A New Mantra Of Boredom

“Boredom is necessary for creativity” —Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow


At this year’s Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conference, one of the talks I really enjoyed was Intel Fellow Genevieve Bell’s keynote speech on the importance of boredom.  Boredom as a popular concept only came into being when the Industrial Revolution made the luxury of free time possible for the middle and lower classes (that’s everyone who needs to work for a living).  Before then people were probably too busy working just to survive.  Today we generally think of boredom as a bad thing because it suggests monotony, wasting time, lacking fulfillment or meaningful challenges, or a reduction of the value of our lives.  It goes against American efficiency, can-do, optimism, and it’s Puritan work ethic.  It implies that one is lazy, unpopular, lacking in drive, or worst of all…unproductive.  In fact, early Marxists even advocated being bored as an act of resistance to the evils of capitalism.

In spite of such negative connotations, Bell emphasizes the necessity of boredom in our overstimulated, overextended lives.  It is an important mental state for creativity to flourish.  Many creativity theories (e.g. Wallas, 1926; Osborn, 1953) refer to an incubation period where the mind is relaxed and not actively focused on a problem, thus allowing ideas to flow more readily.  Bell further notes that our best ideas often come to use when we’re bored and that the brain EKG is actually higher when you’re bored than when you’re thinking!

Boredom is also a defense mechanism for keeping one’s sanity in a modern-day lifestyle packed with activity, glutted with information, and overwhelmed with plug-in devices.  Bell observes that many people get so caught up in Facebook and other social medial that they lose touch with reality, and the only way out is to cut themselves off from it in a “Facebook suicide.”  People also get so overwhelmed with all the overheads that come with technological conveniences—keeping track of passwords, text messages, e-mails, charging all the different cell phones, a zillion different accounts for everything from health clubs to travel bookings—that they’ll even pay to get away from it all.

So what does this have to do with VSee or video collaboration?  I’m in the business of technological innovation because I believe technology improves the quality of life for people, but in many ways it seems that technology has only made life more complicated.  So it’s important to remind ourselves every now and again that technology is created for people, NOT the other way around.  Instead of letting technology take over our lives, we need to educate ourselves on how to incorporate technology into our lives in healthy ways so we can reap it’s full benefits.  One lesson I’m taking away from CSCW 2011 is to regularly create time away from all the technological “noise” in our lives.  Here are some tips I got on “embracing boredom”:

  • Use boredom to stimulate your creativity by doodling or daydreaming.
  • Turn off your cell phone and listen for God
  • Isolate yourself from people and machines by creating or finding a space to be bored.  Some places tend to induce boredom, like train platforms and dentist’s offices.  Ancient Chinese gardens were designed to be retreats from the chaos of society so as to free the mind to go down creative paths.
  • Do something boring like wandering aimlessly or washing dishes.
  • Purposely structure down time or quiet time.  Every religion and every human society has this.

So ask yourself:  Are you suffering from technology overkill?  Have you’ve been plugged in all day?  Are feeling confused, tired, burnt-out, and irritable?  If the answer is “yes,” then maybe it’s time to take a break and embrace boredom for awhile.


Paul E. Plsek (1996) “Working Paper: Models for the Creative Process” Directed Creativity website. http://www.directedcreativity.com/pages/WPModels.html