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Why being bored at work isn't such a terrible thing

Don’t dread tedious workplace assignments like reading reports or sitting through meetings — they’re making you more productive.

Boring, monotonous tasks help you become a better problem-solver, new research finds, because our brains use that unstimulating “down time” to branch out and think in more creative ways.  

“Boredom has always had such bad press, but some boredom is possibly good... especially if it gives us the opportunity to daydream,” said Sandi Mann, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. Mann's research was presented this week at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology.

“Being able to have that down time when you let your mind wander can be great for creativity,” Mann said.

Americans are getting less creative overall, according to a landmark 2010 study. Kyung-Hee Kim, an associate professor at the college of William & Mary’s School of Education, analyzed results from creativity tests and found that our creativity has been on the wane for more than 20 years now, even though IQ scores are climbing.

Experts say one reason for our collective dearth of creativity is the increased stimulation we get in our everyday lives: We can watch Netflix while we wait for a bus and play Angry Birds when we're stuck in a checkout line.

No one likes being bored, but it's a mental state we shouldn't be so quick to eliminate. The reason we get bored is that our brains don’t have enough neural stimulation, Mann said, and the act of daydreaming is the mind’s attempt to self-stimulate.

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Subjects in Mann’s experiments who were assigned boring tasks, like reading or copying down phone book entries, performed better on a subsequent creative task — coming up with as many different uses for two Styrofoam coffee cups as they could — than those in a control group.

Reading something boring increased creativity more than writing something boring, Mann found. She theorized that the more passive nature of reading lent itself better to daydreaming.

“Once we’re allowed to daydream, our heads are free to think in different ways,” Mann said, which leads to more creative problem-solving.

But your boss might not see it that way. “In the workplace, daydreaming is not considered a positive,” said executive coach Lisa Garcia Jacobson. You can’t stare off into space at meetings or otherwise visibly display your boredom. “[You] have to practice it in a focused way,” Jacobson said.

If you’re trying to solve a problem at work, spend some time on a task that doesn’t require much concentration, skip the audiobook on your ride home or take a short walk (and leave the smartphone behind) to alleviate a cognitive logjam, Mann suggested. “Definitely, if you’re looking for a solution to something, giving yourself the opportunity to let your mind wander a bit will probably help,” she said.

Another thing that could bring you to a solution faster: Cut out the multitasking, Jacobson said. Studies have shown that when you try to focus on too many things at once, they all get the short shrift.

Focusing on the task at hand, even if it’s mind-numbing, is a better alternative. You’ll get the job done more effectively, and if a part of your mind does start to wander, those unscripted thoughts could be the key to solving your next workplace challenge.