairing over the unsolvable, how does their breakthrough moment occur?

Don’t be surprised if many of those you ask say something like: "I sleep on it. Then as soon as I get in the shower in the morning… voila!"

For what it’s worth, the shower doesn’t do it for me--I’m a pool man. When my head is cluttered and I can’t think straight, I don my goggles and go for a swim. After the first couple of laps, the confusion begins to lift, and the answers start emerging. What the shower and the pool have in common is they’re both places where you’re rarely disturbed, allowing solitary contemplation. The warm water sure doesn't hurt, either.

This is all related to a phenomenon that’s been identified by Edward de Bono, the legendary creative thinker. He calls it the "creative pause." In de Bono’s book Serious Creativity, he asserts that even when things are going along, well, swimmingly, "some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about." 

Although most people are unaware of the name for it, creative pauses are happening wherever people are solving problems. They occur among harassed CEOs, design directors, and small-business entrepreneurs. The creative pause allows the space for your mind to drift, to imagine and to shift, opening it up to new ways of seeing.

There’s just one small problem: The creative pause might soon become a thing of the past. When was the last time you remember being bored? Or even having a moment free from distractions?

I know it sounds strange, but I welcome boredom. It forces me to ponder. But to make sure we’re on the same page, when I speak of boredom, I’m not referring to killing time on your smartphone, your iPad, or your laptop. I’m not even talking about paging through a book. I mean bored as in doing absolutely nothing.

Because here’s the rub--when we’re at our most bored we’re forced to push our creative boundaries, and unearth the root of whatever problem we're working on. A quick glance around and you’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to be bored in our 21st-century environment. Every bar now has at least one television blaring. And just as night follows day, your eyes will be drawn to the moving pictures above, sapping whatever creative thoughts you could be having. Or take, for example, the last time you were alone at a restaurant waiting for a friend to join you. Chances are you reached for your phone and did something with it, anything to avoid appearing like the lonely loser in the corner.

If you’re still struggling to remember your last bored moment, consider the younger generation. When you were younger, perhaps you hung out on the street with other neighborhood kids. Or maybe you shot a few hoops or cycled down to the drugstore. There were no PlayStations, Xboxes, Wiis, or the latest game apps to play on or offline. Have you noticed how quiet suburban streets are these days?

Back in the 1990s, when Lego asked me to explore the consequences of digital play versus physical play, I discovered how many kids were preoccupied with the tactile aspects of play--how kids were already preoccupied with Tamagotchis, those handheld digital pets that need regular feeding, walking, and sleep. Tamagotchis hit the toy world like an out-of-control virus, making a huge dent in Lego’s Christmas figures. It seemed the more kids played with a screen, the greater their chances of losing their creative skills. Digitized pocket toys have a set sequence of steps to follow, and as soon as kids get the gist of the game, they fall into a passive-interactive mode.

This new development in the toy market was potentially disastrous for Lego, who, in principle, requires a user to bring their imagination to the connecting plastic bricks in order build the object of their fancy. However, as I was busily conducting experiments with interactive play, I accidentally stumbled upon a small realization. It began as an ordinary day. The children were involved in interactive play on a computer screen, and I was handing them the Lego bricks, asking them to create something. But then something extraordinary happened. The entire network broke down, and it took a long 20 minutes for the IT engineers to restore the system. Then it was back to business as usual. Except this time, when I handed over the bricks, the activity level increased. I began seeing Lego castles, trains, bridges, roller coasters, and monsters being built. Those 20 minutes of boredom gave rise to a remarkably productive output, and taught me the value of being bored.

Boredom, however, is becoming an endangered activity. Once lost, it’s not likely to return, because being entertained 24/7 is what kids have come to expect. In fact, by the time I began researching the power of word of mouth for my book Brandwashed, a frenzy of digital toys, apps, games, and screens had become endemic.

These days, I schedule a regular dose of boredom into my day. Furthermore, I don’t check messages if I’m waiting for a friend. I choose, instead, to watch people in bars, cafes, and restaurants. I don’t play games on my phone or my computer. I carry an old Nokia that no one would dream of stealing. More often than not, I hit the pool at the end of the day. As I power up and down the lanes, I rethink what I’ve learned. I now have the time and space to solve whatever problems have arisen. It’s an important meeting with myself, and I keep it religiously. Because the day I lose it, I’ve lost myself.

[Image: Flickr user MichaelKuhn_pics]

Read more by Lindstrom: The Psychology Behind The Sweet Spots Of Pricing

 

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Add New Comment

16 Comments

  • Marilyn Fowler

    The creative pause comes anytime you reach Theta brain wave state. ie Upon awakening or just before sleep, running, yoga, meditation, and yes boredom when the mind isn't cluttered. We can learn to induce the Theta state, but today it seems that few people are interested in their creative nature. Such a loss. Just being busy is existing. Being creative is living. 

  • Maryann Harman

    Boredom is a big part of becoming creative.  If my parents hadn't moved me someplace new where I had no friends, I wouldn't have pulled my guitar out from under the bed and taught myself to play.  That led to writing songs and a career that has sustained me through life.  The story of the Legos and computer breaking down is wonderful.  What your definition of either word is, is missing the point.  Some may call it boredom; some doing nothing.  Doesn't matter.  You are still doing something even if it is nothing because it is a choice of how to spend your time.  
         Children have too much planned out for them.  Studies have linked this to teen years when, after years of having everything scheduled, they look for a parent replacement to tell them what to do with their time.  Some choose healthier options; some get into gangs.  The importance of allowing our children to learn how to be bored and then figure out a way to change that uncomfortable state of being cannot be overstated.

  • Steven Gordon

    Muse-  teaches and inspires creativity.  Amusement means without a muse..... Kid's addicted to screens for their amusement are not being inspired to be creative or think outside the box.

  • Tara LiAna

    Wonderful article. I've been waiting for the perfect time to read it, all week. 
    It really makes you wonder what the current technology driven, internet socially engaged youth will do when they get older. Instead of being "bored" they're constantly plugged in, which means, that no invention is occurring. Only duplication and constant innovation (if that's what you want to call it) of an older solution. SMH

  • Racheal Cook

    This is one of the reasons I schedule mandatory down time - as in NO SCREENS! The moment I hit my yoga mat or am working out or working in the garden, I always get amazing ideas for my business, a book, a program to create. That time is essential to keeping myself on my A-game!

  • SuzanneMPCC

    Being married to a creative I can totally understand this post. Some of our best creative ideas come from a float in our pool, wine glass in hand. Interestingly enough, our pool is the "corner" of a pool (only 8 feet by 9 feet) in our tiny back yard. My creative husband designed this "corner of a pool" on our small patio because he said "All our most creative times have been in the corner of someone else's pool. We don't need a big splashy pool." Creative minds!

    Suzanne
    http://www.artguycreative.com/...

  • Marilynn Larkin

    A fundamental boredom is possible no matter how many activities a person is engaged in. I find that even in the face of plenty of work assignments and non-stop email/FB/twitter chatter, if I'm not engaged in a fundamental way in whatever it is I'm doing, I am bored. And I agree that boredom is a prerequisite for moving on to the next meaningful project. For me, discovering that project involves lying down on the couch and allowing all the voices in my head to pour out (often conflicting) feelings, thoughts, imaginings..As I clear through that clutter, what I'm supposed to do next emerges.

  • Joseph Giordano

    For over 50 years we have found at   that the side excursions in life often provide us with the best inspirations for solving even the most complex of problems.  There are countless writings on how many inventions were inspired from the most mundane of circumstances--washing greasy pots and pans, observing lanterns on a hillside, focusing on how certain plant-life attaches itself to your clothing--have inspired many things we take for granted today.  Each of these "observations" had provided the inventor with the connection to solve the problem that they were facing.

    Its really not about being bored in my mind.  It is truly about being aware of what you are witnessing while you are bored and paying attention to the thoughts, images, emotions, and wishes that arise as you are being bored...as was mentioned in an earlier post by  sean o'byrne, you have do something within the boredom.

  • Nigel Collin - Thinkativity

    It's wonderful to read an article bestowing the virtues of not thinking to generate your best ideas. The challenge is getting organizations adopting this as part of their ideas mechanisms. I advise my clients to not just  allocate 'thinking' time in their day but also 'non-thinking' time. However this only works when you have primed you creative mind with a challenge, ponder the context, bash it out and then walk away and let your mind do the rest. Your creative mind craves direction and clarity and then it will do the rest for you. There's heaps of research in this area. John Cleese talks extensively on it and there's growing evidence in the area of neuro-science supporting it. As someone who has been on the 'ideas' front line all my life I just know this works and it works big time.

  • sean O'Byrne

    There's a BIG difference between boredom and doing nothing. They are not the same thing. 

    I liked your article but I felt there was a confusion around the use of terms which in a way was quite contradictory.

    Boredom I think, is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for what you're doing, a disconnectedness, a avoidance. Not conducive to creativity and engagement. 

    Whereas, i can be doing nothing but still very engaged in my thoughts and an idea. In fact, laying around doing nothing often means my mind is more active and focused. For example, when i'm brainstorming a creative idea or strategy, I like to do some groundwork through initial research, discussions and even energetic idea bouncing.. But almost always, the best ideas and insights come spontaneously through taking some time away from the idea, doing something you love, going for a walk, reading a book, going to a concert, or just laying around and considering the big questions. Give your brainstorming process space and time, never force it, place an unrealistic time limitation on it or get people involved who aren't interested.

    Ideas always come if you do your research and have enthusiasm and passion for it. If you don't have the passion then your idea will probably be less than good. 

  • Cedricj

    Creativity arises in many ways but essentially it comes from a state of being very quiet. This can occur through meditation, yoga, or repetitive activity like swimming or running. It is in those situations that the person starts making connections that were previously unseen. 

    However, a quiet mind is not a vacuum. The creative person has assimilated ideas from a wide range of sources and connects these through both divergent as well as convergent thought.

    cedricj.wordpress.com
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Miguel Angel Branada Rojas

    As other commenters, I'm not sure it's "boredom" the word you are looking for, but maybe "undistracted" or "unfocused". I got an interesting anecdote myself:
    I consider myself a creative person, but I've never been as creative as when I worked for a parfum production company. I had to sit in front of the production line 7 hours a day just putting on the lids of thousands and thousands of parfums that swifted by. The helpless monotony of this work made my mind scape for hours, having incredible ideas day after day. My mind entered a meditative-like state thanks to repetition and was able to tap the "inconscious" mind, where ideas are kept (in my opinion of course!). It's pretty similar to the swimming in your article.

  • Matthew Morse

    Silent passive boredom alone isn't that useful. You need to overload the mind, "clear" it out and put things together in new ways. My hunch is that a lot of the great 20th century writers used alcohol to "clear" out the brain. They would drink heavily at night and wake up with a mild hangover that would allow them to see things afresh and write/work for three or four hours. Then they would proceed to overload, or feed, the mind for the remaining hours of the day via reading books and magazines, going to the movies, socializing with friends, or going for long walks. By sundown they would be drinking again.

    I don't recommend this path.... Swimming in water is much healthier than swimming in booze.

  • jack hafeli

    Boredom? Really? I completely disagree. Even your examples are more appropriately interpretted as finding ways to avoid all the mindless distractions that inundate us everywhere and all the time... ubiquitous blaring TVs exist not only in bars but also in more sit-down restaurants than ever, most gaming systems bring further mechanical distraction, and the smartphone phenomenon adds yet another "Poltergeist" screen to the mix. Creative thinking is possible only when all that is shut out... by whatever means.

  • Rolando Peralta

    Great article!
    I must confess that I've had great ideas or solutions to problems while being at church on Sunday.

  • Laurie Borland

    You are absolutely right about the boredom. It pushes you to find something....invent something...think about something.  Having creative outlets like swimming....is an absolute. My love of de-cluttering my mind  comes from running and music. However, the shower....is where I run down in my head what I need to do for the day and then the most amazing solutions seem to pop in my head....what ever works right?! Because we all need to keep that appointment with the shower....you don't have an excuse not to keep that meeting with yourself. No excuses!