Doctors use the “universal pain assessment tool” to measure how uncomfortable their patients are. It’s a simple mechanism made up of smiley (and sad) faces. At one end of the spectrum is “pain free,” and on the other is “unimaginable, unspeakable pain,” with “tolerable” and “utterly horrible” falling in between. It’s not terribly scientific, but the tool helps medical professionals download your pain data from a little chip in your brain, so to speak, making it one of the best and fastest assessments at doctors’ disposal.
It’s not just pain that’s difficult to quantify–so is the human experience generally. But researchers have devised tools to study other mushy concepts, too, including creativity. And in the process we’ve learned there’s at least one thing that tends to nudge people into measurably more creative thinking: boredom.
How Boredom Can Boost Creativity
To measure creativity in the lab, scientists now use a test developed back in 1967 by J. P. Guilford, an American psychologist who was one of the first researchers to study creativity. Guildford’s “Alternative Uses Test” gives subjects two minutes to come up with as many ways they can think of to use everyday objects like a brick, cups, paperclips, or a chair. The subject is then scored in four categories:
- Originality: How unusual were your ideas?
- Fluency: How many ideas did you come up with?
- Flexibility: How different were the ideas?
- Elaboration: How much detail could you go into while explaining your idea?
So, for example, using a brick as a paperweight isn’t terribly original, but telling a story about dropping that brick from a 10-story apartment building so it landed on the head of the neighborhood dog that’s been keeping you up at night? Nice elaboration.
Where does boredom come into the picture? Sandi Mann, a researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, developed her own riff on the the Alternative Uses Test to find out. Her goal was to quantify the effects of boredom on creativity. So she preceded the creativity test by having her subjects copy numbers out of the phone book for 20 minutes first. Then she asked them to think of as many uses as they could for two paper cups. They came up with mildly creative ideas, like plant pots and sandbox toys.
Next, to see if she could amp up their creativity, Mann gave subjects an even duller task, asking them to read phone numbers aloud before brainstorming uses for those paper cups. This second time, subjects had ideas with far more originality and flexibility–like earrings, telephones, musical instruments, and Madonna-like bras.
Three Ways To Bore Yourself Into Creative Thinking
Inspired by Mann’s results, I ran a crowdsourced boredom experiment in 2015 with 20,000 of the listeners of my podcast Note to Self. We called the project “Bored and Brilliant” (now also the title of my new book on the subject), and every day for one week, we collectively tested various digital behavior tweaks in an attempt to induce boredom more often–and to see if we sparked creativity in the process.
This was a far cry from a clinical study, but a few surprising patterns emerged nevertheless. Here are some of the simplest and most effective digital habit changes that seemed to induce just enough boredom to spark creative thinking:
1. No devices while you’re on the move. We asked participants to leave their phones out of sight while in transit, including ignoring any impulse to walk and text or to check the headlines while on the bus or subway. And definitely no toting your phone with you to the bathroom. This challenge was the most popular; 88% of participants said they planned to continue this habit going forward, in many cases because it helped clear their minds for creative ideas. So the next time you’re getting coffee, as you slowly make your way to the front of the queue, just let your mind wander instead of scrolling Instagram or checking email.
2. Delete your most-used app. Take the app that you feel distracts you the most over the course of your workday and delete it–just for a day at first. The majority of participants chose to delete a social media app, and while they found this behavior change the hardest, half also planned to continue deleting apps they found detrimentally habit-forming in the future. Some even came up with their own modifications: “I’ve decided to go ahead and do it every week,” one man said about his No-Twitter Mondays. Instead of Twitter, he takes that time to daydream. Yes, it can feel more boring, but that’s the point.
3. Take a “fake-cation.” We’ve all gotten used to setting and receiving automated out-of-office email responses, but we asked participants to take time off while they were still at work. They let colleagues (or their family and friends) know that they’d scheduled a fixed period–from 20 minutes to an entire day–to focus on a report, idea, or project. Participants found that by resetting coworkers’ expectations for immediate feedback, they could space out guilt-free and do some creative problem-solving.
After just a week of igniting boredom, participants did manage to jump-start their creativity. We heard from people who thought of ways to start a difficult conversation with a coworker, came up with new business plans, or simply decided to spend more time thinking than immersed in Facebook. Some described taking up classic creative endeavors like poetry or songwriting, and several had culinary breakthroughs–like inventive ways to sneak vegetables into a finicky toddler’s dinner. One woman even decided to turn the time she usually spent waiting on the subway platform into a cardio workout, by going up and down the stairs as fast as possible.
Making simple changes to our daily digital routines can bring back a human state–boredom–that has quietly served us well for millennia. By taking these small and tested steps (or asking your team to take them), you may find that more abundant, strange, and interesting ideas sprout up faster than usual.
Manoush Zomorodi is the author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Ignite Your Most Productive and Creative Self and the host of the WNYC Studios podcast Note to Self.