Bored at Work? Here’s What Your Brain Is Trying to Tell You

That we spend much, if not most, of our lives work­ing is, in itself, not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing — unless, that is, we’re bored doing it. In the Big Think video above, Lon­don Busi­ness School Pro­fes­sor of Orga­ni­za­tion­al Behav­ior Dan Cable cites Gallup polls show­ing that “about 70 per­cent of peo­ple are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about eigh­teen per­cent of peo­ple are repulsed.” This may sound nor­mal enough, but Cable calls these per­cep­tions of work as “a thing that we have to get through on the way to the week­end” a “human­is­tic sick­ness”: a bad con­di­tion for peo­ple, of course, but also for the “orga­ni­za­tions who get lack­lus­ter per­for­mance.”

Cable traces the civ­i­liza­tion­al roots of this at-work bore­dom back to the decades after the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, a shoe-shop­per would go to the local cob­bler. “Each of the peo­ple in the store would watch the cus­tomer walk in, and then they’d make a shoe for that cus­tomer.” But toward the end of the cen­tu­ry, “we got this dif­fer­ent idea, as a species, where we should not sell two pairs of shoes each day, but two mil­lion.”

This vast increase of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty entailed “break­ing the work into extreme­ly small tasks, where most of the peo­ple don’t meet the cus­tomer. Most of the peo­ple don’t invent the shoe. Most of the peo­ple don’t actu­al­ly see the shoe made from begin­ning to end.”

It entailed, in oth­er words, “remov­ing the mean­ing from work” in the name of ever-greater scale and effi­cien­cy. The nature of the tasks that result don’t sit well with a part of our brain called the ven­tral stria­tum. Always “urg­ing us to explore the bound­aries of what we know, urg­ing us to be curi­ous,” it sends our minds right out of jobs that no longer offer us the chance to learn any­thing new. One solu­tion is to work for small­er orga­ni­za­tions, whose mem­bers tend to play mul­ti­ple roles in clos­er prox­im­i­ty to the cus­tomer; anoth­er is to engage in big-pic­ture think­ing by stay­ing aware of what Cable calls “the why of the work,” its larg­er impact on the world, as well as how it fits in with your own pur­pose. But then, bore­dom at work isn’t all bad: a bout of it may well, after all, have led you to read this post in the first place.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ben­e­fits of Bore­dom: How to Stop Dis­tract­ing Your­self and Get Cre­ative Ideas Again

The Phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Pur­pose in a Mean­ing­less Uni­verse

How to Take Advan­tage of Bore­dom, the Secret Ingre­di­ent of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Find­ing Pur­pose & Mean­ing In Life: Liv­ing for What Mat­ters Most — A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • regular lurker says:

    Marx referred to this in his the­o­ry of alien­ation, that work­ers were alien­at­ed or sep­a­ra­tion from the prod­uct of their labor and the mean­ing of it.

    See also Grae­ber’s “Bull­shit Jobs.”

  • sh says:

    In the US a huge per­cent­age of peo­ple stay in jobs they active­ly hate for one rea­son and one rea­son only: the health insur­ance. IF they’re lucky enough to get employ­ee ben­e­fits at all.

  • Flávia says:

    We are not going any­where with machines
    We are made to have human rela­tion­ship
    Not machines rela­tion­ships.

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