Boredom is easy to induce in the workplace. Run long, slow-moving meetings, and you'll create some daydreamers. Consistently assign employees tedious work, and you'll create snoozers.
But according to two recent studies, those bored workers could just be a boon to your business. David Burkus, the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, writes in Harvard Business Review about the link between boredom and creative thinking.
In the first study, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, assigned one group of people to copy numbers from a phone book, and a control group to skip the phone book exercise. After a time, both groups were told to generate as many uses as possible for a pair of plastic cups. "Mann and Cadman found that the participants who [were] intentionally led to boredom through the phone book task generated significantly more uses for the pair of plastic cups," Burkus writes.
During a second round of the study, Mann and Cadman used three groups--a control group, a group that copied numbers from a phone book, and a group that read the phone book. After their tedious tasks, the three groups were given a creative task. The result? The group that read the phone book (the most boring task) scored as the most creative--even outperforming those who copied numbers from the phone book. "The findings suggest that boredom felt during passive activities, like reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the 'daydreaming effect' on creativity--the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward," Burkus writes.
A separate study, conducted at Penn State University by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood, found a similar effect of heightened creativity after monotonous tasks. Gasper and Middlewood asked participants to watch certain video clips that were produced to elicit relaxation, elation, distress, or boredom. After the participants watched their assigned video clip, the researchers had them take a test.
The subjects who watched a video clip that elicited boredom outscored the other three groups. This study revealed something interesting about how humans deal with the feeling of boredom: "Gasper and Middlewood suggest that boredom boosts creativity because of how people prefer to alleviate it," Burkus writes. "Boredom, they suggest, motivates people to approach new and rewarding activities." Below, see how Burkus says you can make boredom work for you and your company.
Leverage the bored bodies
Burkus says the study findings suggest boredom at work can be leveraged into creative productivity. If you need to come up with new big ideas to start a project that requires divergent thinking, Burkus says, have your employees focus on the humdrum activities of their work life, like answering emails, making copies, or data entry. After a focused time period, ask the bored troops to think of creative approaches to the project.
Converge boredom and problem-solving
When it comes to finding solutions to problems, Burkus says you should follow the first study. He suggests scheduling problem-solving sessions directly after one of your "particularly lifeless" staff meetings. "By engaging in uninteresting activities before problem-solving ones, we may be able to elicit the type of thinking we need to find creative solutions," he says.