Are you making the most of the boredom effect?

Arduous spreadsheet sessions – the perfect fount of inspiration?
Studies suggest that more yawning can help boost your creativity.
It's never been harder to be bored. Through personal music devices, podcasts or brief forays into the non-work-related web, the modern office dweller has a near endless supply of diversions ready for moments of tedium. Even the meeting – that epitome of workplace monotony – is undergoing a transformation in some quarters, with Michael Begeman, formerly of manufacturing giant 3M, suggesting that employees bring toys to play with, including bouncy balls and Slinkies. “Every so often, just go into a toy store, blow $20 on junk,” he said in an interview with Fast Company.
But don’t celebrate so soon. Two studies released this year suggest that tasks usually classed as boring and productivity-sapping – reading through data-heavy documents and watching long presentations, for example – are actually extremely effective at stimulating “creative” ideas. Far from dulling your senses and draining motivation, psychologists are theorising that these activities can actually serve as a signal to the brain that you’re in need of a flash of inspiration.


Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, both of the University of Central Lancashire, published a paper in the Creativity Research Journal this May, concluding that “boring activities resulted in increased creativity, and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances.”
Participants were asked to think of as many uses as they could for two plastic cups (apparently a test of “divergent thinking”, a crucial element in creativity), but half of them had been subjected to the laborious task of copying out numbers from a phonebook beforehand. This group (the phonebook copyers), came up with significantly more uses for the cups on average than the control group. To test the idea even further, Mann and Cadman gave a third group the task of simply reading a phone book (they didn’t even have the thrill of being able to copy from it). Amazingly, this third group came up with yet more uses for the plastic cups.
Another study, by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood of Penn State University, replicated the link between boredom and creativity, using different tasks and measures. So what does this mean for the workplace? Ricky Gervais’s David Brent character in the BBC’s Office mockumentary was liable to spice up meetings by bringing in an acoustic guitar – is this misguided?


Quite possibly. As management professor David Burkus wrote in the Harvard Business Review recently, boredom “motivates people to approach new and rewarding activities. In other words, an idle mind will seek a toy.” No one is advocating compulsory phone book reading sessions in the workplace. But these studies do bring into question the idea that workers need to be “always on”. Burkus, for example, suggests undertaking “humdrum” activities like photocopying for a while if you’re trying to dream up a new idea. Either way, don’t complain next time you’re asked to scan through a 200-page market report – you might be on the verge of coming up with your best idea yet.

A temporary break from tedium

Just because it might help boost your creativity, you don’t always have to succumb to boredom. And management meetings can be the worst offenders. Buzzword Bingo, also known as Bullshit Bingo, is a popular pastime, and this Android app comes with a multiplayer mode for cross-table chuckles. Simply tick off the offending word or phrase whenever the speaker regurgitates a typical piece of management-speak, and the first one to sweep the board wins.

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