Singaporeans have a problem: we don’t know how to be bored. According to a survey conducted by Asia Insight and published in the Straits Times earlier this year, almost half of us get stressed out by the thought of doing nothing. Additionally, 3 in 10 Singaporeans reportedly “don’t know how to relax.”
On the surface, it might sound like such a bad thing: if you don’t like being bored, it probably means you’re like to keep yourself occupied and to make sure that you’re always doing something productive with your time. Look further, though, and a deeper problem emerges; when you don’t know how to be bored, you’re like a speeding car that doesn’t have any brakes.
As much as we’re used to busy-ness, it’s important to leave room for boredom as well. Research has actually shown that boredom, within limits, can be beneficial to us. Here’s why.
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The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”
What he was probably alluding to, among other things, is that diversity to truly flourish in any given society, people need to be comfortable with boredom as a means of sparking their innate creativity.
He wasn’t wrong; studies have proven that boredom can help you to be more creative. As reported in a 2017 Quartz article, psychological research has found that bored people are likelier to “engage in sensation-seeking.” In other words, they’re more prone to finding new ways of keeping things interesting.
It’s simple, when you think about it. If you’re bored, you don’t know what to do with yourself, which pushes you to consider previously unexplored possibilities—to get creative about how to occupy yourself.
That’s when you allow your mind to wander and to daydream. It’s in this relatively relaxed mental state that you’re in the right frame of mind for divergent and associative thinking, both of which are vital for creative thinking and idea generation.
Let’s face it: Modern lifestyles have made constant interruption and perpetual distraction seem like a normal state of being. Your smartphone alone probably disrupts your attention umpteen times a day. It pings all day with new emails, texts, retail promotions, reminders, and all manner of notifications.
Paradoxically, though, boredom is actually critical in improving your ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Computer scientist and author Cal Newport, for one, advocates embracing boredom. In his NYT bestseller on cultivating deep focus, He writes that “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
When you embrace boredom instead of automatically reaching for your phone or turning on the TV, you reduce your long-term susceptibility to distraction. Simply put, in the long run, you feel less of a need to fill your bored moments with distraction. That, in turn, actually trains your brain to be more accustomed to smoothly entering (and staying in) deep focus mode.