Creative boredom: How to turn an unengaged mind into an advantage

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Put the cellphone down and embrace boredom says RPA's VP, creative director, social media

Boredom is misunderstood. This is partly because it’s a pregnant pause in our overstimulated world of cellphones, emails and chatty Uber rides. It’s also mislabeled, sometimes referred to as "the doldrums." But none of that is truly accurate.

Boredom, in its truest form, is emotionally agnostic. It’s neither happy nor sad, but rather a mental pit stop in the rat race. Sometimes our minds need those moments of reflection to disengage from our screen-saturated life and retreat to a quieter place. And once we recognize that, it’s easy to harness the silence of boredom to boost creativity.

Boredom is the result of simple, repetitive or non-engaging events that disengage the mind. There is no stimulus to provoke a response, so your mind wanders, back, forward, in an unmanageable direction. There’s nothing apparent for it to do.

Sometimes, that’s scary. But to truly peel away layers, and think in deeper, more creative ways, it’s important to find those moments of boredom, and use that as a trigger to engage your creative brain. Have a pen and Post-It handy for when those flashes arise, because sometimes they will only show themselves once, and you need to be prepared.

Don’t fight boredom
There is a well-known saying in therapy, "Report, don’t judge." And that’s relevant to the feeling of boredom, too. When boredom taps you on the shoulder, don’t ignore it or swat it away. Take it as a sign: a time for you to journey within.

Many times, parents attempt to cure boredom with activities that may simply engage the brain for the sake of engagement. "Let’s count license plates," or "I’ll put on a movie." There are entire Pinterest boards devoted to curing boredom. But boredom is not an illness. It doesn’t need a cure. It just needs a channel.

I’ve been in some boring meetings and, by listening, have stumbled upon great taglines or ideas people have thrown out and dismissed in their everyday language. It’s important to let boredom give you that clarity to pick a phrase out of the verbal garbage and find a place for it.

Make boring moments work for you
The phone is one of the worst culprits for busting boredom. In the line at a grocery store. Waiting for a table in a restaurant. Eating breakfast. The need to fight boredom is also the main culprit behind texting and driving; People look to their device to seek solace in that uncomfortable silence.

In the grocery line, I never pick up my phone. Instead, I listen: To how the people interact with the cashier and each other. I look at the food they buy and wonder why they buy it. I can tell if they live alone, their lifestyle. It becomes my own focus group. So next time you are doing errands, put your phone away, pick the biggest check-out line and take it all in. If you don’t know what motivates people, how can you develop a message to reach them?

Don’t be afraid of yourself
Being bored often means being alone with yourself. It invokes a quiet moment of reflection. Some people are afraid of their own thoughts, and that’s okay. Others are in this classic pursuit to move forward, but never back.

But reflecting on the past is a great way to create something for the future. Allow your mind to wander — it will go where it wants, where it finds interest. It’s important to follow that, rather than try to lead it. If you’ve ever sat down and pushed yourself to have an idea, you know it won’t work.

Let the mind be quiet and free, and patiently follow it to the idea you need. Often, we surround ourselves with the unlimited resources of the Web to help us plan, search and discover. Forget those. Kill the screen, simplify the process and remove yourself from those distractions. Then see what your mind can accomplish on its own.

Try boredom on for size
Now that you understand what boredom can do for you, give it a test run. Go out to dinner by yourself. Leave your cellphone at home and make yourself vulnerable. What is the world telling you? What are you hearing? What happens when you let the world in, and not shut it out with a newsfeed scroll?

Like any transcendental moment, it won’t be easy, or enjoyable right out of the gate. Most of us have been conditioned far beyond this ability. But when you come to terms with it, your mind is in a place for reflection and creative inspiration. And before long you can use those times that seem boring — car rides, commuting, et al. — as moments of inspiration.

If your life is full of activity and you are rarely bored, make time for it. Find a bench outside. Sit there with a pen, paper and no agenda for one hour, and see what happens.

J. Barbush is VP, creative director, social media at RPA.


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