How to Stay Engaged When Work is Boring
So, what can we do? In an intriguing study discussed by Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. in his book, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, participants were asked to do something they did not like. However, they were instructed to notice three novel things while they were engaged in the activity. Although this may seem like an innocuous suggestion, this slight shift in their frame of reference had a profound impact on the results. Specifically, participants who were asked to look for novelty enjoyed the task significantly more than their counterparts who were not given this instruction. Even more impressive was that when researchers followed up with participants several weeks later, the ones who had searched for novelty reported that they were significantly more likely to have engaged in the task again on their own. Changing how they viewed an undesirable task led to significant gains in their enjoyment of the activity and motivated them to continue doing it in the future.
A step-by-step guide to putting science into practice
Kashdan’s research provides compelling insight into how changing our mindset about a particularly undesirable activity can lead to powerful benefits. Here are a few practical tips for individuals and leaders to leverage this research in their personal and professional lives:
- IDENTIFY A TASK that is quite unappealing to you that you do on a regular basis. The next time you engage in this task, try and focus on three new things you can learn. As we have seen, this shift can lead to both short- and long term benefits.
- APPROACH NEW ACTIVITIES that you view apprehensively with an open mind to ensure you maximize the chances of a positive experience. Otherwise, you may create a self fulfilling prophecy. For example, rather than getting worked up about a meeting with a prospective client who you heard was difficult and/or demanding, adopt a neutral or positive approach where you search for opportunities to facilitate connection as opposed to looking for signs of disengagement.
- IF THE DREADED ACTIVITY is one in which an entire team is involved, have a “group sharing” activity where everyone talks about three novel elements they learned. This can lead to insights into new ways of looking at the task, which could heighten enjoyment. The discussion could also involve a debriefing exercise where team members share the top insights they learned. The team could even vote on which insights were the most valuable.
- IF THERE ARE CERTAIN PROJECTS that may be seen as undesirable, look to rotating these responsibilities so they are shared by everyone rather than falling in the lap of one or two people. To improve the experience, ask each person to look for novelty and positive aspects of the activity when it is their turn to engage. Once again, this learning environment can provide powerful insight, build comradery and facilitate enjoyment.
- LEADERS CAN ALSO ASSIGN TASKS based on who finds what most boring. For example, while some people may view certain tasks (e.g., administrative work, such as filing paperwork, etc.) in an undesirable light, others may much prefer to engage in this work rather than other activities (such as client interaction). Aligning responsibilities with the strengths of each team member can maximize their enjoyment as well as their commitment moving forward.
Our mindset is a powerful tool that can work for or against us. Although we may be tempted to blame our frustration or disinterest on the task, it may be more appropriate to re-examine our pre-conceptions of the activity. Recognizing small changes we can make to our perspective can enable us to realize that our self-imposed prison may be locked from the inside and that we have the power to free ourselves from this negative mindset.
Craig Dowden, PhD, focuses on bridging the gap between what science knows and what business does. His firm specializes in the custom design and delivery of evidence based leadership development programs and services. His main areas of practice include executive and career coaching, workshop facilitation/keynote speaking, employee engagement, and psychometric/personality assessment including 360-feedback.
Originally published in volume 19 issue 2 of Your Workplace magazine.