The surprising benefit of being bored at work

The boredom hack doesn’t work for everyone
The boredom hack doesn’t work for everyone
Image: Getty Images/Jack Taylor
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It’s almost anyone’s guess whether we ought to prepare for more boredom at work in the future (because we will become robot-sitters), or less (because the robots will take care of the grunt work). But one thing that feels true is that we’re not supposed to be bored at work these days—nor, for that matter, should we have much downtime anywhere. Our phones, smart watches, and endless notifications help us avoid it.

Yet boredom can and does sneak into any job. A dull conference presentation numbs the mind in even the most exotic of settings. If you’re an academic, even a famous one, you still will have paperwork and tedium to deal with. If you work for Uber or Lyft, you might get stuck in hours-long waits at airports.

For these intervals of boredom, we should count ourselves lucky, according to a study published recently in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal. The research suggests being disinterested in one chore at work might lead you to look for novelty in the next. For some personalities, that leads to enhanced creativity.

Boredom turns some people into explorers

The authors of the study came to this finding following a series of studies that inflicted inescapable boredom on its subjects then asked them to complete various tasks. The boredom was conjured by giving participants a bowl of mixed beans (red and green) and asking them to separate the beans into two groups by color. Informed by previous studies on the conditions that lead to boredom, the researchers mandated single-hand sorting, one bean at a time. There would be no flamboyant or ingenious shortcuts.

It took much trial and error to devise the task that would hit the emotional target or boredom, rather than anger or frustration, Guihyun Park, a professor of organizational psychology at the Australian National University’s School of Management and lead author of the study,  explained in an audio interview published with the research.

After the bean sorting, subjects were then asked to come up with excuses for a hypothetical person who was late for work: What plausible tale should they tell  their boss? They also were put to work developing a hypothetical new product “with a strong focus on novelty and usability” for an imagined company.

In both cases, the researchers found that being bored led people to generate more ideas, as compared to a control group that was not bored. But after the innovative ideas test, which also measured the quality of someone’s creative submissions, they determined through personality tests that the ideas ranked as significantly more creative came from certain types of people: those who were very open to experience; oriented toward learning goals rather than performance goals; had a high need for cognition (meaning they enjoy complex tasks and deep thinking);’and who were likely to believe they themselves controlled their success, rather than luck or other forces.

“Boredom seems to prompt [these] individuals to explore alternative solutions to problems or challenge the status quo,” the authors conclude. Park and her co-authors—Beng-Chong Lim, a business professor at Nanyang Technological University Singapore, and Hui Si Oh, a research assistant at Singapore Management University—also assert that “without the innate ability to experience boredom, human beings would be less compelled to move out of their comfort zones and seek different, and sometimes better, circumstances. Lacking this incentive, they could be less adaptive to ever-changing survival demands.”

Like other studies, this one has its limitations. For instance, the researchers did not determine whether interest levels worked in tandem with boredom to engender creativity. But it does echo arguments made by psychologists and experts who recommend that children be bored in the summer, as Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill has reported, so that they can develop the “internal stimulus” necessary to be truly creative.

Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, also draws connections between boredom and imaginativeness in her book  The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good (Little Brown, 2018). She makes another point that feels relevant to the work world, which is that not having moments when we’re feeling disinterested or unmoved—and still—would make our lives exhausting. “Imagine a world where we didn’t get bored,” Mann told the science news site Nautilus.“We’d be perpetually excited by everything—raindrops falling, the cornflakes at breakfast time.”

Boredom can also lead to risky behavior, self-medicating, or depression

Before we get carried away, or bored to tears, harnessing this potential tool for motivation, it should be noted that boredom is best experienced in moderation. Studies have shown that too much of it can drive people to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, the authors report. It can even set the stage for violent behavior.

For some people, even a short spell of boredom can be intolerable: Recall the study that found some individuals would rather shock themselves repeatedly than sit alone in a room with their thoughts and do nothing.

Finally, excessive boredom can lead to depression and distress, which is one of the reasons it’s considered a huge risk to send humans on a mission to Mars. As The Week writes, “Unlike in Star Trek: The Next Generation, astronauts won’t be able to kill time in the holodeck. Instead, they’ll be crammed into a tiny spacecraft for eight months as they traverse space, which would be like being trapped in the world’s most expensive jail cell.” Astronauts would have a hard time following standard procedures if they become depressed, and bored ones might— even without conscious awareness—create risks that would require critical responses, just to kill time.

How to make use of your sense of blasé

The ultimate takeaway for today’s earthbound employees is to at least stop being afraid of downtime and to develop appreciation for routine tasks that you might otherwise feel are beneath you. But before you attempt to “use” boredom, i.e., by scheduling a mundane duty before one that requires uninhibited thinking, it’s important to know thyself. Will the lull and opportunity to daydream lead to more expansive, unguarded thinking, what the late philosopher Bertrand Russell called “fruitful monotony“? Or will your motivation to do any work be shut down?

For employers, the authors propose a curious application that would cost less than trendy nap pods or “recharge rooms” meant to give tired brains a break from intense concentration. Instead, they suggest, “it might be worthwhile to equip these areas with bowls of colored beans.”