The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Coping With Boredom At Work

Tips on how to get through the day

Of all the motivational problems that people encounter at work, the biggest may simply be getting through the day. Psychologists have a great deal to say about the problem of boredom and offer useful clues about how to get through the day without boredom.

We can begin with the experimental psychologist's best friend, the laboratory rat. The biggest cause of boredom is easily identified. It concerns how work is measured - in units of time, rather than in units of production, or accomplishment.

When hungry rats are required to wait around for a fixed time until they can press a lever for food, they become fairly lethargic. It is a bit like an hourly worker waiting until 5 o'clock to punch their time card and go home. They can get quite bored for much of the day and experience some slight animation as the hour of deliverance approaches.

Matters are very different for self-employed people who typically set some goal for themselves each day and stay pleasantly motivated until their objective is reached, at which time they might decide to go home. For instance, a bricklayer might decide to lay 1,000 bricks, or a writer might crank out 1,000 words. Lab rats also work quickly when reinforced for effort rather than time spent.

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Boredom is partly due to insufficient stimulation and that problem is largely resolved by focusing on tasks rather than time. For, when people focus on the task they are doing, they forget about time and there is no sense of the hours crawling slowly by.

Worrying about the passage of time and lack of events and stimulation to fill that time are not the only issue involved in boredom. There is also a more global aspect of a person's motivation to work. Are you merely a paid slave, or are you doing work that you enjoy, or find intrinsically worthwhile because you are doing something genuinely useful to others, such as cooking meals, or saving lives in an emergency room?

Anyone with a job is literally a wage slave of course. The real bugbear is how to get around this inconvenient fact. Yet the solutions are fairly well known to psychologists and can be found in popular books on motivation:

  • Staying busy has much to recommend it. By focusing on getting as much as possible accomplished, you not only remain pleasantly engaged but get noticed for having a positive attitude and getting things done.
  • There is not always enough work to do. Be creative about devising tasks to kill time during slow spells. Even rearranging your files is better than doing nothing.
  • Always show up on time. By trying to shave a few minutes off here and there, you convince yourself that work is unpleasant and make it harder to show up.
  • Get to be the "owner" of some tasks around the workplace even if they are not your job. Examples include caring for plants, or coaching co-workers in how to use specialized software you happen to know well. Such tasks create variety in the day, fill dead time, and can be personally rewarding. Avoid doing menial tasks, like cleaning.
  • Take pride in doing your work well. Such pride also means that the work is something you identify with, not something done purely for pay.


People at work often act out theatrical roles for the benefit of others. This is one aspect of office politics. Viewed with the proper detachment, it can be vastly entertaining.

In addition to such relatively simple motivational tricks for convincing yourself that you enjoy your job, some writers on motivation advise people to behave as though they owned the business for which they work.

This always amuses me, particularly when it appears in manuals written by employers. They want us to behave as though we were the owners. Real owners take a share of the profits. If companies want employees to act like owners, they should share the profits. That would do the trick. When profits walk in the door, boredom flies out the window!

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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