Most of us spend a healthy chunk of our lives avoiding boredom. U.S. News and World Reports cites a Gallup study that found 70% of us report being bored at work. And we hate it so much we’ll do almost anything to break the monotony. A 2016 study published in Psychology Research found that students watching a dull film actually choose to give themselves non-lethal but painful shocks as a way to relieve the doldrums.
No wonder we dive toward the smart phones whenever there’s a break in the action. But popular distractions can also keep us from getting work done or paying attention to something important. So it makes sense to understand just what boredom is and how we can fight it more constructively than vying for the next level of Angry Birds.
What is boredom, anyway?
Like other emotions, boredom arises from a particular state in your brain. The exact neural causes aren’t clear, but several studies have suggested that we experience boredom when we have trouble keep our attention on one thing.
Psychology researchers Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek have described boredom in terms of three factors:
- We cannot pay attention to either internal thoughts and feelings or the external environment.
- We are aware of the situation.
- We blame it on the environment.
In other words, we can’t focus, we know it, and it’s not our fault. Whatever’s happening around us is too unimportant to warrant our attention.
A study published in the journal Brain and Cognition offers evidence to support their definition. It reports that when subjects are mildly distracted while reading a scientific paper, they’re more likely to say that they missed details because the information was dull.
And preliminary work by Richard Huskey at the University of California Santa Barbara points to the brain’s attentional networks as key to developing flow or deep involvement in a task – the opposite of boredom.
So what can I do about it?
We’re pretty good at distracting ourselves. Have you already checked Facebook while reading this article? But if we want to take control of our attention and get real work done, there are several strategies to try.
Kick up your dopamine.
Our ability to pay attention to a task and the resulting feelings of boredom may come from low levels of dopamine in the brain. According to a recent article in Neuroscience News, dopamine can get you motivated toward a goal. The researchers advise imagining the joy of completing your work to signal your brain that a reward is coming in the near future and boost motivational dopamine.
David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, suggests increasing dopamine by adding urgency to your task. Imagine a disaster that will occur if you don’t complete it.
He also recommends changing little things in the environment like the height of your chair or introducing humor. These techniques can boost dopamine levels and reinvigorate your brain’s ability to focus.
Remember the big reason for your task. Are you balancing the budget or ensuring the financial security of your family? The more meaningful goal increases the importance of your task and your dopamine levels accordingly.
Get immediate feedback.
Fast and regular feedback recharges your focus because you see the results of your efforts. At work, you can pair up with peers for regular check-ins. The interaction helps keep you engaged, and knowing that you’ll have to show your progress keeps your motivation up.
Trying out a new process or approach to your task piques your curiosity to see how it turns out. And your dopamine response kicks in. To run an experiment, look for ways you might be able to improve your work process or get more done in less time. Find some metrics to compare before and after and try out your new idea.
Distractions can keep you from focusing and impart a sense of boredom. Remove anything that steals your attention throughout the day. If you can’t address issues like people talking nearby, try earplugs or the white noise strategy below.
Neuroscientists have determined that listening to music we love not only makes us happy, but increases the dopamine levels in the brain as well. Many people have headphones or radios at work. That little extra rhythm can step up your day.
Turn a big task into small ones.
Neurologist Judy Willis suggests breaking your work into small tasks that you can complete. Checking each off gives you a little rewarding kick of dopamine which helps you stay motivated and focused on the next step.
A study at the University of California Santa Barbara found that mindfulness training helped student focus better on tests and exercises requiring attention. When you notice lethargy setting in, try to become aware of everything in your present moment. Be aware of your body position, the play of light and shadow around you, or the sound of your keyboard as you type.
Listen to white noise.
According to recent research in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, white noise can help you stay focused. As stated in the article, “The white noise enhanced connectivity in between brain regions associated with modulating dopamine and attention. The researchers found this enhanced connectivity in those participants with improved memory.”
Keep trying until you find what works.
There’s no one boredom cure for everyone. But just trying out these strategies will break some of the tedium. And there’s nothing wrong with a little breather for social media every now and then. We don’t want all those cat videos to get bored without us.
At Pract.us, we’re here to help you and your team stay motivated with learning goals that keep your attention and your careers on track. Learn more.