The Creativity of Boredom

By Sandy Burgham

the creativity of boredom

As a keen observer of consumer culture, I am interested in the current business discourse regarding the importance of creativity and innovation. The inherent irony in this is that the word “business” has etymological links to “busyness”, which is exactly the opposite condition one really needs for both creativity and its implementation phase of innovation.


Research shows that it’s precisely when we are not thinking or doing anything in particular that we increase our chances of the ‘lightbulb’ moment. For those self-identified as middle-aged, the viewpoint on retirement often signifies having the time and freedom to not think about anything in particular, as you potter in the garden and stare into space from a rocking chair. But do we have to wait till then to have some space to think? Do we want to save the opportunity for creativity and innovation until later on in life?


The overwhelming state of busyness is not only applied to busy working mothers and stressed out executives (often one and the same) but their young offspring as well, a.k.a the future of the country. With fridge charts mapping the schedules of every family member including the dog (grooming Tuesday, doggie day care Wednesday), one can’t help but reminisce about a childhood full of white space. School holidays were times of mooching around, certainly not a Disneyesque entertainmentfest with experiences spanning Kelly Tarlton’s, the zoo, three movies and a trip to the museum. Not that I am having a dig at parents who run these schedules. I have been that soldier, wanting or needing a plan to keep the kids happy and occupied so they didn’t notice I was actually working — ironically to help pay for it all.


Many 40-plus readers will remember their own childhood as idyllic — with hours of boredom and general pfaffing about. I recall that after I tidied my room, I was often faced with having nothing to do, but somehow seemed to fill my days up with “stuff” rather than “achievements”. Was I bored? Yes, often. Did it make me unmotivated and lazy? I don’t think I have ever been accused of either of those things.


Much of the over-scheduling of kids is about the avoidance of that dreaded state — boredom. But the latest thinking on boredom is that it is a state to be encouraged. It’s a metaphorical blank sheet of paper, from which we can create possibility. We all need white space in our lives to decompress, to get perspective and to help us understand the difference of “doing” and “being”. It is precisely because of this that the concept of “mindfulness meditation” is being employed not only in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, but across industry and communities to enhance self-awareness, self-mastery and as a result, leadership potential. Even three to five minutes scheduled white space daily can have a profound effect, which is why it is encouraged in my coaching practice.


After years of busying oneself in business, reframing thinking from mindlessness to mindfulness, and being comfortable with white space, is a consistent practice. I should know, as I am constantly reminded of this every time I clash with our delightful 13-year-old son. An extremely happy chappy, his idea of effective time-use certainly clashes with mine. He seems to have an overabundance of white space in his life, which admittedly I am keen to fill with more activities of the reading, studying, sporting and practicing musical instruments variety. But he has heard me bang on about the importance of white space, and is either cleverly using this against me, or dutifully practicing what I preach.


These school holidays, before you dream up constructive uses of your kids’ time, close your wallet and try encouraging the lapping up of hours of delicious white space. It won’t kill them and if anything, it will at least be an interesting social experiment.


—Sandy Burgham


This post first appeared in The Hobson August, 2014