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When most people think about resting, they think of long days on the beach or zoning out watching TV. Today we’re going to talk about one specific way we can rest – getting bored and letting our mind wander.
In preparation for this post, I listened to a series of podcasts called Bored and Brilliant. It is by a podcast called New Tech City, later renamed Note to Self and now no longer active. The host of the show, Manoush Zomorodi, has also written a book called Bored and Brilliant (It’s on my to-read list, so no feedback yet on it). We’ll talk about the ideas in this series, and I’ll pull in a few other references, but I’d definitely encourage you to check the podcast series out if this post piques your curiosity.
Boredom sucks – But it is important
Boredom is something we try to escape. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m bored,” in an excited tone of voice. We start to feel even the slightest bit of boredom and we immediately and urgently search for something to fill the void.
I’m definitely not immune to this. My impulse when I feel the slightest hint of boredom is to pick up my phone. I get the urge to play on my phone when commercials come on the TV, when a website doesn’t pop up in an instant on the computer, when I’m waiting for the microwave to finish, when I’m waiting in line for anything. I’m sure, if you have a smartphone, you’ve felt the same urge.
Yet boredom and quiet space to reflect are hugely important. It is in those moments when we are able to think. Without thinking, we become automatons – simple machines that only react, never think, never react, never create.
Without boredom there is no creativity.
Creativity is hard to define, but basically comes down to inventing something that you’ve never experienced or thought of before. Creativity, to me, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the only one to have created it. It simply means that you have never seen, heard, tasted, thought, touched, or felt that thing before.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was the result of a creative process. He took observations, readings, and education and combined them into a theory. It was creative. Yet, it was not totally unique. At around the same time Alfred Russel Wallace, also came up with a theory of evolution. Darwin is the name we remember, yet both men used their creativity to come up with a new thought, a new idea, that they had never heard of before. They presented their papers on the theory at the same time, but came up with their ideas independently.
The default mode network – or Why spacing out gives you another perspective on life.
The default mode network is named that way because when researchers got people into PET1 machines and told them not to think about anything in particular, these parts of the brain starting becoming more active. This is the part of the brain that is working when we let our mind wander.
The default mode network is also active when you ruminate2. Ruminations are thoughts that you get stuck in. You get stuck in a rut, repeating the same experience or thoughts in your head over, and over, and over. You’ll ask questions like, “Why me?” “What if…” “How could I be so stupid?” or “I’ll never…”
If you get stuck there, it is unhelpful. But never letting your mind wander isn’t good either. It is a balance. And here’s the key question to ask yourself, “Is this helpful?” (Hat tip to 10% happier podcast)
If the answer is yes, well, that’s your answer. As you were.
If the answer is no, let’s remember to care for ourselves. Giving ourselves understanding and compassion allows us to forgive ourselves. Perhaps developing your meditation skills will help. Perhaps connecting to other people or learning something new will help you to “get out of your head” for a little while.
The default mode network can help you achieve your goals
And yet, that same self-focused network that can lead to worsening mental health is also the source of our greatest achievements and understanding. The default mode network and those self-focused thoughts also help us evaluate how we are doing in life. It helps us understand our values and beliefs. It helps us to plan how we are going to reach our goals.
Does your phone let you be bored?
Having access to the world in your pocket, being constantly stimulated by technology and screens everywhere you go… How does that affect you? Do you have space in your brain to be able to have creative insights?
Creative insights aren’t just grand scientific theories or great works of art. Creative insights are common everyday occurrences – or at least they could be. Here are a few examples of questions and problems you could answer with a creative insight:
- What am I going to make for supper?
- How can I have a calmer evening routine with the kids so they stop fighting bedtime every night?
- Where do I want to go on vacation next year?
- How can I get more clients in my business?
- What do I want to draw when I pull out my sketchpad?
- What color do I want to paint my room?
- How can I better organize my time?
I’m sure you have one (or probably many) questions that you have been pondering for quite some time. You might be actively avoiding those questions or problems in your mind because you just don’t know how to do deal with it. Giving yourself time and space to mind-wander might just give you the answer you’ve been looking for.
When you are bored, and you don’t go to a distraction (like a phone), you allow your mind to enter this default mode. Your mind wanders, tapping into different networks and different parts of you mind. You thoughts will meander all over. And you will find yourself jumping between seemingly unrelated topics.
It is that connecting of unrelated thoughts and memories that is the root of creativity. Combining thoughts, experiences, and ideas in new and exciting ways – that is how you get to creative insight. That is how you solve the problems and difficulties in your life – the big and that small.
Not to mention, you feel calmer. You aren’t constantly jumping from one thing to another. There are margins, spaces at the edges. There is time between different activities. And you notice that because you have time to think, to mind-wander, to space out, to have ideas.
I chose to post this post this week – December 23 – because around here, most people have time off of work. This just might be the perfect time of year to let yourself be bored, at least until your mind gets creative. Now you’re no longer bored – you’re in your own head in the best way possible.
So let me know:
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- A PET scan “captures images of brain activity after radioactive tracers have been absorbed into the bloodstream and are “attached” to compounds like glucose (sugar). Glucose is the principal fuel of the brain. Active areas of the brain utilize glucose at a higher rate than inactive areas.” Newer studies tend to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which doesn’t require research participants to be exposed to radioactivity, so we’re getting more research than ever on brain functions like the default mode network.
Research study on rumination and default mode network and a psychology today article on the topic