10 Ways to Use Boredom to Increase Innovation and Happiness Levels

January 14, 2017

Millennials are looked at with contempt these days. This is the generation of the newest workers. The oldest millennials are in their early thirties. They’ve graduated college and are trying to make a name for themselves. Some of them have given up on their dream and have moved back into their parents’ house for a little reassessment. Why are they looked at with narrowed eyes? They’re being called entitled, unmotivated, and selfish. A lot of them are seen as (and are actually) bored while they’re at work.

In order to understand why they are bored, we need to look at boredom itself and then relate it back to millennials.

What Does Boredom Really Mean?

When we are bored, a number of things happen in our heads. Did you know that boredom comes with all the same symptoms that depression does? The same emotions and feelings are triggered by both depression and boredom:

  • Lack of interest in the environment around you
  • Low or lack of motivation
  • Fatigue and general lethargy
  • Feelings of apathy

It is an interesting correlation. It is as if our brains and hormones are punishing us when we feel complacent, safe, and/or comfortable. In school I was taught that every emotion, feeling, and impulse that we have has a reason for being. We feel these things because – at one time – we needed it to survive: sadness, anger, and (yes) even procrastination.

So what could boredom possibly do for us? Why would we need this? We normally get bored when we are sitting comfortably or feeling safe. Normally when we are bored, we aren’t anxious, scared, worried, or anticipating anything. We’re complacent.

Scientists, psychologists and theorists believe that boredom might exist in order to keep us moving. When we were primitive, we were nomads. We moved around a lot. We would get bored if we stuck in one place for too long. That is also linked to the possibility of getting attacked by an animal or another tribe of people. So when we felt bored, we would move on. It kept us from staying in one place for too long. A side effect is that we would get bored when we weren’t feeling challenged or thinking.

Did you know that our brains need to be stimulated in order to remain flexible and to keep its plasticity? If you got too bored for too long, that means that you haven’t been actively challenged and you weren’t thinking. If you stayed that way for too long, your brain would atrophy. After all, your brain is like any other organ or muscle in your body. If you don’t use your leg (if it is in a cast) the muscles begin to atrophy. Then you need physical therapy to get it back in shape. The same goes for your brain. You need to keep it active and thinking all of the time, otherwise, it will end up just like your muscle in that cast.

Physiologically, one of the theories behind the chemical reactions in your brain that cause boredom has to do with endorphins. Endorphins and dopamine are the chemicals in your brain that interact with receptors. When they interact with these receptors, they cause you to have positive feelings in your brain and body. You get happy and you feel joy. Different things can cause this chemical reaction: exercise, listening to a song you enjoy, eating one of your favorite desserts, seeing a loved one, etc. There are bad activities that can cause this reaction as well: drinking too much alcohol, doing drugs, and gambling too much. There is also speculation that dopamine and endorphins are also behind the feeling you get when someone likes one of your FB posts or comments positively on your profile picture.

Your brain will often give out a little bit of endorphins when you do positive things or when you physically interact with things. The more endorphins it releases, the more you like it. Eventually, your brain lets out less and less endorphins when you do the same activity repeatedly (like going to work or school). The less endorphins it releases in correlation to an activity or a certain stimulus, the more bored you are of it. You don’t get that endorphin high anymore.

Now let’s look at it a different way. The ever-optimist that I am, I like to look at the positive side of things. Did you know that boredom can actually make you smarter, more clever, and do better at work?

All right, so what does this have to do with millennials in particular? Millennials are already highly susceptible to depression. They have grown up in a household that encouraged them to do whatever they want, they can have whatever they want, and they can be whatever they what because they’re special. But after graduating and being thrust out into the real world, they’ve noticed that they’re not as special as their parents say – or at least, that’s the feeling that they get once they’ve been exposed to the corporate environments out there.

Add to that, an enclosed space (like a cubicle), where they have to work for hours at a time – not only are they depressed, but bored to boot. It isn’t surprising that their performance, productivity, motivation, and morale is at an all-time low.

Now that we know what the problem is, how do we fix it?

It’s all in how you look at it. Now that we know what the problem is, let’s look at how we can use boredom to better ourselves.

Increasing Innovation and Your Happiness Level

Boredom is your brain telling your body that you’re not being challenged enough. You’re not using your brain to the fullest of its abilities. Don’t let your brain go to waste. When you feel yourself getting bored, try to stimulate it.

While at work, you’ve taken on some new projects and you’ve gone beyond the requirements in order to challenge yourself. Does that sound familiar? You’ve chatted with your boss about possibly taking on some new responsibilities. Maybe he or she hasn’t come through yet. Chances are, if you’re feeling this way and if you’re finding it harder and harder to get up and go to work in the morning, you might be bored with your job. This happens with many workers and employees each day.

Depending on your situation, this might be the sign that you need to start looking for another job. Of course, for some of us that’s not an option. It might be because this is just a slower season for your job. You just have to wait it out until the next “busy” season rolls in. For some of you, you know that this is the best job that you can get with your experience and your skill level. Between the pay, the time that you’ve put into the job already, and the opportunity for advancement (that may just not be coming fast enough), you know that you need to stick around. And for others, it is a dead end job that pays well enough that you need to stick it through. No matter your situation, if you need to stick with it, it’s not the end of the world.

Knowing that you’re bored with your job might be the push you need to get you moving in the right direction. Like I said before, being bored just means that you’re not being challenged enough. You need to push your brain power a little, so that you can get it to get moving again. If this is where you are, check out some of these suggestions to get those brain cells moving and thinking again. Some of these tips work well in the office while others are suited to after-work hours.

  • Start a book club. If you’ve been reading my articles and posts, you’ll notice that I’m a big proponent of reading. Reading books (no matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction) is a great way to improve your brain power, memory, cognitive abilities, understanding, vocabulary, and will teach you about so many different things. It’s like a free education – with only the cost of books. If you prefer reading on your eReader or tablet, you can even download the Overdrive app, which lets you borrow and download free books from the library. If you go that route, you won’t even have to worry about the cost of books. Starting a book club is a great way to open your world to more books – and books that you wouldn’t normally read. Have a themed book club (for example, I’m a part of a Social Science Book Club) if you want to keep it within a certain genre, or if you want to exclude certain genres.
  • Try starting a blog. I know that bloggers have a stigma about them now. Whenever I think about a blog, the first image that I have in my head is of a “mommy blogger” but it doesn’t have to be like that – trust me. Start by coming up with a few topics that you want to talk about or feel strongly about. Considering – of course – that this will be going out on the internet and it may be traced back to you so talking about inappropriate things or complaining about your boss, probably isn’t a good idea. After you’ve come up with a list, see if you can narrow it down to two or three items that you feel some sort of expertise with. Maybe you’re a good outdoorsman and you love to fish. It could be about a hobby, pop culture, sports, the community that you’re involved with, a cause that you feel strongly about. Now, make a long list of topics that fall under your choice(s). These are the things that you’re going to potentially write about. Try to commit to a weekly blogging schedule (publish a blog post each Tuesday, for example). If you’re not really a writer, try making a vlog or a podcast.
  • Try fixing something. Take a look around the office. There are plenty of procedures, meetings, and processes that could use a little revamping. Put a plan together and try to fix it. Present your ideas to your boss. You may be the person that can set a new and awesome standard at your job.
  • Check out “Let’s Lunch” (http://letslunch.com/). This is an online app that matches you up with people who are out on their lunch break when you are as well. Add these meetups to your calendar to do some networking while you’re having a sandwich. The app lets you connect your social media sites, add your available time, and let’s you choose how far you’re willing to go out (geography-wise). The site will match you up with some like-minded people to lunch with.
  • Try learning a skill or taking a class. What should you learn? Anything that you’re interested in. You’ll be surprised at what skills or lessons may end up helping you at work. If you’re at a loss as to what to learn, try some of these on for size:
    • Being Proactive In Your Field Or Career
    • Building a Brand
    • Learning How to Use Certain Programs, Software, or Other Tools
    • Public speaking
    • Learning How to Use Google Analytics
    • SEO Basics
    • Effective Written, Verbal, and Body Language Skills
    • Negotiating Techniques
    • Managing People or Leadership Courses
    • Pitching Ideas
    • Learn About New Hobbies
    • Learning How to Code
    • Learn Basic Web Design
    • Take a Basic Academic Course at an online program like Khan Academy, Udemy, or Coursera (for a refresher)
    • Basic Marketing
    • Building an Online Marketing Plan
    • Creating Visual Presentations
    • Start-Up or Entrepreneur Courses
    • Dealing With Difficult People or Having Difficult Conversations
    • Learning New Languages
  • Or, you can create your own lunch group at work. If you grab around four people, you can each spend one day making lunch for everyone, that way, you only have to cook once during the workweek. It will save you money, time, and can be incredibly healthy.
  • Try working on some Morning Pages right when you get to work. As a creative, I must work with words all day. If my mind is preoccupied with other things, I can’t concentrate. Morning Pages work like this: for the first fifteen minutes of work, I sit at my desk with a few sheets of notebook paper and a pen on my desk. I write as many different things as I can, as long as I’m thinking about it. Things that I’m worrying about, stuff I don’t want to forget, and random thoughts just burst through my fingers and pen, onto the sheets of paper. Once they are down, I feel this emotional release and a feeling of openness. It’s as if I don’t have to worry about those things any longer. It’s a great way to clear my mind, make my inner editor shut up, ease my anxiety, and helps me unleash all the creativity that I have bottled up inside.
  • Plan a Field Trip! Sure, this isn’t elementary school anymore, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan a trip to help boost your team’s morale or to help reinvigorate their creativity.
  • Or plan a vacation for yourself. Just the act of planning for a vacation can help boost your mood. The anticipation of a trip is a great way to make the day go by quickly. Of course, you shouldn’t be working on your plans while you’re on company time, but no one says that you can’t daydream for a while during your break.
  • Try starting a side business. It’s going to be difficult but if you’ve always dreaming about being an artisan, designer, writer, artist, or craftsman, this might be your chance. Take the time to do the research and feel free to daydream about your these plans as well, when you’re on your break at work.

How to Cure Boredom At Work

Unfortunately, boredom can’t help you all the time. You may find yourself feeling a little lethargic, bored, and restless at work. Everyone goes through rough patches and feelings of being uninspired. During these times, try a few of these suggestions to help cope and cure your boredom bug:

  • Try learning a new skill at work. Sometimes we’re tasked with jobs or errands that don’t require our full engagement. Grunt work can be boring: stuffing envelopes, filing, organizing your office, cleaning the break room, printing copies for a meeting, etc. During these times, you may be able to sneak in an episode of an educational podcast. You can listen to an excerpt that can help you learn a new language, or listen to something that might get you excited about a personal project at home. One thing that always gets me through a workweek, is to have something waiting for me at the end of said workweek: a mini-vacation, an actual vacation, a ball game, some time with my friends, some time with my hobbies, etc.
  • Make sure that your morning/commute is exciting and gets you hyped up for your day. Sometimes we don’t even have to get out of bed in the morning before the boredom strikes. We don’t want to make the trip into work because we know that we’re not going to be happy or challenged. However, instead of wallowing, try to be proactive. If it starts right when you get up, prep for this the night before. Prepare the coffee pot, that way you have the smell of coffee to wake you up in the morning. Pick out your suit or work attire and have it ready for you. Use your favorite cologne after your morning shower. Play the radio and sing along – if your spouse doesn’t mind you hitting some of the wrong notes. Listen to an energizing playlist in the car. If you’re not a fan of listening to music, try some podcasts or an exciting audio book. You can also consider asking your boss if you can work remotely (from home) a couple days a month, or perhaps just spend half of the day working in a café or a different setting all together.
  • Maybe it’s not that you’re bored of work but you’re just exhausted in general. After all, we’re not all morning people. The feeling of boredom that you have might stem from the fact that you can’t concentrate because you’re so tired. In situations like these, there are a few things that you might want to try. Make sure that you’re paying attention to what you eat and drink. When you get tired at work (because the mid-day slump can pack quite a wallop) try some simple but quick exercises. You can also just get up and take a walk around the floor, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, or walk to the breakroom to refill your coffee cup. Working standing up (using a makeshift or store bought standing desk) is a great way to stay alert. It’s a lot harder to fall asleep while you’re standing. Staying hydrated will keep you awake as well. A powernap can also help, of course, it’s not always possible to take one. Talk with your boss about taking a possible powernap. It should only last around 20 minutes (any longer and you risk falling into a deep sleep), and it should be no later than 3:00 or you might mess up your sleep schedule. Try using caffeine as a last resort after all of these other tricks have failed.
  • Spice up your work environment by livening up the colors and textures. Your environment does a lot to help you stay mentally stimulated and, well, awake. Use some bright colors on your walls. Clean off your desk. Add a lamp or two if you can. Make it bright so you’re not likely to want to doze when you’re working at your desk late at night. Try some ergonomic furniture as well: keyboard, mouse, chair. Having a good chair isn’t just good for your posture, it’s good for your back in the long run. If you can afford it, try a stand-up desk instead of a regular one. Or make one by putting your keyboard and computer monitor on a platform on your desk. A few plants can help liven up the mood and can clear the air around you as well. Put up motivational pictures and posters. Set some framed pictures of your family on your desk. It will help remind you why you’re working so hard each day. But livening up your desk isn’t just about what you see, try stimulating your other senses: air fresheners or sprays that clean the air around you, small containers of snacks to perk you up, and add a work playlist that can stimulate your brain too. Try some classical music or some dance music if you need to get up and take a dance break every now and then.
  • Try to get some new responsibilities at work or get some bonus points by working extra hard on your projects. Remember that intrinsic rewards are more satisfying than extrinsic rewards so aim to please yourself first, then aim to please others (like your boss). Often, you may be able to talk with your boss about changing your job description. You might be able to swing a few extra projects that you find more entertaining than the projects you currently work on. Aiming to be an overachiever at work can keep you engaged and you may be able to score some brownie points as well.
  • Try Pomodoro. I have always found it hard to focus for hours at a time. My brain gets tired and then I start zoning out. Ever since I found the Pomodoro technique, I’ve been more focused and productive at work. Pomodoro consists of four 25-minute work sprints (meaning for 25 minutes, you work as hard as you can). In between those sprints are three 5-minute breaks. You can do anything you want in those breaks as long as you’ll be ready to get back to the task at hand when the timer goes off. Then, after the last 25-minute work sprint, there is an extended 15-minute break. One full Pomodoro is about two hours long. I run a full Pomodoro, then take my 1- minute work-mandated break. Then I go back to work for another full Pomodoros and then it’s my lunch break. One more full Pomodoro, my final work mandated 15-minute break, then one more full Pomodoro. The final 15-minute break in my last Pomodoro is saved to prep my office for the end of the day. I schedule my next work day and clear off my desk.

The last thing that I want to suggest is to become more collaborative and social when you are bored at work. I wanted this particular tip to stick out because it is aimed directly at millennials (of which I am also classified). We have a tendency of withdrawing or closing ourselves off and building up a wall when things don’t go our way. We are all social creatures and while this may be our natural tendency, it’s not a healthy one.

Being a social person at work may take more effort, but that might be what you need in order to stop the boredom at its roots. Be a team player. Collaborate. Smile more. Be friendly. All of these things will help build your engagement level and your confidence, which will lift that boredom right out.

The act of being social and engaging with others is actually quite stimulating. It is something that we are missing these days – face to face interaction, I mean. In the age of social media pages, texting, and other types of digital connectivity, face to face interactions are falling by the wayside. When you interact with one another, you’re learning an important lesson in building relationships. You can’t fully build a relationship online, not one that will last a long time and will have depth. Being socially awkward in front of a person and being vulnerable is an important lesson. You learn what to do in situations where you can’t just hide behind a computer. Unless you work from home, you won’t be able to hide behind a computer screen forever. Even if you do work from home, you’re going to have to interact with people via phone or video chat eventually anyway.

Manners, social interaction, respect, job satisfaction, and building strong relationships are all strengthened by face to face conversations and interactions. Being behind a computer is part of a reason why more millennials are bored out of their wits. Being behind a computer is safe. You don’t have to worry about having too much of a backlash when you say something rude. The anonymity of the internet has taken away that fear that we used to get when we were primitive. Sitting behind a computer, not interacting with people in a face to face setting is the modern day equivalent to settling down at a place for too long. We were meant to be nomads, just like we are meant to be social creatures.