Dull happens: Here’s how to stop boredom from impeding productivity

Boredom is office enemy number one among countless managers and executives looking to build engagement and increase productivity among workers. Few sights are quite as worrying among middle management than looking out at their workforce only to see a sea of malaise staring back. 

Surprisingly, however, a recent piece of research conducted at the prestigious University of Notre Dame indicates that attempting to suppress or totally block out boredom on the job is a fool’s errand that will likely end up backfiring in many instances. In other words, trying to overcome boredom and disinterest may actually prolong its detrimental effects on work productivity and engagement. Instead, rather paradoxically, study authors suggest it’s a better idea to embrace a little bit of boredom throughout the workday. Just be sure to sprinkle in something more exciting in between boring assignments.

Boredom, the great equalizer

Finding yourself bored on the job is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone feels bored at work from time to time, across virtually all industries. Sure, a position that largely entails sitting in an office will probably spark boredom more often than working as a park ranger or astronaut, but even the most exciting careers come along with at least a few dull moments.

Akin to an itchy nose that intensifies the more it’s ignored, trying to “push through” fits of mental lethargy is both ineffective and largely misses the underlying purpose of boredom in the first place. Researchers explain boredom should serve as a signal to stop whatever we’re doing and switch over to a more stimulating project or task. That’s not to say we should leave boring assignments incomplete. Instead, the study concludes alternating between boring and exciting/meaningful tasks is an effective means of stopping boredom in its tracks and minimizing its impact on overall productivity. 

“Like whack-a-mole, downplaying boredom on one task results in attention and productivity deficits that bubble up during subsequent tasks,” says lead author Casher Belinda, assistant professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, in a university release. “Paradoxically, then, trying to suppress boredom gives its harmful effects a longer shelf life.”

Variety beats monotony 

Initially, the team at Notre Dame set out to form a more comprehensive understanding of if, when, and why boredom may lead to subsequent attention and productivity issues later on. One experiment held over the course of this project featured data gathered from dual-career families working across a variety of industries. By having study participants fill out surveys multiple times per day, researchers were able to assess the relationships connecting boredom, attention, and productivity over an extended period. Further research efforts utilized alternative approaches and focused more heavily on how meaningful work helps lessen boredom’s effect over time.

Professor Belinda specializes in emotions, interpersonal communication and close relationships within organizations. He adds that while boredom has been seen as a nuisance in the workplace for decades, and employees are often expected to consistently stave off boredom in the name of productivity, the relationship between malaise and getting things done just isn’t that simple. 

The science suggests experiencing boredom at one given point in time tends to promote delayed or residual bouts of mind-wandering. That means employees should avoid trying to “push through” boring tasks in the name of checking off a to-do list. Not only does this flawed strategy fail to stop the negative effect of boredom on concentration, but Professor Belinda calls it “one of the most dysfunctional responses to boredom.”

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also notes that a sizable portion of solving this ubiquitous work dilemma comes down to how assignments are organized throughout the day. As much as we’d all love to simply avoid boring or dull work, that just isn’t going to realistically happen. But, the deleterious impact of boredom on productivity can be mitigated if one takes the time to divvy up their daily routine by scheduling stimulating or exciting duties following more mundane professional chores.

“‘Playing the long game’ will help minimize the cumulative effects of boredom over the course of the day,” Prof. Belinda concludes. “Following an initial boring task, employees should turn to other meaningful tasks to help restore lost energy.”