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Actually, it’s good to be bored at work

Designers like Paula Scher have long embraced boredom as a productivity tool, and new research supports the idea.

Actually, it’s good to be bored at work
[Photo: Hutomo Abrianto/Unsplash]

Being bored is no fun, especially at work. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself bored in your cubicle on a Monday morning only to realize there’s still four and a half more days to the weekend. But new research out of the Research School of Management at Australian National University argues that while boredom is certainly boring, it isn’t all bad. This loathed mental state can actually spark precious creativity.

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The study asked 52 subjects to do a pretty boring job: Sort apart a bowl of red and green beans with just one hand for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, 49 other subjects—the control group—were instructed to create art projects with paper, beans, and glue.

Once the 30 minutes was over, each group was instructed to spend five minutes on a creative task: They had to come up with reasons why a hypothetical person was two hours late for a meeting. What the researchers found was that the bored group came up with not just more ideas than the control group, but more creative ideas than the control group, too. The quality and quantity of production was higher for people who were bored than those who were not. (Creativity itself was measured under a rubric that balances novelty with practicality. Ideas had to fit both criteria to be considered creative.)

A similar follow-up study also took measurements of other mental states—namely, frustration and anger. And it found that, despite some previous research that implies boredom can lead to lack of motivation or dissatisfaction at a job, boredom didn’t produce unwanted emotions that could be detrimental to mental health. In this case, people who were bored were just bored, and they walked away with a net benefit of creativity.

“Boredom is not necessarily miserable and harmful based on my research,” says the study’s lead author, Guihyun Park. “People want to get out of a boring state, so they indulge in novelty-seeking unique thinking, which brings out creativity.”

So what are the limits? If we’re bored all day every day, wouldn’t that be bad? Can we overdo boredom? “Yes, of course,” says Park. “My study is unique because it says boredom can be helpful. Not always helpful, of course.”

While Park offers no strict guidelines to optimizing boredom on a schedule, she did clarify that your ping-pong table or other entertainment at work isn’t a hindrance for creativity. Ping-pong makes you playful and social, which can both boost creativity, too, without making you bored in the process.

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It’s also worth noting that her team discovered that some types of people seemed more susceptible to a boredom-based creativity boost than others. Scientists found in one trial that subjects needed to be open to new experiences, and be goal-oriented, to see a positive effect from being bored.  Then again, that’s true to finding success in most jobs already.

Finally, Park readily admits that not every type of job permits the luxury of boredom, and it really can be detrimental to some important work. “I would say at security jobs where you need to stay vigilant all the times (drone fighters, for example), boredom will keep your mind wandering and that is really bad,” says Park. “Also, those jobs require minimum creativity, and normally require you to pay attention to details instead. So boredom won’t help much there.”

But for designers and anyone in a creative field, boredom is not something to fear, but to embrace. Just ask Pentagram partner Paula Scher, who claims her best work is done in the back of taxis—where she lets her mind wander, rather than occupying it with apps on her phone. Sometimes, the best way to be productive is to expect nothing of yourself at all.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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