Want to Be More Creative? Get Bored

Quick: Survey your friends, your family, and colleagues and ask them when it is that they get their best and brightest ideas. How do they come to solve insurmountable challenges? And when despairing over the unsolvable, how does their breakthrough moment occur?

Don’t be surprised if many of those you ask say something like: "I sleep on it. Then as soon as I get in the shower in the morning… voila!"

For what it’s worth, the shower doesn’t do it for me--I’m a pool man. When my head is cluttered and I can’t think straight, I don my goggles and go for a swim. After the first couple of laps, the confusion begins to lift, and the answers start emerging. What the shower and the pool have in common is they’re both places where you’re rarely disturbed, allowing solitary contemplation. The warm water sure doesn't hurt, either.

This is all related to a phenomenon that’s been identified by Edward de Bono, the legendary creative thinker. He calls it the "creative pause." In de Bono’s book Serious Creativity, he asserts that even when things are going along, well, swimmingly, "some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about."

Although most people are unaware of the name for it, creative pauses are happening wherever people are solving problems. They occur among harassed CEOs, design directors, and small-business entrepreneurs. The creative pause allows the space for your mind to drift, to imagine and to shift, opening it up to new ways of seeing.

There’s just one small problem: The creative pause might soon become a thing of the past. When was the last time you remember being bored? Or even having a moment free from distractions?

I know it sounds strange, but I welcome boredom. It forces me to ponder. But to make sure we’re on the same page, when I speak of boredom, I’m not referring to killing time on your smartphone, your iPad, or your laptop. I’m not even talking about paging through a book. I mean bored as in doing absolutely nothing.

Because here’s the rub--when we’re at our most bored we’re forced to push our creative boundaries, and unearth the root of whatever problem we're working on. A quick glance around and you’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to be bored in our 21st-century environment. Every bar now has at least one television blaring. And just as night follows day, your eyes will be drawn to the moving pictures above, sapping whatever creative thoughts you could be having. Or take, for example, the last time you were alone at a restaurant waiting for a friend to join you. Chances are you reached for your phone and did something with it, anything to avoid appearing like the lonely loser in the corner.

If you’re still struggling to remember your last bored moment, consider the younger generation. When you were younger, perhaps you hung out on the street with other neighborhood kids. Or maybe you shot a few hoops or cycled down to the drugstore. There were no PlayStations, Xboxes, Wiis, or the latest game apps to play on or offline. Have you noticed how quiet suburban streets are these days?

Back in the 1990s, when Lego asked me to explore the consequences of digital play versus physical play, I discovered how many kids were preoccupied with the tactile aspects of play--how kids were already preoccupied with Tamagotchis, those handheld digital pets that need regular feeding, walking, and sleep. Tamagotchis hit the toy world like an out-of-control virus, making a huge dent in Lego’s Christmas figures. It seemed the more kids played with a screen, the greater their chances of losing their creative skills. Digitized pocket toys have a set sequence of steps to follow, and as soon as kids get the gist of the game, they fall into a passive-interactive mode.

This new development in the toy market was potentially disastrous for Lego, who, in principle, requires a user to bring their imagination to the connecting plastic bricks in order build the object of their fancy. However, as I was busily conducting experiments with interactive play, I accidentally stumbled upon a small realization. It began as an ordinary day. The children were involved in interactive play on a computer screen, and I was handing them the Lego bricks, asking them to create something. But then something extraordinary happened. The entire network broke down, and it took a long 20 minutes for the IT engineers to restore the system. Then it was back to business as usual. Except this time, when I handed over the bricks, the activity level increased. I began seeing Lego castles, trains, bridges, roller coasters, and monsters being built. Those 20 minutes of boredom gave rise to a remarkably productive output, and taught me the value of being bored.

Boredom, however, is becoming an endangered activity. Once lost, it’s not likely to return, because being entertained 24/7 is what kids have come to expect. In fact, by the time I began researching the power of word of mouth for my book Brandwashed, a frenzy of digital toys, apps, games, and screens had become endemic.

These days, I schedule a regular dose of boredom into my day. Furthermore, I don’t check messages if I’m waiting for a friend. I choose, instead, to watch people in bars, cafes, and restaurants. I don’t play games on my phone or my computer. I carry an old Nokia that no one would dream of stealing. More often than not, I hit the pool at the end of the day. As I power up and down the lanes, I rethink what I’ve learned. I now have the time and space to solve whatever problems have arisen. It’s an important meeting with myself, and I keep it religiously. Because the day I lose it, I’ve lost myself.

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