For creatives, inspiration is often found in the most unlikely of places (like the shower) and at the worst of times (like when trying to fall asleep). But what if the commonality between all those cliche places is the fact that they are boring? I was reading a novel (my favorite boredom buster) when I found one such source of unlikely inspiration and an idea to unlock creativity.
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The book, Harlan Coben’s Just One Look, features a main character who is a painter. This fictitious painter, Grace Lawson, said something that has sat with me, even months later:
“Loneliness, the precursor to boredom, is conducive to the creative process. That was what artistic meditation was all about — boring yourself to the point where inspiration must emerge if only to preserve your sanity. A writer friend once explained that the best cure for writer’s block was to read a phone book. Bore yourself enough and the Muse will be obligated to push through the most slog-filled of arteries.”
Harlan Coben, Just One Look
Could this be the reason that good ideas tend to come in the shower or while waiting for sleep to come? Is boredom the cure to a creative rut? Are the most creative photographers, in fact, just bored a lot?
It turns out, scientists have asked this same question. In one study published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2014, participants who were asked to read the phone book had more creative responses than the control group. Two years later, researchers from Penn State University found more convergent thinking from participants who were asked to watch a boring video. A similar study in 2019 found that participants who were tasked with separating beans by color generated more ideas than those who were asked to complete a more interesting craft.
Someone recently asked me how I don’t get bored when I go for a run. But, I think that’s actually why I like running. There is nothing for my mind to do but listen to the sounds of my feet on the pavement as I wander. I’m a mother, a writer, a photographer, and a business owner. My brain is constantly jumping from grocery store lists to soccer practice to portrait shoots to article deadlines. Running clears my mind to think about the unimportant things, to wander, to ask what if. And that’s where inspiration can spark. It’s on runs, in the shower, and on hikes where I’ve built up a store of ideas to try.
I have a tendency to grab my phone whenever I have a few free minutes — checking emails, finding inspiration on Pinterest or Instagram, or getting lost down a social media rabbit hole. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I certainly don’t want you to stop reading halfway through this article. But, balance is important. Filling downtime is fine, but filling 100 percent of downtime isn’t conducive to creativity.
I think it’s important as a creative to build time to do nothing. Or, at the very least, to do something that doesn’t require any brainpower, like going for a walk, going outside, taking a bath. Take a break, even just a small one.
Is boredom a fail-proof solution to creativity ruts? Well, if that were the case 2020 would have been the year for creativity. There are other factors at play too, such as stress and anxiety. But, I think creatives should be mindful of how much of their day is filled to the brim, and to spend at least a few minutes a day with nothing to do.