One of the lessons I learned while growing up on a farm was the importance of allowing fields to regenerate their soil. The term we used was “lying fallow” and it meant that a particular parcel of ground was left to its own devices for a planting season. Without the stress of producing a crop the land could rest and important nutrients could be restored for the following year.
I recently read an article that suggests boredom might play a similar role for humans. Scientists studying how our brain chemistry works have found that when we are bored our brain is anything but inactive. What’s even more interesting is how the activity that is taking place happens in a different part of the brain. The result is often a level of creativity that might otherwise never emerge.
My mom could probably recount dozens of times when, as children, my siblings and I would lament that we were bored. She was wise enough to know that, if she didn’t intervene, we would soon be occupied building make-believe worlds from old blankets and cardboard boxes. Today, many parents seem obsessed with keeping their children as busy as possible. Might they be stifling imagination and creativity when every waking moment is either planned or involves sitting in front of a digital screen?
Successful athletes and musicians know that breakthrough achievements only emerge after hours of mind-numbing practice. Of course, boredom has also been blamed as a trigger for troubling behaviors or an explanation for addictive habits like gambling, drugs, or alcohol. While this might be true for short-term boredom, studies are now revealing that boredom might also trigger good behaviors.
So what is a leader supposed to make of these insights? As a coach I sometimes encounter clients whose stated goal seems just beyond their reach. This is often because they are unwilling to endure the mundane tasks that may be necessary to achieve it. We are surrounded by interesting and distracting stimuli all the time and these can prevent us from realizing that our brains need times of boredom to recharge, much like the fallow farm field mentioned earlier.
I wonder how many workplaces might be transformed if leaders acknowledged the creative opportunity that boredom might offer? I’m not suggesting that our busy schedules be abolished, but rather that we allow time and space for employees, and ourselves as leaders, to get away from the diversions and tasks that consume our days. Being bored might be just what we need to also be inspired.