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The upside of downtime: why boredom is good for us

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Done the right way, boredom is good for us, it frees the mind to get creative and start solving problems. Jason Broderick reports

If you’re waiting for brilliance to strike, try getting bored first. That’s the takeaway of a study published in March this year in the Academy of Management Discoveries, which found that boredom can spark individual productivity and creativity.

In the study, people who had gone through a boredom-inducing task – methodically sorting a bowl of beans by colour, one by one – later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity.

Boredom is a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied, and if we can’t find that, our mind will create it. As demonstrated by the new study and plenty others before it, boredom can enable creativity and problem-solving by allowing the mind to wander and daydream. There’s no other way of getting that stimulation, so you have to go into your head.

Boredom-induced daydreaming provides a brief escape from the day to day, and it can be a good thing for your mind, imagination and productivity.

Too busy to be bored? Well that’s your prerogative but how about your kids? Have you considered that they could benefit from a little downtime?

Be still, relax, get bored

As a kid I remember getting bored and having to remedy this myself; in our neighbourhood we made our own fun. We spent long days outdoors, playing; and on wet days, when we had to stay home, we entertained ourselves with cards, or colouring, or we read a book. We weren’t supervised or coached. Our parents weren’t there to entertain us or arrange playdates. But these days it seems a taboo to allow our children to be bored.

Kids today are constantly being entertained, coached, tutored or babysat. Most have a full weekly schedule, packed with activities both before and after school, and often even at the weekends. Productive as it seems, this lifestyle causes stress for both parents and children. Are we trying to juggle too many balls?

There’s no doubt that all this juggling occurs for a myriad reasons and with nothing but good intentions. We want our children to fit in with their peers and make friends; we want them to have great opportunities; we want them to have the best education possible; we want them to develop their talents and express themselves creatively. Ultimately, we want to provide the best for our children and that is admirable – but this leaves very little time for our young children and teenagers to be still, to relax, even, dare I say it, to get bored.

Childhood and adolescence serve a very real purpose. Growing up is a stage in which young people need be nurtured and protected so that they can become healthy and happy adults. If we truly want to assist our children, the best we can do for them is to give them the opportunity to be less codependent on our structuring their lives for them. Instead of filling their time 24/7, we need to provide a balance that will allow them the time and space simply to be. But how do we do this?

Tip 1: Simply say no. It’s time to take the reins and be in control! To protect our kids, we need to start turning down the continual invitations they get to parties, sleepovers and weekends away. We may even have to say no to their own requests for yet more extracurricular activities. The aim is to create regular downtime, in which the whole family can experience a sense of calm despite their busy lives. Children need a bit of space, in which to release tension, recover and grow; this serves a vital purpose in child development.

Tip 2: Take a backseat. We need to allow children the opportunity to be as they claim ‘bored,’ because this will empower them to become creative about making their own fun. We need to be strong as parents and say, “I’m not here to entertain you!” Yes, it will take time but if you are consistent, you will notice a change in your children’s approach to what they do with their time. We need to allow opportunities for those we love to become independent rather than being constantly guided, supervised and entertained. This will also give some time and  space back to us parents, sometime off to take care of ourselves.

Our children have their whole lives to be adults and to deal with the complexities of life, but only a short time in which they can be carefree. Allow them this opportunity to be a child for as long as they can – it will be one of the greatest gifts you could give.

How to get bored the right way

1. Pick an activity that requires little or no concentration —a purposefully tranquil activity, such as yoga or meditation, likely doesn’t meet the definition of trying and failing to find stimulation. So, walk a familiar route, swim laps or simply sit with your eyes closed, and let your mind wander without music or stimulation to guide it.

2. Unplug. Our cultural attachment to our phones is destroying our ability to be bored, while preventing us from ever being truly entertained. We’re trying to swipe and scroll the boredom away, but in doing that, we’re actually making ourselves more prone to boredom, because every time we get our phone out, we’re preventing our minds from wandering and solving our own boredom problems.

Jason Broderick is a wellbeing coach and counselling psychologist at Discovery Bay International School (DBIS). To follow him on Instagram, head to @wellbeingcoach101. For more on DBIS, visit www.dbis.edu.hk.

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