Let's Hope This Bores You

Kim BellardI think I know what is wrong with health care: not enough people are bored. 

These are stressful times for health care. There's a never-ending stream of innovation, constant pressures about costs, concerns about the quality of care, conflicting research findings, ongoing uncertainty about how we should finance what coverage for which people, and new business models and organizational structures. 

There's too much to take in, and everyone in health care is working too hard, too long. Honestly, who has time to be bored?

But that's a problem. 

We usually think of being bored as a bad thing. You don't often find people saying they're looking to be bored. You don't find many activities that bill themselves as being boring. In our always connected, 24/7 culture, being bored is seen as some kind of a failure: isn't there another notification on your phone, another email you could read, another update you could post, another task on the to-do list that you could try to cross off? 

But being bored, as it turns out, is closely connected to being creative. Psychology Scott Barry Kaufman writes:  "In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that we tend to get our best ideas when our attention is not fully engaged in our immediate environment or the task at hand." He was writing about executives needing more alone time, but the point is to distract the brain in order to allow those creative juices to flow.

Earlier this year Wired reported on two studies relating to boredom. One found that subjects who had just been doing boring tasks like copying numbers from a phone book did better on creative thinking tests than a control group. The second found that subjects who had to watch a dull screensaver did better on an associative word test. 

"Boredom becomes a seeking state," said one of the lead researchers. Another of the researchers worries that: "We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices," thus eliminating "useful, productive monotony."

Similar, a 2014 study found that bored people are more likely to have "divergent thinking styles...Thus, boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought." 

We're even so scared that our children will become bored that we hyper-schedule them, give them interactive devices, and structure their free time. Dr. Helen Street says: "A child’s school life is more structured than ever and from an earlier age than ever before....As a result we are seeing a massive creativity deficit in kids."

Imagine what is happening to even-busier adults.

Albert Einstein famously spent several years as a patent clerk, reviewing ideas far removed from the spectacular physics that he was developing at the same time. He was busy but not so busy that his mind couldn't break free of conventional ways of thinking. 

Author Jordan Rosenfeld wrote in Quartz about retraining her mind to be bored, suggesting:

  • Get in the habit of "spacing out;" 
  • Resist the urge for constant communication;
  • Face your feelings, rather than trying to avoid them.  

Certainly many activities in health care are boring, or at least mundane. Processing claims, coding bills, updating patient records in EHRs -- not anyone's idea of a good time. But neither are they tasks that allow for much spacing out, for associative thought that can lead to creative ideas.

Instead, we try to force creativity. We hire consultants to tell us their ideas, we pour over research to see what ideas other people have, we conduct "brainstorming" sessions, we go on retreats with exercises designed to spur teamwork and new ideas. 

It's not impossible that creative ideas come from all that; it's just not very likely. It's more likely that we just get iterations and variations of existing ideas.

Creativity can't be forced, but it can be encouraged. A previous post talked about the value of "wrong thinking" and "dumb ideas." Another post talked about the importance of failure as the price of success. 

You have to give people the time to think freely and the support when that freedom doesn't always pay off. 

People say that health care is too important to try creative ideas that might be risky.  People's lives are at stake, after all. We have to be careful what we try, how we try it, on whom we risk it. Perhaps that is true, but the end result of that kind of caution is a health care system that costs too much, delivers too little, and that makes no one happy. 

So, be willing to be bored.  Make time for it rather than letting every minute get filled. Be open to flights of fancy that come from some good old associative thinking. Stop trying to go from point A to point B and think instead about different kinds of destinations, using different modes of transportation. Spend less time worrying about what has to be done and more time wondering what might be done.

I truly hope you weren't, in fact, bored reading this, but if a good idea or two came while you were, it will have been worth it.
Let's Hope This Bores You was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.