Most of us tend to zone out a lot. I know I do, and research shows I’m not alone.
A study from the University of California at Santa Barbara asked students to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace for 45 minutes and press a button during this period whenever they caught themselves zoning out. They were also interrupted randomly at six different points to see if they’d been zoning out without realizing.
On average, the students caught themselves 5.4 times, and were caught 1.2 times more in the random checks.
Although we might not be paying attention to what we mean to be focusing on, a wandering mind isn’t an empty or idle mind. Research shows an idle brain has only 5–10% less blood flow than an engaged brain, and actually activates wider areas of the brain than we use when focused on a particular task.
How a wandering mind can improve your creativity
There’s a reason the subreddit Showerthoughts exists. Most of us have had the experience of coming up with a new idea or solving a problem when we’re in the shower, or walking the dog, or unpacking the dishwasher. It’s these times when we move away from focused thought and let our minds wander that new ideas and solutions occur to us.
One study showed how allowing the mind to wander can improve creative thinking by having participants come up with unusual uses for familiar objects, which is a commonly-used task to measure creativity. After working on this task for a short time, participants were given a break to either do a demanding memory task, an undemanding task, or sit quietly doing nothing.
When resuming the creative thinking task, those who had done an undemanding task (think unpacking the dishwasher or walking the dog) performed best. Researchers believe this is because an undemanding task encourages your mind to wander. Other research has also backed up this finding by showing that undemanding tasks are more likely to induce a wandering mind than when we do nothing at all. (Not that rest isn’t important—it is!)
Another study used a similar creativity test after asking participants to do a boring exercise, like copying numbers out of a phone book. Those who did the boring exercise performed better on the test of creativity than a control test who weren’t primed by being bored. Another experiment bored participants by having them watch a dull screensaver, and again proved boredom = more creative ideas.
According to Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench, “Boredom becomes a seeking state. What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged.” Being bored is a way to induce a wandering mind, which is why showering and doing housework are so successful at generating creative ideas.
But Sandi Mann, psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, says we don’t let ourselves get bored enough these days. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” she says, which is “like eating junk food” for your brain. Seeking out boredom—or, at least, not actively avoiding it—could be the boost in creative thinking we all need.
Seeking out boredom
For Rachel Binx, design technologist at Netflix, seeking out boredom has become key to overcoming the anxiety of being between projects that makes her “feel out of ideas and worry that I will never come up with another project.”
Binx avoids this anxiety while waiting for new project ideas to pop up through something she calls “Peak Boring.” This approach is built on three ideas:
- I am a creative person who enjoys working on projects
- I will come up with a new idea eventually
- Instead of worrying about when that new idea will pop up, I should instead make it my project to hit Peak Boring.
Achieving Peak Boring, for Binx, means boring herself so much that she eventually gets so motivated by a new, creative idea, that she can’t wait to start working on it. She does this by cleaning her house, reorganizing her pantry, going through her closet—anything that’s especially mundane and boring.
It’s all stuff that will make my life better, but it also gives me something to focus on while I wait for inspiration to strike.
Binx says being less concerned about being productive is when she actually ends up being most productive. Peak Boring is a way to force herself away from the computer and out of the mindset of getting things done, so her mind can wander and run into new, creative ideas.
This process can take awhile, sometimes weeks, but boy howdy is it a good way to reset my internal motivation!
Maybe aiming for Peak Boredom isn’t feasible for you, or sounds too painful to bear. Perhaps it’s easier to just stop looking at your phone so often and pick up some knitting or do some housework instead.
Whatever you do, try to embrace boredom when it arises. Though most of us are used to panicking at the first sign of boredom, our creativity will suffer if we don’t let our minds wander.