Embracing the Idle Mind

How being bored leads to higher creativity and better decision making

Last month I made a change to my commute: I started to leave my phone in my pocket withholding the temptation to check emails and read the news. Soon, subway windows started to substitute my apple screen. No doubt, it was boring; but this is what I wanted. I was embracing the feeling of boredom to help my mind wander.

Suddenly, commutes started to become rewarding thinking sessions helping me to process my day and prepare for upcoming ones. Also, my 30 minute ride, brought up long forgotten memories and new ideas started coming to me a lot easier.

My daydreaming experience made me question how I had been using my idle time so far. Like many others, I was armed to the teeth with e-books, podcasts and social media accounts, ready to kill even the shortest downtime.

Keeping busy at all costs actually costs more than we think though. And this might be especially true for fields in which creativity and problem solving are of the essence, such as product management and UX.

An idle mind will seek a toy

Already Friedrich Nietzsche saw boredom as the “unpleasant calm that precedes creative acts”.

He who fortifies himself completely against boredom fortifies himself against himself too. He will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Neuroscientists and psychologists, like Jerome Singer, back up Nietzsches claims helping to explain what exactly happens when the brain is bored: When we do not have anything to do, our brain tries to escape the feeling of boredom. We shift into a mode of internal stimulation, commonly referred to as mind-wandering, where we refrain from task-related, focused thought. When our mind wanders our brain switches from “focused mode” into “diffuse mode” which increases activity in many regions of the brain.

These areas have been linked to high levels of openness to experience and divergent thinking — two common traits of highly creative people. And of course, the higher our level of creativity, the better we become at thinking outside the box and at developing effective solutions to difficult situations.

The benefits of mind-wandering and positive constructive daydreaming

The increased creative output in “diffuse mode” explains why revelations sometimes do not come to us when we are pondering about a tough problem, but actually when we manage to forget about it for a brief moment. This is how such “Eureka!” moments under the shower can be explained, when it feels like a solution came to us out of nowhere.

Your smartphone might be killing more than just boredom

Humans have daydreamed for ages; commutes, waiting lines and everyday tasks gave us the perfect environment to do so. Today, our smartphones can keep us busy within an instant though, preventing us from experiencing even the slightest feeling of boredom. So instead of focusing inwards, on our own thoughts, we have a constant external focus on the device in our hand. As a result, our creative potential and problem solving abilities might be reduced — our brain is not getting the valuable time to escape boredom through mind-wandering as we are using our smartphone to not even feel bored in the first place.

I cannot picture my live without my smartphone and enjoy the many ways it has improved through it. Still, I try to be more aware of the high costs that come with heave smartphone usage and also treat my brain with the rewarding “off-time” that it needs to increase my output of fresh, creative ideas.

The urge to be productive and progress

What makes it so difficult for me to get into mind-wandering-state is not just that I can easily distract myself with my smartphone. It is also the feeling that I should be doing just that.

As many others, especially those motivated people in the product community, I want to learn, improve and advance with the countless ideas and pet-projects that I have. The need to get ever more done has created a whole industry around tools, books, and substances that are promising to make our life more productive. Consequently, I used to consider a ride in the metro without anything to do a waste of time; maybe even a failure to achieve progress.

Thus, proactively not doing anything wasn’t something that I could do easily. It seemed like waisting time without visible progress. Of course, these fears are short-sighted and inflated. Yet, I never consciously reflected upon them before learning about the benefits of mind-wandering.

Finding the sweet spot for maximum progress and learning — Graph is purely for illustrating my argument and not based on any primary research or studies (even though I would like to know if there are any about this topic)

Overloading my brain with information and tasks will leave me tired and exhausted with no additional mental capacity to learn more down the road. In other words, after a certain level of utilization, my task-related learning curve is hitting a point of diminishing returns.

Moreover, the creative insights and revelations from mind-wandering are very different to my “regular”, task-related learning — it’s the kind of material you will simply not get out of a Coursera class.

Mind-wandering gave me fresh angles at solving problems, helped me come up with new topics for my writing, and made me discover new ideas by reflecting on what happened to me throughout the day. Therefore, even from a productivity perspective the occasional daydream makes total sense as otherwise all these creative discoveries would never see the light of day. Or in other words: Giving your brain time to wander can help maximize your “total learning function”.

And knowing this also helps me to not feel bad about starring out of subway windows anymore.