What do you do when you’re bored at work? Some of us browse the internet for photos of baby pangolins. Some of us text our friends. And some of us—roughly 37% of Americans, according to a 2017 survey commissioned by Netflix—are watching TV on the clock. To wit, a former employee of Robert De Niro’s film company Canal Productions streamed an impressive 55 episodes of Friends in four days, all on company time, according to one of many hair-raising allegations brought against the employee in a recent $6 million lawsuit.
Perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of living in the age of peak TV. (How else are people going to squeeze in the newest season of Mindhunter?) But it also seems quite possible that many Netflix-watching workers are turning to onscreen entertainment because they are simply bored by their jobs.
Studies have shown boredom leads to low motivation, unnecessary errors, lack of productivity, and general disillusionment. It also was the apparent cause of a fire in a UK bicycle shop, inadvertently started by a pair of bored workers who attempted to jolt themselves out of monotony by cremating a mouse.
So what’s to be done if you, like a lot of people, find your brain getting stale at work, yet generally prefer—again, like a lot of people—not to set dead rodents on fire in order to feel alive?
A pre-print of a paper forthcoming in Current Directions in Psychological Science points to a virtuous and somewhat counterintuitive solution. Rather than defaulting to a more enjoyable activity, like scanning shoe sales or watching Netflix, focus on finding a way to make your work more interesting.
The two kinds of boredom
The paper, by University of Florida social psychologist Erin Westgate, explains that there are two main causes of boredom: “We get bored when we aren’t able to pay attention or can’t find meaning in what we are doing.”
We may have trouble paying attention to our work because it’s too easy or too hard. One might get bored doing data entry, for example, but also while attempting to solve a particularly difficult math problem.
Alternatively, we may get bored when we feel our work simply doesn’t matter—a problem characteristic of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” where the work is meaningless and unfulfilling. When we’re dealing with meaningless boredom, we feel lonely, sad, and disengaged, like we’re in a French art film but without the refined aesthetics and the ability to look cool in berets.
The good news is that there are all kinds of things of things we can do to alleviate boredom. But Westgate warns that we should choose our anti-boredom solutions wisely.
If the problem at hand is that your work doesn’t feel meaningful, you may be able to reengage by locating a sense of purpose outside your immediate job description. Yale professor of management Amy Wrzesniewski calls this approach “job crafting.” For example, she found in one study that hospital janitors were deeply satisfied with their work because they understood their primary purpose as engaging with the patients whose rooms they cleaned, and acted accordingly.
Mentally reframing the task at hand also can help. Quartz reporter Ephrat Livni has written about the value of treating work as a game, in which our goal is to find ways to appreciate and value whatever it is that we’re being paid to do. “Service work is a kind of diplomacy training ground that helps you in office jobs and beyond,” writes Livni, who worked as a lawyer before she became a journalist. “Doing temporary legal document review projects in New York—considered by many to be the saddest drudgery of lawyering—ended up leading me to a job at Google headquarters in California.”
Westgate also notes that we can make a given task less boring by adding a layer of challenge—say, setting a timer to speed through a pile of paperwork, or deciding to write an otherwise run-of-the-mill memo in the form of a sonnet.
Choosing the interesting over the enjoyable
But the paper’s most important point is about the choices we make when we deal with our boredom by switching tasks entirely. Our instinct is often to switch to something more immediately enjoyable—scrolling through Instagram, playing a game on our phones, or, sure, binge-watching 55 episodes of Friends.
However, Westgate says that choosing pleasurable but cognitively undemanding activities to cope with boredom only increases the chances that we’ll be bored more often. She writes:
Seeking out enjoyable activities, instead of interesting ones, may ultimately lead to more boredom in the long run. The cognitive work required by interest goes into building new schemas and knowledge–exactly the things needed to make sense of (and feel interest in) complex topics. In this sense, enjoyable activities are like junk food, offering short-term satisfaction at the cost of long-term well-being.
In other words, when we pick a new activity, it should be one that asks our brains to do more work, not less. Westgate uses the example of opting to watch a documentary about the Holocaust—certainly not fun, but very likely to be engaging—rather than playing Candy Crush.
Extending this logic to the context of work, a professor growing bored while writing recommendation letters for students might decide to take a break by catching up on a new research paper in her field. This in turn might invigorate her investment in helping new talent succeed in graduate school, and change her approach to the recommendations. A recent college graduate with too little to do at his office job could easily wile away the hours browsing the internet. But he’d ultimately be better served by volunteering to, say, put his undergraduate degree in fine arts to work by redesigning the company logo—an endeavor that could help develop new skills, and has the added benefit of setting him up to find work that’s more in line with his interests in the future.
The problem, of course, is that technology and entertainment companies have spent a good deal of time and money designing their products to be as enticing, attention-absorbing, and dopamine-driven as possible. That means breaking free of the instinct to click over to Twitter in times of boredom can be a hard habit to break. Westgate’s paper doesn’t address this aspect of the issue. But instating screen-time controls on time-suck apps could be a good place to start.
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