An ode to boredom

Why your life should be a little bit more boring

An article by Gaia Riva 01-05-2018

“All good ideas come in the shower”

Ever heard that one?

It’s believed that when you’ve just woken up, your mind is fresh and allowed to wander, and often creativity and eureka moments come to you. I wonder if this is because dull moments when you’re in the shower or on the bus you are, in fact, just a little bit bored. You know you’re having one of those moments when you read all the ingredients on your shampoo bottle and notice that you can actually peel off the label and there is more boring text behind it.

The idea that being bored is good for creativity is not something that I have invented. I first heard the idea in a Ted talk and then from other people, like Questlove and Jordan Rosenfeld who welcome boredom into their life.

We all know that high-speed internet and our smartphones are killing boredom by entertaining us at all times. Here is a challenge for you: take a bus and see how many people are on their phones or have their earphones in, versus the number of people that are simply looking out of the window. Hey, I am one of those - forever with headphones in listening to podcasts, like Ted Talks, ironically telling me how I need to let myself be bored. I justify this to myself by thinking “At least I am not scrolling through pages of boots and dresses”.

Except when I am. Instead, I am “enriching myself by hearing very interesting things from very clever people”. The reality is that I am one of those people that have 30 tabs open at all times, get easily restless and need to be doing things like crochet in front of TV (because I am cool like that), consistently avoiding boredom. But I am wrong. It’s important to have moments when nothing happens, when you let your brain go blank and settle into being bored. That’s why meditation and mindfulness are booming lately. We’ve forgotten how to do nothing.

Boredom within UX

As a UX Consultant, there are a few moments when I am not on my phone or laptop, I am not listening to anything, in fact I am trying to shut out some of the music that we play in the office and I am staring at a wall of post its. Bored.

Recently I was working on personas having just spent two days making sense of interviews and survey results and collating everything to produce meaningful representations of their audiences.

All of that part was fine, the problem was the pictures. The dull stock imagery you have to choose from when putting together a persona is, in fact, boring. As my colleague once told me “Every time I look for images, I lose the will to live”. The reality is that having a picture of someone crossing their arms on a white background often doesn’t add much to the representation of a persona apart from giving it a face. These also tend to generate personal opinions like: “I think that Gina would be a more sporty and active person. Not so classy if you know what I mean” or “I thought that John will be more the polo top kind of guy” and then you go off looking for a stock image that does the job. Often it doesn’t matter, because the picture is not as important as the content of the persona. I’m not alone in questioning the value of plain stock imagery - many people and companies have done so too.

As I am staring at the post its (bored) I started to think about all the other articles that have been circulating in the UX team about using drawings, comics, anything else but a stock picture to represent that audience and I let my mind imagine what that would look like.

So, I took a pad, drew some funny faces and then borrowed some paper from the printer and a marker, and then I shared a picture on Slack with my colleague with the caption “A little bit controversial but what about something like this?”

He loved them. I drew some more and then add them to the personas. Out of boredom came a productive couple of hours, instead of wasting the same amount of time browsing the internet for generic imagery.

Whether or not you agree with, or even like, the hand-drawn personas, one thing is certain: if I had been head down in ‘I-must-finish-these-personas-asap’ mode, then I would have never taken the time to come up with an alternative, more creative method to represent them.

Here are my suggestions about how to build in boring moments to bring about creative ideas:

Take the time to take a step back

Move away from your work, make yourself a coffee/tea, then sit and revisit your work. Taking those few minutes before getting back to it will reset your brain into a more objective way of thinking.

Use commuting time

Whether walking or on a bus, let your mind wander. Instead of mentally writing your shopping list, allow your mind to roam. If it settles on a piece of work, then try not obsess over the detail, but instead allow your mind to expand and consider the bigger picture.

Think cross-discipline

Don’t only have team meetings with your team. Catch up with other departments, ask them about their work, their processes and then take some time to reflect.

Use your out-of-office skills

We all have hobbies and other things that we like doing outside of work. Whatever they are they can probably lead to some creative take on your day to day job. If you're a chess player and also a developer, that might make a nice blog post about how playing chess exercises your brain in thinking about changes in code and the knock-on effect that it might have on other work.

I encourage you to live and work by the motto “there has got to be a better way”. If something is frustrating and seems counterproductive, instead of habitually moaning to colleagues about it, think of a better way to go about it and follow it through - and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

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