How Being Bored and Tired Can Improve Your Creativity

It sounds counterintuitive, but several recent studies show that boredom can actually fuel the creative process.
Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications
August 11, 2014

When we're at our most alert and productive, we force ourselves to focus on the task at hand and filter irrelevant information, because that's how we get work done. This standard way of thinking is the reason why we don't trust our decisions or ideas when we're feeling bored or tired. However, several studies show that boredom and fatigue can actually improve our creative thinking.

An Argument for Boredom

When technology enables you to never be alone, suddenly finding yourself alone without a laptop, smartphone, tablet or book to hide behind can be terrifying. In fact, it's so terrifying that some people would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than be alone for a few minutes. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers placed participants in a room by themselves for six to 15 minutes with nothing to do but think. Many of the people from the study found the experience so "unpleasant" that they would choose electric shocks the next time around rather than experience the boredom all over again.

While being bored is torturous for some, various studies have found that boredom fuels creativity because it allows our minds to wander, something that doesn't happen frequently when we have the entire Internet world at our fingertips.

In another study, psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire had participants from one group copy numbers out of a telephone book for 15 minutes while participants from another group were assigned a more creative task. Next, when both groups were asked to come up with different uses for a polystyrene cup, the group that copied numbers from the telephone book came up with the most uses.

Embrace the Boredom

Comedy writer Graham Linehan explains why he embraces boredom in The Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the Internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the Internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

To make sure he stays a little bored every day, Linehan heads to a coffee shop and sits with his phone on flight mode for an hour and a half, which means he has no access to calls or the Internet. 

"The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck," Linehan says. "That's actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer's block, but it's actually just part one of a long process. The Internet has made it very difficult to experience that. I've noticed that in the cafe within about 20 minutes I feel like an hour has passed."

This isn't to say that you should be bored all the time. The key here is to find that balance between chronic boredom and constant interaction and engagement.

Tired and Creative

It may not make sense to most that they should be doing their best creative work when tired, but research shows that this is when your mind is most able to "think outside the box."

In a new study, scientists first asked 428 undergrads at Albion College whether they were more productive and alert in the morning or evening. Then, the participants were given a series of problem-solving tasks to accomplish during their optimal and least optimal time of day. What the researchers found was that the most creative ideas and greatest problem-solving performance came during non-optimal times of day, meaning morning larks had better ideas at night and night owls performed better in the morning when they were unfocused.

When your brain is tired, you take in distractions that you would normally ignore because your mind is too drowsy and disorganized to fight the invasion. Your tired brain struggles to focus on one thing at a time, so you wander, gather loads of irrelevant information, and connect those random pieces together, which can result in offbeat solutions or innovative products and ideas.

While this strategy isn't helpful when you're trying to solve analytical problems that require focus and method, the lack of focus is essential for creative problem solving when you need to connect pieces to other pieces you normally wouldn't consider connecting.

While boredom forces your brain to search for information and better ways of thinking about things, being tired relaxes your mind and opens it up for interpretation of all information. In both of these states, what ends up happening is that your mind becomes a blank canvas for new ideas and solutions to come together. Based on the studies discussed above, the next time those drowsy thoughts start to sink in and you feel like you're not making any sense, grab a pen and some paper and jot down whatever comes to mind. Your next idea just might blow your mind.

Read more articles on productivity.

Photo: Getty Images

Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications