Bored at Work? Learn to Manage It by Putting It to Work

Do you often feel bored at work or in life? Do you want to feel less bored? If so, what can you do to make that happen? Boredom has a bad rap, but is it really so bad?

During the last year, we polled hundreds of people, asking them how quickly they tend to get bored at a new job. On average, it takes six months for people to begin feeling bored. The answers, though, range from two weeks to never, signaling a high level of personal variability when it comes to boredom.

Although a precise definition of boredom is a matter of debate, most experts agree that boredom can be defined as an adverse feeling associated with lack of stimulation. It is "searching" for stimulation and not finding it. Boredom is often accompanied by other feelings, both positive and negative. It is both a feeling and a trait, and the severity to which you experience boredom greatly impacts the outcomes associated with it.

Mild to moderate boredom can foster heightened creativity, motivation to pursue new goals and search for novelty and it can even be a catalyst for reflection and relaxation. Dr. Sandi Mann, who has studied boredom extensively, also says that it served an evolutionary purpose. "As an evolutionary tool, boredom was probably invaluable, allowing us to stop attending to a stimulus that proves itself neither dangerous nor reinforcing, and turn our attention to other, more worthy stimuli." When leveraged properly, boredom can help us innovate, set new priorities and even potentially find a greater sense of purpose.

Profound or chronic boredom can have negative consequences. It is even correlated with earlier death due to higher levels of associated stress or risk-taking behavior. Work-related boredom contributes to job dissatisfaction. A Korn Ferry survey from 2021 found that boredom was one of the highest drivers of turnover, along with cultural fit and salary concerns.

Understanding the nuances of boredom can help you manage it, at work and in any facet of your life.

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A worker throws a paper airplane at his desk. Thomas Barwick/Getty

Not All Boredom Is Created Equal

An important first step in managing your boredom is to determine the level of boredom you are experiencing. German researchers developed a helpful scale for assessing the emotional valence of boredom. The mildest form is indifferent, often accompanied by pleasant feelings of relaxation, while the most troubling is reactant, associated with heightened anger and anxiety.

According to the research, indifferent or calibrating boredom may not require any intervention, as these levels feel pleasant and easily tolerable. At this stage, you may experience boredom in a relaxed way, not as a problem that needs to be solved.

Searching boredom is the level at which it becomes uncomfortable and you start to feel restless. At this stage, you begin to actively seek relief from the feeling by finding ways to reduce your boredom. Reactant boredom is the point at which you feel strongly compelled to escape the feeling, characterized by anxiety and in some cases aggression. Intervention and support may be required to manage this stage of boredom. There is also a fifth stage of boredom called apathetic boredom, which is described as very negative, but not associated with being aroused or anxious. It's more closely associated with depression.

If your boredom is chronic, aggressive or compelling you toward negative behaviors, come up with a plan to cope. Focusing on the tasks you are accomplishing, rather than the time it takes to complete them, can help. Timing yourself or monitoring your progress toward completion also makes certain tasks more engaging. For low-attention tasks, which often spur boredom in people, consider "tangential immersion." Research has shown that if your mind is immersed in something interesting, you gain an edge in completing tasks that don't require your full attention.

Boredom Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum

Identifying the feelings that accompany boredom will help you better assess any underlying needs that are unmet. One study suggests that boredom accompanied by feelings of frustration is more highly correlated with low autonomy, as opposed to boredom associated with feelings of apathy or depression. If you feel bored and frustrated, as opposed to bored and depressed, it's a different characterization that will give you clues about what to do next—namely finding more ways to assert more autonomy over your situation, even if only in certain aspects.

Furthermore, certain physical issues can sometimes increase the level of boredom and reduce internal motivation. If you are experiencing fatigue or hunger along with boredom, sleep deprivation or dietary concerns may be factors. In addition, if you can identify situational or environmental factors that correlate with your boredom, you can make adjustments to help boost stimulation and reduce feelings of boredom.

Maybe It's You (And That's Okay)

Boredom is studied not only as a feeling, but also as a trait. We know that certain people experience more boredom than others, so any conversation about boredom should also take into consideration a person's natural tendency toward it. Do you have a propensity for boredom? If you tend to feel bored at work, regardless of the job, maybe it is less about the work and more about you. But keep in mind that boredom isn't always a problem, depending on its outcome.

You Don't Have to Be So Bored If You Don't Want to Be

Ultimately, it's important not to fight the feeling. Everyone feels bored from time to time. When you experience mild boredom, engaging in a low concentration activity such as walking, can help you translate that boredom into well-being and tap into creative ideas. No matter how thrilling a job may be, every position has mundane tasks that must be completed. Boredom from these monotonous tasks can sometimes be helped by adding a sense of urgency or an additional layer of complexity to make the task more interesting. And lastly, speak out. Some people may be reluctant to admit they are bored, for fear they'll be seen as lazy or unmotivated. But boredom is a commonplace issue that most everyone has experienced. If you think it would be helpful, open up the conversation with those around you. With the support of others, you can address the stigma, assess the situation, mitigate potential problems and even find ways to benefit from boredom.

Katherine Connolly Baden is a researcher in organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School. Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at HBS. With Colleen Ammerman he is author of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. Twitter: @bgroysberg. Heather Poco is a data scientist at Lead Insights.