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Beating Boredom in Your Career

Published 8/19/2019

In today's episode we're talking about boredom. We can't avoid it in our day-to-day but we can provide ways to address boredom when it occurs.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
We've all experienced the phenomenon that I'm going to talk about in today's episode, and we've probably experienced it since we were children. The feeling of boredom. If you can't quite put your finger on what it means to be bored, imagine that you just completed a test. Maybe you're in school, and you're required to sit in your desk. You can't have a book. You're not allowed to go to sleep. You have to kind of just sit there. You have to be quiet. You can't talk to anyone. And you're not even supposed to look around to see what other people are doing on the test. This can cause feelings of frustration, of annoyance. You might start feeling a little bit jittery, for example. And when it happens at work that can lead to us not liking our jobs, it can lead to us losing productivity, not finishing a particularly mundane task that we're assigned to finish. In today's episode, we want to talk about some of the principal components of boredom, what is required to become bored. And then we're going to talk about ways that we can at least start addressing that boredom when it occurs. My name is Jonathan Cutrelly listening to Developer Tea and my goal in this show is to help driven developers find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. The first thing that we have to understand about boredom is that it really depends on the context. That shouldn't be surprising to you if you've listened to the show for many time at all. You know that context is everything. It's key to so much of what we deal with in our careers as developers, but we can prove this one quite simply. In most scenarios where you're bored, it means that you're doing nothing or you're doing something that isn't holding your attention. But it's not as simple as the mechanical action of doing nothing. The way we can prove this is when you're sleeping. When you're sleeping, you are essentially doing the same thing, at least mechanically speaking, as you'd be doing if you were sitting in that classroom. The only difference is in one scenario, you're sleeping in the other scenario, you're awake. So, what exactly causes boredom? Well, we've kind of identified this first one here. The first kind of principle component of boredom is that you have some level of energy. You want to actually do something. You have the motivation, you have the physical energy, you're alert, and you're ready to actually tackle that thing. Now, I want to kind of point out that boredom can happen both in a kind of a single instance sitting where you're actually at work and you're bored, or you can have kind of this chronic sense of boredom. When somebody says that they are bored at their job, in general, they're probably saying that they don't enjoy the work on a day-to-day basis, and they would like to do something else. And usually, that kind of motivation is a lasting motivation. It's a message that says, I'm bored at work, is the same thing as saying, I would like to do something different on a regular basis at work. Some of the fundamental assumptions of kind of the structure of that boredom remain the same. You need that sense of energy and motivation in order to become bored. Another component of boredom is that you are not in control. For example, imagine that you choose to take five minutes and meditate. In this five minutes, it's possible that you become bored, but if you did become bored, you could easily rectify that situation. You could stop meditating if you wanted to, or potentially you can continue meditating. The control that you have over the situation means that you are choosing that meditation. Interestingly enough, meditation is one way to help reduce your sensitivity to boredom-inducing situations. We'll talk a little bit more about how you can address boredom after we finish talking about the principal components of boredom. The next piece of boredom is that you don't have something interesting to do. This is a fairly obvious thing, but what's a little bit more nuanced here is the word interesting. It's nuanced because it depends on the individual, but not only on the individual, it also depends on that individual's context in that moment. For example, you may be able to play a video game. On the first round of playing that video game, it may be interesting enough to keep you from becoming bored. If you played that video game, let's say hours on end, and especially if that game is not something that has a progressive story, for example, if you're doing the same thing over and over, it's very possible that that would induce boredom. This is how people can start a job and really enjoy what they do in that job, but eventually it's something stagnate. That word stagnate is the key. You don't have a sense of motion or things are not dynamic enough to hold your attention, and so they're no longer interesting. It's difficult to define exactly what will be interesting for a given person. You can learn about your own interests and try to predict it, but interest is somewhat fickle. Sometimes we can become more interested because we have an incentive, for example. And all of these things will play into how we address our boredom. But lastly, we need to talk about the final principle component of boredom, what makes boredom actually occur, and that is that your loss of focus or your lack of focus you believe to be because of something in the environment. This kind of plays into what we were talking about earlier where you have control or not. If the environment, for example, is noisy and you're unable to focus, then that may induce boredom, even if you have something in front of you that could otherwise be interesting. If your lack of focus is coming from something that is not related to the environment, let's say, for example, that you're having a hard time focusing because you're sick. Well, this kind of lack of focus is less likely to cause boredom than if you were to be unfocused because of something in the environment. So all of these factors when combined can produce a sense of boredom, this feeling that you have a lot of energy and nowhere good to put it. We're going to talk about today's sponsor, and then we're going to come back and discuss ways that we can address boredom based on these factors. Today's episode is sponsored by Git Prime. Have you ever noticed that the best engineering managers are the ones who know how to debug systems? And it's not just code systems, it's not just app code that they know how to debug. It's not just dev-op systems. It's also the human systems that they work with, particularly their teams. People like computers tend to exhibit patterns whenever they are having an issue. And they also exhibit patterns when they're doing things well. Git Prime has written a new book, 20 patterns to watch for in engineering teams. It's digital, but they're going to send you a printed copy of it as well. The printed copy is quite nice by the way. And these 20 patterns are going to help you dig into various ways that team dynamics work and also provide some prescriptions for how to deal with and how to identify these patterns. Go and check it out, head over to Git Prime.com. That's gitprime.com slash 20 patterns, 20 patterns. Gitprime.com slash 20 patterns. You can get that book, a mail to you, a physical copy, a mail to you for free, as well as the digital download. Thanks again to Git Prime for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So how can we address boredom when we experience it at work or more broadly when we experience it in our careers? Well, first, let's start by recognizing that boredom typically happens when you have a lack of control. If you're working on a team where you are not able to, for example, assign yourself to tasks, if you are getting tasks assigned to you and those tasks are not meaningful to you, then that's a situation where you might end up bored. And so one way that you can combat boredom is to find ways to gain more control over your working experience. So work with your manager. Talk to them about ways that you can improve your level of autonomy while still getting the necessary work done. This is very often the desire of your manager to improve your working conditions so that you aren't bored. So if you can talk to your manager about your boredom and explain to them that you feel like some of it is because you have a lack of control over your, let's say, your hours or your work or whatever it is, and if you could have a little bit more control that you would feel less bored, then it's likely that your manager will work with you to find ways to increase your autonomy. Along with increasing that autonomy, you're likely to work best if you have the most control over your environment. In other words, if you can turn the music down or if you can avoid a noisy crowd or if you can choose to be amongst other people, if you can choose a little bit more noise, these kinds of decisions over your environment will reduce that factor of your environment inducing a lack of focus. If you can shape your environment to be conducive to your own focus, then you're less likely to become bored. Now you'll notice that we haven't even talked about the work itself yet. And that's because these factors that contribute to boredom can take work that you may feel like is causing your boredom and make it less boring. So we will talk about that work now, specifically through the lens of your interests. If you can learn what is most interesting to you and try to choose the tasks or choose the work or choose a job that aligns with those interests, then unsurprisingly you're going to be less bored. But what's more captivating here is that context of interest that we talked about before. If you can build your working habits to create interest where otherwise maybe there wasn't interest, then you're much more likely to avoid boredom. So how can you create interest where there wasn't interest before? Well, one way is to turn your work into something like a game. If you can try, for example, to complete a certain chunk of work in a certain amount of time, then you create a new kind of system. Your brain looks at that as kind of a special challenge and it doesn't really care as much about the content of that challenge as it does achieving the goal. Another simple trick that you can do is to provide yourself a real incentive for doing the work, for getting that particular otherwise boring job done. The incentive will work to reduce that boredom level because the work becomes more interesting by way of that incentive. Of course, connecting to the reason that you're doing that work in the first place is one of the best motivating factors. If you can understand who will be impacted by the work that you're doing, most of the time that's more compelling than whatever the work, the kind of the mechanical side of the work actually is. At the end of the day, being bored is kind of a contextual state of mind and it's something that you can practice getting better at. If you do things like meditation, for example, it's possible, although I don't know that it's necessarily been proven, but it's possible that the meditation may help reduce your sensitivity to boredom and help you be able to stick it out a little bit easier. Finally, at somewhat of a philosophical level, most of your life is filled with mundane moments. So if we despise the mundane moments, then we end up despising a lot of our lives. But if instead we can appreciate the detail of those mundane moments and try to live in that detail, try to notice things that we didn't notice before and appreciate the reality that we're given. Even if it's not necessarily the most mentally stimulating thing that we've ever had on our desks, if we can appreciate the reality, then perhaps boredom will become less of a scourge and we can enjoy our work even when we are technically bored. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. I encourage you, if you enjoyed today's episode, to subscribe and whatever podcasting app you use. A huge thank you to today's sponsor Get Prime. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without our sponsors and Get Prime is going to empower you to find patterns on your engineering team that you otherwise may have missed. Go and check it out Get Prime.com slash 20 patterns to get that book today. Thank you so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.