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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

The Gift of Boredom

Boredom can be a surprising component to the creative process—even in the classroom.

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In the second hour of teaching my four-hour pedagogy class on a late Thursday night, I ask my students to copyedit their blog posts. A few students seem deep in thought. However, the vast majority of these pre-service teachers look bored. While their typical body language is attentive and excited, many of the students are staring out, eyes glazed over, with scattered sighs.
I am tempted to intervene by telling a joke or story or moving on to a more exciting activity, worried about becoming a dull professor who teaches the dreaded "boring class." This has always been a challenge for me. When I first embraced project-based learning as a middle school teacher, I viewed student boredom as a pedagogical failure. The moment I noticed widespread eyes-glazing-over, I would switch activities up to make things more exciting. Students moved through projects quickly with few chances for daydreaming or mind-wandering.
However, I have grown to embrace boredom as a vital part of the creative process. So, on this particular night, I do not intervene. I am using boredom strategically. My hope is that after this tedious copyediting activity, students will experience creative breakthroughs in their project-planning process.
It feels counterintuitive, but these short stretches of boredom have the potential to boost creativity in the classroom.
We are naturally inclined to hate boredom. Timothy Wilson led a 2014 study at the University of Virginia demonstrating just how far people will go to avoid it. Participants spent 15 minutes in a room void of external stimulus (no music, no books, no phones), with the exception of a single device that could be used to administer a painful shock. Over a quarter of the participants chose to shock themselves. In other words, they chose pain over boredom (Wilson et al., 2014).

The Upside of Boredom

But the curse of boredom is a gift to creative thinking. It's no accident that great ideas often happen when you're taking a shower or doing the dishes (two activities that you probably shouldn't do simultaneously). Einstein's greatest scientific discoveries occurred while he was working a tedious job in the patent office. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working as a night supervisor at a university power plant. Science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote her most legendary works while she was a dishwasher, telemarketer, and potato chip inspector.
Furthermore, creative thinkers often use boredom strategically to improve cognition and aid in problem solving. Author Neil Gaiman begins his writing process by setting aside all distractions and deliberately making himself bored. Here's how he describes the process:
I think it's about where ideas come from, they come from daydreaming, from drifting, that moment when you're just sitting there … The trouble with these days is that it's really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment … it's really hard to get bored. I'm much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That's what I've started saying to people who say 'I want to be a writer.' I say 'great, get bored.' (Newport, 2016)
But what do we mean when we talk about boredom? Is Neil Gaiman's idea of getting bored the same as what my students go through while copyediting their writing? As Maggie Koerth-Baker describes the problem, "There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences" (Koerth-Baker, 2016).
I've identified two types of boredom. One is "mind-wandering boredom," which involves a lack of stimulus when one is completing tasks that require very little mental attention, such as going on a long walk or taking a shower. The other is "tedious boredom," when we are required to cognitively focus on tasks that we perceive as tedious or meaningless.
Both of these types of boredom can spark creativity—and researchers have proven it. In one study by Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman (2014), participants had to copy names from a standard phonebook. After completing this task, they engaged in divergent thinking exercises. Divergent thinking involves "thinking outside the box" by finding multiple uses for items, making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, and generating multiple creative ideas. The bored phonebook-copying group scored higher in divergent thinking than the control group who did not have to copy names.
Another study by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood (2014) required people to watch videos that would elicit specific mental states such as boredom, sadness, elation, relaxation, and distress. The participants then had to look at three objects that were seemingly unrelated and determine how they were related. The group of participants that had watched only boring videos performed better on their tasks than groups who had watched videos that made them feel distressed or relaxed. Researchers believe that the bored group was actively seeking new experiences. In other words, their boredom led to an openness to—and willingness for—new ideas.
Damon Young describes the phenomenon this way: "Scientists speak of 'transient hypofrontality': a state of mind promoted by pursuits that require physical exertion but little thought or concentration. The parts of the brain that coordinate general concepts and rules are turned down, while the motor and sensory parts are turned up. In this state, ideas and impressions mingle more freely. Unusual and unexpected thoughts arise" (Young, 2012).

Why Do We Ban Boredom?

Boredom is growing scarcer in our distracted world. Popular books such as Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen's The Distracted Mind (MIT Press, 2016) and Cal Newport's Deep Work (Hachette, 2016) suggest that the constant switch-tasking of our digital devices prevents us from engaging in deep work. Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a lack of distraction as a critical component for reaching a state of flow (a hyper-focus experience) in creative work (Csikszentmihalyi, n.d.).
The underlying assumption here is that our devices pull us from deep and profoundly creative tasks. However, David Lavenda points out, "While it is true that people have trouble 'switching off,' they are more likely to do so in situations where they are having fun and where they are mentally engaged" (Lavenda, 2010). In other words, people are choosing their devices to escape boredom and tedium. It is not that people are unable to do deeply creative work, but that they don't experience the mental rest of mind-wandering boredom that may be necessary to engage in such work. Why take a stimulus-free walk when you can scroll Facebook? Why would you let your mind wander in the line at the supermarket when you could check your text messages or play Candy Crush?
Tedious boredom is also in danger due to the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. When we outsource computational and repetitive tasks to computers, we lose out on the "phonebook moments" that can lead to divergent thinking. Similarly, when we replace physical tasks with automated machines, we are less likely to experience the hypofrontality that can spark creative thinking.
For all these reasons, boredom is less of an experience that students will just have and more like a type of discipline they will need to cultivate intentionally.

Boredom in the Classroom

When I taught 8th grade, I incorporated strategic boredom into a math project. The assignment was for the students to design a tiny house using proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area. We first discussed the examples of creative thinkers who had used boredom strategically to think divergently, solve problems, and generate new ideas. I then asked students to take four minutes of uninterrupted silence to let their minds wander.
I explained that this lack of stimulus might feel unpleasant, but it was an opportunity for them to slow down before engaging in the ideation phase of their project. Slowly, over the course of the term, students began to embrace boredom as a strategy for creative breakthroughs when they were stuck. They might copy text from a dictionary, go for a walk (the most common choice), or engage in a less exciting project task, such as reviewing calculations by hand.
To be clear, the goal is not to create inherently boring classrooms with boring teachers delivering boring lectures. Permanent or extended boredom in school can lead to lower engagement and lower motivation, which can lead to lower student achievement levels and higher truancy rates (Saeed & Zyngier, 2012).
Instead, the goal is to help students use boredom strategically to increase their creative thinking. The key difference between strategic boredom and permanent boredom has to do with duration, purpose, and agency. If a high school student spends six hours listening to a monotone lecture on the causes of World War I without the opportunity to engage in creative work, chances are he will not learn the material or retain it in a deeper, meaningful way. However, another student might experience writer's block on a blog post and choose to switch to a tedious task, like doublechecking APA citations, before returning to the blog post with fresh ideas. That's an example of strategic boredom.
Here are some specific actions teachers can use to help students use strategic boredom for creative thinking:
  1. Create spaces of silence. This could involve beginning the class in mindfulness and recentering exercises. It might also mean asking students to think about a concept for three minutes without using their devices or even writing anything down. The idea here is to experience the "mind-wandering" type of boredom that will help solve problems and engage in creative thinking.
  2. Change up the pace of instruction. You can create moments when students work for a longer amount of time on a problem, completely free of distraction. When I taught middle school, I bought into the myth that current students were unable to spend more than ten minutes on a given task. For that reason, I created frequent transitions to avoid boredom. Later, I realized that students weren't getting the chance to develop creative endurance or to choose voluntarily to be undistracted in their creative work. When I let students spend 90 minutes in deep, focused work on a STEM challenge, I noticed that more of them reached a state of creative flow.
  3. Go for walks as a class. I first began this practice when a group of students in my 8th grade social studies class asked if they could go for a walk before a brainstorming session. When they returned to class, they found it easier to think divergently in their ideation process. Although they didn't know the research behind this practice, they had stumbled upon it through experience, and it worked.
  4. Design digital sabbaticals. Although I have taught in a one-to-one computer environment (both at the middle school level and now the university level) for more than a decade, I see a value in deliberately having students go offline and experience a sense of boredom within a project. This might involve sketch-noting or drafting in a journal before composing an ebook. It might include a period where students prototype with duct tape and cardboard before working on a three-dimensional modeling program.
  5. Allow the boredom to occur naturally within projects. A team of my students were struggling to generate a solution in the revision phase of a design thinking challenge. I asked them to take a break from their project and double-check the visual formatting on a media project that accompanied their prototype. Half an hour later, they reconvened and discovered a solution by combining two ideas they had abandoned before. Although there is no guarantee that boredom will lead to an "aha" moment, students can sometimes use a step away to get unstuck. Don't turn these tedious moments into homework assignments or take shortcuts—let the boring tasks do their job.
I still don't want to be a boring teacher. I want my courses to be exciting and engaging. I want my students to leave the class feeling like they engaged in something deep and meaningful. However, I've grown to believe that boredom is a gift. It doesn't always feel good, but it's a necessary part of making connections between ideas and engaging in problem-solving.

Guiding Questions

› When was the last time you found yourself bored? Did you try to immediately distract yourself? If so, what might you try differently next time?

› When was the last time you had a stroke of inspiration? Was it during or right after a moment of boredom?

› How could you incorporate strategic boredom in a classroom activity to spark student creativity?

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (n.d.). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention.

Gasper, K., & Middlewood, B. L. (2014). Approaching novel thoughts: Understanding why elation and boredom promote associative thought more than distress and relaxation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 50–57.

Koerth-Baker, M. (2016). Why boredom is anything but boring. Nature, 529(7585), 146–148.

Lavenda, D. (2010, June). Are we distracted, or are we just bored? Fast Company. Retrieved from www.fastcompany.com/1664306/are-we-distracted-or-are-we-just-bored

Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does being bored make us more creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26(2), 165–173.

Newport, C. (2016). Neil Gaiman's advice to writers: Get bored. [blog post] Study Hacks - Cal Newport. Retrieved from http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/11/11/neil-gaimans-advice-to-writers-get-bored/

Saeed, S., & Zyngier, D. (2012). How motivation influences student engagement: A Qualitative case study. Journal of Education and Learning, 1(2).

Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgage, E. C., Gilbert, D., Ellerbeck, N., & Hahn, C. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75–77.

Young, D. (2012, January). Charles Darwin's daily walks. Psychology Today. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-think-about-exercise/201501/charles-darwins-daily-walks

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