A person daydreaming, illustrating the value of boredom at work
5-second summary
  • Boredom has been scientifically proven to be a precursor for creative thinking. When we’re bored, our brains are relaxed and our usual “filters” are off.
  • Now that most rote tasks have been automated away, creativity is often an essential component for success in knowledge-worker roles.
  • As leaders, we can do ourselves and our teams a great service by prioritizing space for spacing out and letting our minds wander.

Have you noticed how hard it is to be creative when you’re trying really hard to be creative? Yet the minute you stop trying so hard and move on to something else, it seems like a tidal wave of ideas rushes in. Turns out you’re not just imagining that.

Our best, most creative ideas often come when we’re doing basically nothing and our brains are relaxed. In this state, your frontal cortex – which is involved in attention, memory, and planning – goes on auto-pilot, which means you’re filtering your thoughts less. Not unlike being a bit tipsy, actually. Fortunately for our livers (and livelihoods), we can get our brains into that same state during the workday by embracing boredom.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the soul-crushing ennui that stems from feeling like your job is meaningless. That’s a genuinely bad thing and, if left unchecked, can start to feel a lot like burnout. But what the Italians call il dolce far niente, or “the sweetness of doing nothing”… now that’s the stuff.

The right flavor of boredom in the right amount can benefit both individuals and your business. So let me introduce you to a concept I’m calling “the anti-power hour.” It’s idle time with no objective other than to give your brain a break, explore an idea, check out what others in your field are up to – and then, deliver nothing.

At least, not yet.

The connection between boredom and creativity

John Eastwood, a psychologist and co-author of “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” explains that when our brains are lying fallow, creativity kicks in to fill the empty space. (Incidentally, this is why I keep a pencil and notebook on my bedside table.) “In that gap, there’s a real chance to discover something new,” he says. “What matters to me? What am I passionate about?”

If you think “water cooler moments” unlock creativity, you’re focusing on the wrong thing

A 2013 study showed that a small dose of boredom primes our brains to perform well on convergent thinking tasks – also known as “problem-solving.” We also need creativity for divergent thinking – the kind we employ in brainstorming. A 2014 study demonstrated the power of boredom in these situations, as well.

The proof is in the pudding. Four hours on a train in 1990 with no social media or streaming video left J.K. Rowling with nothing to do as she watched the scenery go by – except dream up the story of Harry Potter, inspired by a scraggly-looking boy she’d seen on the platform (number 9 ¾, presumably). Other creative folks from Agatha Cristie to QuestLove credit boredom as a source of inspiration. And famed New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine admitted to stumbling, or perhaps jeté-ing, onto his best ideas while doing laundry.

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self‑conscious, and anything self‑conscious is lousy.

– Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451”

Productivity can be counterproductive

These are uncertain economic times, you say. Why is now the time for knowledge workers to take their feet off the gas pedals?

Because knowledge work requires creative thinking, and our collective creativity, as measured by the Torrance Test, has been tanking since the early ‘90s. (That was about the same time we started to wear busy-ness as a badge of honor, by the way.)

Fast-forward to today, and we’ve automated most of the rote, repetitive tasks associated with office work. Being curious and creative is a knowledge worker’s primary job now!

It’s time to stop measuring productivity

We’re also in a moment when employee burnout and attrition are rampant. However, neurological research shows that stress goes down, while engagement and quality of work go up, if we give our brains a break. Just a five-minute breather between meetings has been shown to reduce activity in the areas of the brain associated with stress.

Plus, allowing space for employees to explore makes them feel valued. It demonstrates trust and an interest in their professional development.

Time is our most precious resource. We can’t create more of it, so we have to prioritize it wisely. I see too many leaders obsessing over productivity, thinking they’re doing the right thing. In truth, they’re doing their teams and their companies a disservice if they don’t prioritize space for just sort of… spacing out.

Introducing the anti-power hour

If you’re a team lead, it’s important to invest in the right kind of boredom. Considering instituting the “anti-power hour.” Commit to creating an hour-long block each week where team members aren’t expected to produce anything at all. You can also create smaller blocks each day that add up to an hour or more over the week.

Cancel a weekly meeting that could be replaced with an email. Push a deadline or two out. Identify the team’s least-valuable recurring tasks and get rid of them.

Yes, this can be hard and scary for everyone involved. That’s ok.

You can also grab little slices of fallow time for your own brain on an ad-hoc basis by making a few simple behavioral changes:

  • Put down that business book you bought at the airport bookstore and read a novel. Get lost in a story instead of trying to cram more information into your head.
  • When you’re queuing for a coffee, etc., don’t check your phone. Just let your mind wander for those few minutes.
  • Leave your podcasts and music at home the next time you take a walk. Allow your brain to be passive while the sights, sounds, and smells wash over you.
  • Remember that you’re in charge of your phone (not the other way around!). Try setting your display to grayscale so those notifications look less urgent. Turn work, social media, and news apps off for part of the day.
  • Book meetings for 25 or 50 minutes instead of 30 or 60 minutes so you have a chance to mentally reset. It may be more effective to start meetings five to ten minutes later instead of trying (and often failing) to end them early.

As a leader, you set the standard. So make sure your teams see you taking this time and help them understand how you’re benefiting from it. Share how you’re spending your hour of idle time, but resist the urge to tell others how to spend theirs.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of organizational psychologist, professor, and best-selling author Adam Grant:

Now get out there and do nothing.

The surprising, science-backed value of boredom at work