Why are we so afraid of being bored — to have that time of stillness? We feel compelled to fill that silence with something. We fill it with screen time or with emails or with phone calls or cat videos.
Those moments of silence can be unnerving, but our brains need that solitude for the subconscious to unleash the creative muse. Our creativity depends on it.
Boredom is a necessary part of life.
Research reveals that when we’re undistracted by external stimuli, our brain responds in a fascinating way: we enter a condition of relaxation where our stream of consciousness wanders, daydreams, imagines, and meditates. Yes, daydreaming is now recognized as an essential experience.
One external stimulus that many assume can be a distraction is sound — so they strive for silence.
Physically, silence has a peculiar power to calm the body; it’s been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, alleviate pain, and more. Mentally, the therapeutic effects of quietness can lift mood and increase attention, focus, and creativity.
But for others, noise and music can feed their creativity.
Noise And Music
Noise and music are two of the most important aspects of our lives. They can affect how we feel and how we work. While noise has been shown to have a negative impact, other research shows that a certain level of noise can have a positive impact on your creativity.
White noise is better for general productivity because it produces enough activity to make us feel like we’re being productive, but not enough to make us distracted from what we’re doing.
Ambient sounds (e.g. background noise at a coffee shop) have been shown to have a positive effect on creativity. This is because ambient sounds allow us to focus on our surroundings instead of the task at hand. This can help us come up with new ideas and solutions.
Instrumental music has also been shown to be beneficial for creativity. This is because instrumental music allows us to focus on the music itself instead of singing along. This can help us come up with new ideas and solutions.
The type of noise and music you use is important. You need to find the right balance that works for you. If you’re working on creative projects, ambient sounds or instrumental music are a great option.
Boredom = Subconscious Serendipity
So whether you use noise/music or go for silence, the aim is to leave room for the subconscious to experience serendipity. Time for our brains to wander and explore new possibilities — making random connections.
When you think about it, the idea of discovering new connections or insights by chance is actually a pretty amazing thing. Those serendipity moments happen all the time to people who are open-minded to letting their subconscious work for them.
To encourage mind-wandering so the subconscious can work, we need to take time out of our days for boredom. Our creative subconscious needs the room that boredom creates for serendipity.
Examples of Creativity from Boredom
Many creatives have discussed how valuable boredom has been to their creative process. For example (1):
- The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said on a podcast last year that the first time he wrote for enjoyment—and stayed up all night writing—he was driven purely by boredom; his friends weren’t around, the TV and stereo were broken and the only thing in the apartment was a typewriter. If he had come of age during the smartphone era, with constant distractions, things might have been different. Now, he said, “there are too many easy boredom killers.”
- J. R. R. Tolkien started writing The Hobbit, he said, when marking exam papers as an Oxford professor, a task that he described as “very laborious, and also very boring.” It was on a blank page of one of these papers that he wrote down the first words of his world-changing book series.
- Steve Jobs also said that he was a “big believer in boredom” because of the way that it had pushed him to come up with imaginative ideas. Boredom can promote curiosity, he thought, and “out of curiosity comes everything.”
Boredom Is Fuel For Creativity
When people are bored, they often feel like something is wrong with them. Our culture tells us that if we’re not constantly entertained or occupied, there must be something wrong with our lives. But stillness—a period of boredom without any external stimulation—is actually a time when creativity and new ideas can flourish.
So next time you're feeling antsy or frustrated because you don't have anything to do, try embracing your boredom instead. Let yourself be still and unoccupied for a while, and see what new ideas form in your mind.
It might surprise you how creatively productive being bored can be!