The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Coping with Boredom

The secret is not caffeine but may be found in coffee

If you make the experience more intense, it seems exciting. That simple trick was applied when restaurants used to serve their coffee super hot so no one would notice how bad it tasted. A simple way to make any activity more intense, or less boring, is to do it quickly.

This principle applies to work and it is relevant to boredom at work. Given that the workplace is where the most people encounter the most boredom, it relates to the overall problem of boredom in our lives.

In most work settings, there are two kinds of people, those who are strongly motivated and accomplish much and those who are bored and accomplish little. There are several different ways of motivating employees, and dispelling their boredom. One is to convince them that they are partial owners of the business who have a stake in how well it does.

Astonishingly, most large employers ignore this opportunity for motivating their staff in the short-term interest of cutting costs. Even more remarkable, many employers are so disorganized that they waste their employees’ time by giving them insufficient work to do that may be the single biggest cause of boredom on the job.

Even when work is plentiful, there is the one group who work hard and accomplish most of it and the others who are perennial slackers and perpetually disgruntled, and bored. This raises another amazing failure of employers to encourage workers and discourage slackers.

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How to defeat boredom

There is a very good reason why employers have trouble rewarding hard workers, namely that it flouts labor laws. Under piece work systems, the fastest worker receives the most pay.

Piece work, or fixed pay per unit of work motivates very hard work. This phenomenon was studied by animal behaviorists such as BF Skinner who found that when pigeons pecked a disc for food reinforcement, they worked much harder under a piece rate (or ratio schedule) than if they were paid for serving time.

The problem was that under a stretched schedule, the pigeons worked so hard that they actually lost weight. Alert union leaders also noticed that people worked so hard under piece rate payment that they endangered their own health even where they had the choice of working at a slower pace for lest money.

Labor laws outlawing piece rate compensation deprive employers of one powerful tool to encourage hard work, and hence to dispel boredom. Of course there is no law preventing people from voluntarily deciding to work harder.

That is what smart people do. They speed up their dull tasks to make them seem more interesting. They turn the stale chicory of cheap coffee into a gourmet blend.

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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