VGstockstudio/ShutterstockAnyone who’s ever been stuck in an elevator or an endless work meeting knows that boredom can seem intolerable (here’s how you can convince your boss to end those boring meetings). But if you’re suffering from a serious dry spell at work, this state of mind might be beneficial. A new study suggests that boredom is actually an integral part of the creative process.
In a Harvard Business Review article, writers Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire make a strong case for mind-wandering. They note that while it’s common for our brain to space out and lose focus on a task from time to time, it isn’t laziness; rather, it’s a natural default mode that the brain goes into in order to recuperate. And this is where the magic happens.
Not only is this recuperation time essential, but it’s also a breeding ground for constructive activity. Manoush Zomorodi makes this argument in her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self: “When you’re bored and your body is not doing a focused activity, but you’re thinking or relaxing, you ignite a particular network in your brain called the default mode—and this is when we come up with ways of combining ideas and making connections,” she tells Time.
Why do we get our best ideas when our attention is not otherwise fully engaged? It’s pretty simple: Our innate default network kicks in during this interval, sparking more original ideas because we let our mind wander into our innate and profound reservoirs of emotion, memory, and thought—buried storehouses that are only reached when the mind is otherwise inactive.
According to the article, activating this network requires deep internal reflection—the state that many artists and philosophers refer to when describing how they arrive at their most original ideas. Neuroscientists found that many regions across the brain were lit up as it associated past, present, and future to imagine entirely new realms and ways to do things. This is only facilitated through boredom and solitude, which may explain why we often receive our most creative insights when showering. brushing our teeth, or lying in bed.
According to Zomorodi, “[When we’re bored] we also do autobiographical planning—looking back on our lives and making sense of something that happened to us; then we do something called perspective biases, setting future goals and breaking down the steps we need to take to achieve these goals.”
Since most modern workplaces don’t exactly praise quiet reflection, Kaufman and Gregoire offered some personal tips for leaders to help their teams. They recommend managers create a separate space or allow people more freedom to work off site, particularly during periods when they are assigned innovation-intensive projects. Ultimately, it’s not about architectural configuration, but a change in mindset. They say that those in charge should support employees’ occasional need for seclusion, even if it means “spacing out” and clearing your head for a bit.
If your scheduling remains inflexible, there are still ways around it. Zomorodi encourages taking a walk or longer lunch break without the negative effects of social media. If you have a personal office at your workplace, close the door every once in a while for around an hour—and let your brain do the rest.
“It’s different than mindfulness and different than meditation—this is letting your brain wonder where it will,” says Zomorodi. “The amount of time you’ll spend doing nothing will be paid back in spades so exponentially that it will be worthwhile.”