I was meeting with a client recently who is an academic researcher. I’m helping him move into a new office space and in the process learned all about him, his team and his work day.  This researcher does a lot of writing, and explained how he needs a work environment that minimizes disruption or other stimulus.  In his words, “I really like people, so I would totally be immersed in their work and conversations if I could see and hear them all day.  Part of the process of writing and research is that you sometimes need to be a little bored.”

I completely understood what he meant. I do a good amount of writing myself, and find that all sorts of distractions can take me away from the free thinking that writing requires (like email, IM, people walking by, beeping noises, etc.)  But I find that getting into the right mindset for writing or other deep, analytical thinking requires more than just removing distractions; it also requires calming the mind and creating a mental capacity for new ideas and connections to appear.  This process involves, often, being a little bored and daydreaming.  There are many examples of authors who have found this to be true.

Writing and Boredom

J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in her head while on a train travelling from Manchester to London King’s Cross in 1990. She admits, “I didn’t have a pen and was too shy to ask anyone for one on the train, this gave me the full four hours on the train to think up all the ideas for the book. I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening.”

In the 1870s and ’80s, Mark Twain’s family spent their summers at Quarry Farm in New York, about two hundred miles west of their Hartford, Connecticut, home. Twain found those summers the most productive time for his literary work, especially after 1874, when the farm owners built him a small private study on the property. That same summer, Twain began writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Mark Twain's Elmira Study, Quarry Farm, NY

Mark Twain’s Study at Quarry Farm, NY

Now both Rowling and Twain had been writing and working out story ideas for years before they started writing about Harry Potter and Tom Sawyer, but they, along with many other writers, call attention to the time when they found the time and space to do nothing, and the ideas just came flowing.

Today, it’s rare to see any self-respecting professional claim they are bored, or that they are actively trying to integrate more boredom or daydreaming into their life. But if we look at history, and at some of the more creative moments in our own lives, it appears that boredom, or at least designing the capacity for “doing nothing” plays an important role.  It’s funny how we spend so much time trying to fill every minute of our lives to find meaning or to feel productive, but for many of us, doing nothing is exactly what we need to think more critically and creatively.

So how do you design more boredom (or “think time”) into your life?

  1. Remove yourself from distractions and interruptions. This usually means finding a space away from other people, but not necessarily. For example, I love to write and work in the “quiet car” on the Amtrak train, on airplanes and in this open area in my office that doesn’t get a lot of traffic. If I really need to get something done, I turn off my cell phone, IM and email (which is difficult, because I’m super addicted my devices buzzing at me all day, but it works).
  2. Meditate. This strategy is very popular today, and clearly a wonderful way to clear your brain. If you don’t have a place to meditate at home or work, consider using one of the many apps out there to help you relax and get out of your head using earphones. My favorites are Buddhify2, Headspace and Calm.
  3. Relax. Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, through his research on “predictive brain signals” finds that the brain is most likely to gain insight with a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere. These alpha waves are closely associated with relaxing activities such as walking, taking a warm shower, even drinking alcohol! When we are intensely focused on a task, we are must less likely to have an insight. This may seem counter-intuitive, because most of us tend “hunker down” and increase our focus when we are trying to work through a difficult problem. In reality, a “clenched state of mind” inhibits the connections in the brain that lead to creative break-throughs.

So the next time you feel bored – you’re stuck in traffic, in a long grocery line, trapped at the airport or the doctor’s office – consider it a blessing in disguise.  Just let you mind let go and daydream away.  It could lead to your next big idea.

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