Back in the days before Netflix and smartphones, being bored used to be a normal part of the human experience.
I remember hours spent gazing out of the car window as a child, counting different coloured cars, playing I-spy, making shapes out of clouds.
That doesn’t really happen any more.
We’ve got so used to constant mental and sensory stimulation that we feel genuinely lost without it.
In fact, a recent study, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, found that most people would rather give themselves a painful electric shock than sit quietly in an empty room for 15 minutes.
The study put hundreds of undergraduates in a room on their own for 15 minutes with no stimulation, to ‘entertain themselves with their own thoughts.’ Most said they found it hard to focus and at least 50% said they actively disliked the experience.
Some of the students were then put in a room where there was one thing they could do: they could give themselves an electric shock. But it was a sufficiently strong and unpleasant electric shock that all of them had earlier said they would pay to avoid it.
Despite this, when the alternative was to sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes, 67% chose to shock themselves at least once (one very odd chap zapped himself 190 times: he was left out of the final analysis).
‘The untutored mind does not like being left alone with itself’, Professor Wilson concluded in his study. ‘People prefer doing to thinking, even when what they’re doing is so unpleasant that they’d normally pay to avoid it.’
This is a really important point to keep in mind if you want to improve the quality of planning and innovation in your business.
Thinking is hard work. Most of us don’t instinctively like doing it. And, thanks to the non-stop, always-on stimulus of modern life, most of us don’t really have to: instead, we just keep ourselves busy doing other stuff.
That’s why you’ll always hear people say they have their best ideas when they’re in the shower or out walking. Because they’re doing something worthwhile (which means they’re scratching the itch of ‘being busy’). But they’re also suspending outside stimulus for long enough to engage their mind properly with a problem or idea. Which is when the magic happens.
So your challenge as a business is to help your people recreate that kind of environment during the working day.
That’s partly about finding a way to shut out the ‘noise’ (meetings, deadlines, presentations, emails) for at least a little while.
And partly about making it okay for people to use that space to let their minds wander – without having to worry that their colleagues will think they’re just slacking off.
Having ‘a buzzing, stimulating workplace’ is great for your employer brand.
But, if you care about the quality of thinking in that workplace, wouldn’t it be better if people could stop and smell the roses every now and then?