WORKPLACE / SEP. 22, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Why Being Bored At Work Can Be A Good Thing

A Galup survey earlier this year revealed the parlous state of employee engagement around the world.  The proportion of people who revealed they were heavily engaged and excited by their work was around 15%.  It’s pretty depressing reading.

A major cause for this disengagement was that people were kind of bored at work, and doing jobs that they had no real passion or interest for.  Various studies exploring why people participate, voluntarily, in open innovation challenges highlights just how important this is.  They’ve revealed that a passion for the topic is the main reason people participate.

Is boredom always a bad thing?

So you might think that boredom at work could only ever be a negative.  Research suggests that may not always be the case however.  The study, conducted by a team at the University of Central Lancashire, explored the role boredom plays in our creative thinking.  Their hypothesis was that if we’re bored, we may actually be able to come up with more creative thoughts and ideas.

To test this, they asked participants to copy out numbers from a phone book for fifteen minutes (a mind numbing task in anyone’s book!).  After they’d completed this, they were given a creative task to undertake.

The other team in the study were allowed to skip the phone book part of the exercise and jump straight into the creative task.  Who do you think did best?

Well, it turned out that the poor souls from the phone book group outperformed their non-bored rivals, and they outperformed them by quite a significant margin.

Why boredom can encourage creativity

“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity. What we want to do next is to see what the practical implications of this finding are. Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?” the researchers declare.

It seems counterintuitive that being bored can help us to come up with great ideas, but the researchers suggest there may be a perfectly valid reason for why this occurs.  They suggest that it may have a number of causes.

For instance, when we’re bored, it usually tells us that something in our lives is kind of going wrong.  It often occurs for instance when we’re stuck in a rut, and boredom tells us that we should try something different instead.  In that sense, they suggest, being bored is an inevitable precursor to finding creative ways of doing things differently.

Another possible answer is in how we tend to respond when we’re bored.  When we’re not engaged with a task, our mind often wanders.  The day dreamer is a popular image of someone who is bored.  It’s when we’re in this state that often the best ideas come to us.  When we’re intently focused on a task, we’re often too zoomed in for our minds to wander off and make the kind of connections that create great ideas.

So, whilst I wouldn’t advocate actively pursuing boredom at work, this research suggests it might not be such a bad thing after all.

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