Bored at work? We’ve all been there. Boredom is that experience of wanting to be occupied in a satisfying activity, yet somehow being unable to do so. And being busy is no antidote: You may be both very busy — and very bored — simultaneously.
Early in life we learn that boredom is no fun, and as we age we might begin to see it as a waste of time, or a missed opportunity to do something more productive (or at least more interesting). At best, boredom has been considered an unpleasant to aversive experience, and at worst, a state that evokes a deep sense of meaninglessness. In addition, when feeling the discomfort of boredom, time tends to pass slowly, which can make work days seem endless.
Considering this, it’s no surprise that boredom often triggers an intense desire to escape the situation (or job!) that evokes it. In today’s ultra-connected world, this escape is just one tap away. At your fingertips, you find a world of data, breaking news, shows and stories, messages from friends and family, or gifs, memes, and video clips that help you avoid feeling bored — at least at the surface level. Research shows that use of smartphones not only distracts the mind, it offers an addictive hit of dopamine, which temporarily replaces the discomfort of boredom with pleasure. However, this feeling is short lived, as this mindless scrolling results in long-term decreases in overall mental health and quality of life.
The next time you’re feeling that creeping sense of boredom at work, pause before you pick up your phone. Boredom can have important benefits, and you’ll miss them if you’re not tuned in to what you’re feeling and why.
The Pros and Cons of Workplace Boredom
Boredom has a negative reputation for a reason. At work, it’s often viewed as a counterproductive state that ignites discomfort, desperation for a new role, or perhaps simply a desire for the day to end. Boredom at work has been linked to risky decision-making, costly mistakes, and accidents triggered by inattention or lack of focus — and that’s not to mention the fatigue that being bored can generate. Boredom can also incite other types of problematic behavior, such as “cyberloafing” (that is, non-work-related browsing) and childish emotional responses. Prolonged exposure to monotonous activities can even cause hallucinations. In addition, when it comes to well-being, one recent study found a linkage between boredom at work and burnout, as well as decreases in job satisfaction and increased desire to quit.
On the flip side, recent research shows that boredom — when handled constructively — has big “bright sides.” Moments of boredom can offer a pause, or a short respite for your brain and body in a world designed to distract, overwhelm, and overstimulate. A sense of boredom can create the space to daydream, which can hatch creativity, new ideas, and innovation. Prolonged boredom can prompt you to reflect and ask yourself, “Am I on the right path? Am I doing the right thing?”
Use Your Boredom for the Better
We’re not advocating that you seek out jobs where you’ll spend large parts of the day feeling bored. However, getting better at working with your boredom — and harnessing it for the good — can help you capture its bright sides. Here’s how:
When you feel that discomfort of boredom setting in, avoid acting on it immediately. The fact that you’ve noticed you’re bored means that you’ve managed to (briefly) resist the urge to instantly engage in mindless scrolling. Noticing and naming your boredom in order to intentionally direct it opens up the opportunity to develop your resilience and the potential to use boredom for positive ends. Most importantly, in a bout of boredom, don’t make snap decisions (like to quit your job) as a way to escape the discomfort.
Not all experiences of boredom are the same — research shows that various “types” of boredom manifest differently in the body and mind, giving rise to different behaviors. Decoding which types you’re feeling early on can help you make a game plan to deal with boredom, or prevent it from escalating or clouding your decision making.
Ask yourself what your boredom is telling you. Could it be that you simply need a micro-break because you’ve worked too long without pausing and you’re tiring? Or maybe your tasks are becoming monotonous and you’re losing motivation and energy.
Consider what you’re bored with specifically: Is it your role, the content or form of the work, or your prospects for the future in your job that bore you? Can you decipher a pattern with a typical type of work that ignites this uncomfortable feeling? This can be an opportunity to consider your goals and values and whether you feel you’re moving forward or feel “stuck.” Here are five research-based types of boredom to consider as you work to decipher yours:
Indifferent boredom. This is one of the more positive types of boredom. It can feel like relaxation or a sense of cheerful fatigue and reflects a general indifference to (and withdrawal from) the external world. This type of boredom can help boost rest and recovery, particularly during busy days.
Calibrating boredom. This one’s slightly more unpleasant and is one of the most common types. It occurs when you’re not fully engaged in a task or activity and your mind starts to drift. It can show up as wandering thoughts or not knowing what to do to change the situation, yet wanting to get out of it somehow.
Searching boredom. This type reflects a restlessness and active search for alternative actions and distractions to ease the negative experience (e.g., through other activities, leisure pursuits, interests, and hobbies). While unpleasant, this type of boredom ignites activity and the pursuit of change and often has positive outcomes, such as creativity, innovation, and personal growth.
Reactive boredom. Reactive boredom arises in situations where a person is required to do a repetitive or tedious task (such as being stuck in a long and ineffective meeting with no chance of escape). It’s an action-oriented and deeply unpleasant type of boredom, which causes restlessness and frustration that might be expressed in a more angry or aggressive fashion toward others or toward the boring experience. Those experiencing it may persistently fantasize about other options and feel anxious to make a change or escape quickly.
Apathetic boredom. This can relate to feelings of disinterest, lack of motivation, and emotional detachment toward activities or events one would normally find stimulating or enjoyable. Apathetic boredom isn’t necessarily accompanied by feelings of frustration or restlessness but rather a sense of disengagement and indifference. It can occur as a result of chronic stress, depression, or other mental health issues and can lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. People experiencing apathetic boredom may feel like they’re going through the motions of life without any real purpose or enjoyment.
3. Decide what to do.
Based on the type of boredom and what it’s telling you about yourself or your situation, decide what to do about it. Maybe your boredom is simply allowing you to relax and unwind after a period of intensity at work. Or perhaps it’s telling you something about your role itself.
All roles have certain elements that are monotonous, frustrating, or simply boring, and sometimes these tasks must be done to get to the “good stuff.” If you find yourself persistently bored, try to harness the boredom to catalyze change, perhaps by engaging in job crafting to bring out the elements of your role that you really enjoy. This could involve, for example, making changes to the type, variety, complexity, or significance of your tasks. You might intentionally evade boredom by seeking out, envisioning, and championing new ideas at work, which can also boost your leadership abilities and potential. Reflecting and engaging in nostalgia can also counteract the sense of meaninglessness you might feel when bored.
4. Cultivate mindful boredom.
Moments of boredom can be opportunities to help you unwind from a fast-paced and hyper-connected world and allow you the opportunity to simply be in the present moment. Use moments of boredom for positive intentions rather than mindless distraction, for example, by taking a moment to breathe, doing another activity you find simulating, or simply mindfully allowing the discomfort to pass. As boredom can spark creativity, you could even include space for it as unstructured time in your work routine, for example, before you’re required to innovate, come up with new ideas, and be at your best.
. . .
While boredom can be an unpleasant feeling, it can also be an opportunity to reflect on your interests, values, and goals. By recognizing the type of boredom you’re experiencing and identifying the underlying causes, you can take steps to address them and find new ways to engage with the world around you. Working with your boredom can also help you develop creativity, resilience, and the ability to adapt to new situations. So rather than trying to avoid or ignore your boredom, consider working with it as a valuable tool for personal growth and a way to lead a more fulfilling life.