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Research Shows There Are Two Kinds of Work Boredom — Find Out Which Kind You Struggle With, and How to Deal

Having a slow day every now and then is normal, but constantly feeling bored at work can quickly become a source of frustration and stress.

Aaron Amat / Shutterstock
Aaron Amat / Shutterstock

It’s normal to have a slow day at work every now and then. But if you’re continually feeling bored from your work, that boredom can quickly translate to stress. Research shows that boredom at the office can actually lead to exhaustion, low motivation, and lack of focus. 

In a recent report of forthcoming research in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Quartz writer Sarah Todd summarizes the latest science by explaining that there are two places where your boredom at work stems from: a lack of focus, and a lack of purpose. As the paper’s lead researcher and social psychologist, Erin Westgate, Ph.D., writes: “We get bored when we aren’t able to pay attention, or can’t find meaning in what we are doing.”

Since there are two fundamentally different sources of boredom, there isn’t one fix that works for everyone. The first step in dealing with your boredom is understanding which type you struggle with, Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, tells Thrive. And once you find the driving force of your boredom, you can act accordingly. Here’s how to get started.

If you’re bored from a lack of focus…

Try “compassionate self-awareness”

Often, a lack of focus comes from tasks that either feel too easy, or too difficult. After all, an ideal workload is one that challenges you, without being too massive to a point where you don’t even know where to focus — so if your work isn’t at the right level for you, that can be stressful. Becker-Phelps recommends exercising “compassionate self-awareness” to reduce that stress. Start by paying attention to how each of your tasks is making you feel, and being compassionate with yourself if work itself is too stressful, instead of telling yourself you’re simply not capable of doing it. Your boredom can be a signal to talk to yourself differently, Becker-Phelps explains. “Compassionate self-awareness is a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion.”

Make time for what you love outside of work

If your life outside of the office feels boring to you, that feeling could be leaching into your time at work. After all, we know that completely separating our career and our social lives is unrealistic, and a work-life integration is a much more healthy goal to strive for. “If you are struggling with a lack of meaning in your life, brainstorm about what is important to you and what kinds of activities you enjoy,” Becker-Phelps suggests. “Talk with people who know you well and can help you develop insights into what goals or activities might be rewarding for you.” By carving out time for the people and hobbies that make you happy outside of work, you’ll be less likely to feel bored when you get to your desk in the morning.

If you’re bored from a lack of meaning…

Write down what you value in a job

If you feel that your current role isn’t providing you with the sense of purpose you’d like, it may be time to ask yourself if you’re in the right role — or even the right company. For example, make a list of the things you value in a job, and then evaluate whether or not you’re finding those things in your current position. It’s natural to lose sight of what feels meaningful to you when you’re used to going through the motions of your day, but taking the time to evaluate what could make you feel fulfilled can be hugely helpful. Refocus on what’s important to you, Becker-Phelps suggests.

Imagine a colleague is going through the same thing

When you don’t feel that what you’re doing is meaningful, your work can begin to feel monotonous, and that can add to your stress. To deal with that frustration, Becker-Phelps recommends changing your viewpoint by pretending a colleague is struggling with the same thing. “If you are frustrated with yourself for not being engaged, it can help to think about how you would respond to someone else in your situation,” she explains. “Choose to consciously respond to yourself in the same way.” By envisioning how you would advise a co-worker who feels a lack of purpose in their role, you can give yourself actionable steps to either make a change, or change your attitude. The small shift in perspective can help you see what is holding you back from feeling fulfilled, and what you can do to change that.

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