10 practical ways to overcome boredom at work

Workplace Wellness / Category / Emile Du Toit / May 10th 2014

In this article we examine a wide variety of strategies that will help you to overcome boredom at work and increase your productivity. They should also help increase your energy levels and improve your daily motivation.

Take breaks during boring tasks

Just taking a 2 minute break in the middle of a boring 50-minute task has been shown to leave people more relaxed, focused and productive. Often just taking a bathroom break, stretching your legs or throwing that paper aeroplane at your colleague is enough to break the monotony and help refocus one.

Add a simultaneous activity

Some monotonous tasks only require a small fraction of your brain and do not provide sufficient stimulation to stop your brain from wandering. Let’s face it, we don’t use all that much of our cerebrum to begin with, and as our mind wanders we recall less and make more mistakes. So finding a different medium that doesn’t interfere with the task at hand (uses different neural pathways) enables us to maintain a higher level of focus as our brains are more stimulated. This might involve playing background music while completing tasks or doodling while in yet another unnecessary meeting!

Get rid of distractions

So now I am giving you advice that may appear opposite to the point above. What am I actually saying here? Well sometimes we are struggling to maintain attention on the task at hand and we can best increase attention by cutting out background stimuli. The more similar the task is to the background ‘noise’ variable, the better the idea to cut it out. This is because the one task runs interference thoughts with the other as they both involve the same neural pathways. Folk music with awesome lyrics might well interfere with that dry, theory laden political analysis that you are struggling to focus on. Whereas it may actually help you in a situation where you are crunching the numbers on your research data for the 7th time in a row!

We are all different when it comes to distractions though: find out what works best for you, and realise that it might well differ depending on the ‘noise’ variable and the task at hand.

Don’t focus passively on what you don’t have!

When we are bored at work it is easy to begin to daydream about the job that we would like to have. ‘Why didn’t I study photography after school?’ ‘Why can’t my boss wake up and promote me or involve me in that creative project that landed in our department?’

The more you focus on what you don’t have, the more sorry for yourself you feel and the harder it is to find any sort of enthusiasm and tenacity for the task at hand.

Just ask any addict how well it works to sit at home doing nothing and focusing on the drug they are no longer allowed to have! We have to make one of the most important decisions that the human psyche has ever managed to arrive at:

Do I accept or do I change?

Notice the lack of the third choice – the one so many of us embrace – do I become a victim and neither accept nor change my situation? Not exactly the enlightened path to happiness!

If you choose acceptance then the very best thing you can do is to really throw yourself into the task. Set short-term goals, learn more about the area; invest in it! The higher the level of your investment, the better the chance of actually beginning to feel fulfilled by the task. And even if this doesn’t happen that clock battery will juice up and time will start moving quicker again!

Ask for what you need at work

Perhaps there are elements of your job that you do really like. [By the way it is not sufficient if the only job satisfaction comes from working out the huge amount of money you get paid every hour to stare at the wall.] Perhaps a fair percentage of the boredom you are experiencing is related to the fact that you have just got too good at doing your once-interesting job? Perhaps you are resentful that someone scrubbed your name off the promotion jar, or cannot believe that the boss doesn’t think you are ready for more responsibility in that app design project?

Have you actually ever asked for what you want?

Start off by working out whether you really deserve it! If not, then start putting in the kinds of effort and expertise that will write your name back on the promotion jar in indelible ink! It might be that you are indeed ready for that promotion or raise though. If so you actually need to make the appointment and ASK for what you want. Either he will acquiesce, or he won’t. If not it at least gives you the opportunity to ask him why not. Do not leave his office until you understand why you were refused, what you need to do to get there, and indeed have a good understanding of how the next few years are likely to pan out.

Get that new job

So you are sitting at your desk and feel you are doing your absolute best just to both milk the balance sheet in front of you and maintain a semblance of sanity. That Freeport beach keeps flashing in your head, as does the cute girl you met the other night and almost bought a drink for. The fly on the wall, however, notices that you actually havn’t done anything sentient for about an hour and a half.

It is definitely time to get down to some pragmatic thinking! ‘Is this the job I am going to dedicate the majority of my life-force to? Really really??’ If you have not yet sat with your boss and mapped out the path that your career is likely to follow, then this is definitely the moment! Until you have this information you obviously cannot make any sort of informed choice. If the path ahead looks pretty much like the path behind you - and that path isn’t whipping you into a frenzy of excitement - then it may be time to seriously take stock. We can never look at our job in isolation, of course. We have to be able to weigh it up against the best of the potential replacement jobs.

Changing employment – or indeed career – is a huge decision, and the trajectory forward needs to be clearly mapped out. Before you write that somewhat slightly sarcastic resignation letter you need to already have landed that awesome replacement job!

Create goals, set targets and introduce rewards

Take the bull by the horns and work out how you can get through the day in a productive manner. Break the tasks down into smaller ones and fit some pleasant ones in between the banal ones. Set time-based goals, and have a tick list to help keep you motivated.

Sometimes the task is reward enough in and of itself. And then again sometimes you feel that just showing up in the morning deserves a medal!

Rather than hanging around waiting for your boss to reward your superhuman efforts, create your own reward system instead.

Split your tasks into manageable chunks, as mentioned above, and then create appropriate rewards for completing the bigger ones. Obviously you cannot buy yourself a Ferrari every time you land a new client for your business or complete that spreadsheet on vinyl flooring. But you can certainly take a 2 minute break to stretch your legs, shoot the breeze with your new, leggy colleague or indeed take a 15 minute break to invest in a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

If your job is mostly sedentary then some physical activity can be vital to waking you up and improving your focus. The rewards need to be appropriate so that they can be frequent and yet maintainable. Achievement of bigger goals leads to enjoyment of larger rewards.

Stabilise your blood sugar levels

Often with clients I discover that their energy levels flag at certain times of the day, and that these correspond with the times that they are most bored. I have become somewhat of a soap box preacher when it comes to simple carbohydrates and sugar.

Make sure that what you are eating has a relatively low glycaemic index. Most food nowadays has a GI level on the box, but the safe rule is that any kind of starch is likely to have a high GI unless it specifically says that it doesn’t. If you understand carbohydrates, the glycaemic index and glycaemic load then you can also construct appropriate meal portions so that your blood sugar doesn’t spike and then drop you.

When your blood sugar levels spike you feel great for a bit, but then they fall away and you can feel tired, listless and drained. It is difficult to muster enthusiasm for work when you are in this state.

Practice variety recall

Sometimes jobs can be a little like a relationship; initially everything is new and really exciting but eventually that honeymoon phase dies down and things can become somewhat stale.

As with relationships, sometimes with your job it is important to shake things up a bit before performance starts to suffer!

We need to make things feel new all over again! The technical term for what has happened is called satiation. We are literally full up with that particular person, breakfast or job!

Some creative and interesting research reveals that part of this is due to something called variety amnesia. Ostensibly people become satiated with something because they have ‘forgotten’ about other varieties of that thing that they have experienced in the past.

Our existence in the present is largely reliant on the stories that we tell ourselves about our past! We overcome variety amnesia by creating a cognitive (or written) list of the many alternative tasks we have performed in the past.

It helps to remind us of the variety within the job tasks for which we are feeling satiated and this reduces the level of boredom!

Look inside yourself

This can be really hard to do, particularly if you have become used to whingeing about the tasks you are given. But take a long, hard look at why you are actually bored. Is it really about the nature of the work, or are you going through a difficult phase in your life in general? Or possibly you are just one of those people who are boredom prone, and after a couple of years at a job get that itch to move on. Look at your occupation history to get an indication of this.

In either of these cases the solution might lie within you. Sometimes you need to restore your life-work balance, improve your work boundaries and ease off the overtime, or deal with your anger from that failed relationship. Sometimes it is useful to embrace the services of a therapist or life coach to understand your patterns of boredom proneness and work out healthy solutions to this.

Conclusions

We all get caught up in habituated work patterns that suppress our creativity and abilities and lead to boredom. Changing ingrained patterns takes a bit of work and tenacity, but then again if you are struggling with boredom you may be looking for something else to do anyway! Carpe Diem!

References

Galak, Jeff, Joseph P. Redden, and Justin Kruger. “Variety Amnesia: Recalling Past Variety Can Accelerate Recovery from Satiation.” Journal of Consumer Research. December 2009, Volume 36: 575-584.

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