May you live in interesting times – how boredom affects your work

I recently reread one of the Discworld novels (okay, a couple of them, like all of the time), Sir Terry Pratchett’s “Interesting Times”. In the book, the story follows Rincewind, a character that has just one goal in life: to live in a way that provides the least excitement and stress possible. He longs to be bored, and because this is a Pratchett book we’re talking about, he frequently lives in very not-boring times. In this book, the saying “may you live in interesting times” (that is also falsely attributed to chinese culture in our world) is used as a curse and he very much agrees that “interesting times” are a bad thing.

Agree to disagree, Rincewind* – maybe not that surprinsingly, Rincewind has never been one of my favorite characters in the Discworld. But while I was rereading the book, I noticed that I thought about Rincewind during my days at work. My new job is smack-dab in the middle of a whole lot of excitement, and yet I found myself bored from time to time. I mean, the work is interesting and there is a lot of interaction with different functions, which I love, but there are still bouts of time where I just need to sit and wait and listen, and it gets boring every now and then. This might not be the most popular thing to admit, but I am going to call you a shameless liar if you say you’ve never ever been bored at work.

I am not used to being bored. Usually, I can find something to do or think about (this is often how I come up with blog post ideas). In this case, I started to wonder if it is possible that humans create boredom around their jobs (and in their life) on purpose, and what that purpose would be. So I researched a bit and was surprised to see how little we know about it. I found this article about the state of research from 2016, and what I mostly took away from it is that we don’t really know how to research boredom yet. There’s no reliable way to trigger boredom in the lab, there’s no way of measuring the feeling of being bored in anything other than subjective ratings. It’s interesting to read though that the tendency to be bored faster or more often is correlated with less self-control and more reckless behavior, at least in some cases. Student performance also seems influenced by boredom and improves when novelty is introduced.

I am not sure if there’s a conclusion to this yet. I was hoping to find some conclusive research on the effect of boredom on work, but I only found things that were common sense to me before: boredom is unpleasant, may induce more reckless behavior (ever met teenagers?), diminishes performance, and can be countered with novelty. None of this is new – let’s hope the researches dive more deeply into this topic soon.


*To be fair to Rincewind, “interesting times” for him also frequently mean getting beaten up or imprisoned (he IS the hero, whether he wants to or not), so in that regard, he gets a pass.

One comment

  1. Michael Baum

    Years ago, as part of my thesis, I conducted some research on Flow (Csíkszentmihályi). Flow is about the „sweet spot“ where skills are aligned with challenges resulting in an „optimal experience“. If skills are significantly higher than challenges, we feel bored. This might be one (rather fundamental than situational) way of looking at whether one is engaged in the right job or not.
    Maybe more importantly, I believe that boredom is one possible antecedent of becoming creative. As the mind wonders, as my brain is looking for gratifying hormones, creativity is the promising way out (ever met children?). I am inclined to think that – in a way – we are not often enough bored at work, being stuck with transactional work or by acting in the famous „comfort zone“ (Flow!) so that creativity is not called up as a „last resort“ to our longing souls. What a pity.

Comments are closed.