August 16, 2014

Incentives to Confuse a Boring Job with One That Isn’t Interesting

You probably brushed your teeth this morning. Was it boring? No. It just wasn’t interesting or exciting. That should be obvious.

There was no sense of irritation, impatience, frustration, fatigue, pressure, tension or any other experience of stress that is associated with boredom (unless you were behind schedule, in which case panic was doubtlessly more likely than boredom). Brushing in itself was just rhythmic and necessary.

Yet although it is equally obvious that, when we are talking about many, if not most, of our other daily activities and routines, “boring” and “not interesting” are not equivalent, somehow, when it comes to work, we tend to think that “not interesting” equals “boring”.

Now, why is that?

More importantly, does that equation, when we buy into it, tell us something subtle or deep about our attitudes toward work or our specific jobs? Does it tell us something about our self-image or the career or job image we wish to project? Or is there something wrong with our logic? And are we spoiling our work experience or enhancing it by calling it “boring”?

This latter question raises the possibility that there may be unconscious payoffs for us in experiencing or reporting our work as boring.

How can that be? Payoffs for feeling bored?

How It Can Pay to Be Bored: a Clinical Model

An illustration from psychotherapy is useful in showing exactly how: A physically and emotionally abused wife is in counseling to help her deal with her physical and emotional trauma, her life circumstances and her feelings and actions or inaction about it all.

She says that she feels bad (on analogy with feeling bored, even though boredom is a much milder negative psychological state than hers is) because she believes it’s all her fault. She must have done something to provoke him; so, as she sees it, the goal of her therapy is to help her figure out what the triggers are and how not to squeeze them, as the key part of her task of exercising some control over her life by accepting some responsibility for it. In the meantime, she is plagued with feelings of guilt and responsibility.

Clearly, she does feel bad. But what she doesn’t realize is that in some sense she has chosen to feel that bad in order not to feel worse; the negative guilt feelings she owns up to and claims are actually a buffer between her and a much, much worse feeling: utter helplessness.

Why helplessness? Because, in fact, she is doing nothing to provoke or encourage her husband’s abusiveness (apart from staying with him). He is going to abuse her just because and when he feels like it (and almost certainly after getting drunk, which is routinely yet in detail unpredictable).

This means she cannot control or predict his abusiveness, contrary to her transparent presupposition that, since she feels guilty, she indeed does have some control, i.e., power, regarding her experiences and situation. Bottom line: The pain of her guilt feelings protects her from the greater pain of feelings of abject powerlessness.

This example captures the dynamics of various cases of workplace boredom (with consequences that, although not as dire as that woman’s, still take a toll) when in fact it is nothing more than mislabeled, misexperienced work experience that is merely not interesting.

A workplace example that precisely parallels the trauma counseling illustration just given is not hard to conceive: A mid-level manager is in a job that offers an acceptable skills-challenge match, with some variation in the form of occasional tasks that are too easy (leading to mild boredom) and others that are a bit too hard or otherwise demanding (also leading to mild boredom). In general, he can easily make it through his day with feelings no more negative than the feeling (or lack of feelings) associated with brushing one’s teeth, as a challenge met by the required skill set.

Feelings That Mask Feelings

Yet, when asked, “How’s work?”, he says “Boring. Same-o-same-o…”—as though sameness and consistency equal boring monotony. Like the abused wife, he semi-shudders when reporting his emotional reaction to his experience; yet also like her, he is choosing an emotion that, however unpleasant, can mask and buffer an even more negative one.

Which one? The more uncomfortable and therefore more evaded feeling that he deserves to be in a job that isn’t really challenging—perhaps because he is being denied or not up to such a challenge, i.e., because he is, in fact, a mid-level mediocrity. Unconsciously, he is afraid not to be or report being bored, lest he face his fear of being (seen as) the kind of underemployed professional who would be satisfied with such an unchallenging (which does not equate with “boring”) job.

You protest: “Surely an unchallenging job has got to be boring!” Really? Well, then what about a gorgeous sunset? Does it have to be challenging to be uplifting, engaging and to put you into a blissful state? Of course not. The assumption that being in the zone presupposes challenge is the Achilles heel of theories like flow theory that posit a challenging skills-challenge match as a necessary condition for emotional fulfillment.

So, our manager in the unchallenging job need not feel bored, just as a guy on a beach blanket watching the Sun set need not feel bored either, despite the lack of anything remotely resembling a challenge or a surprise. As for stimulation as a prerequisite for immunization against boredom, it is worth noting how many people will go to the beach every night to watch very similar sunsets, without a trace of any boredom ever or complaint about the “monotony” of sunsets.

The Implications of Choosing to Feel Bored

The implication of all of this is that the manager is choosing to misexperience job sameness, lack of stiff challenges and lack of anything distinctly interesting as boredom—and is doing so not because of some innate response to the nature of the job, the lack of novelty, or to the skills-challenge matches it offers, but, instead, in order to protect his self-image and public image.

Not only is his boredom bogus, it is also motivated and sustained by a social and psychological incentive: saving face and feeling good about himself. Accordingly, if made aware of this “game”, the manager has constructive options.

The first is to either accept his job for what it is—not interesting, but not boring. The second is to find a job that is a better fit for his self-image and/or skills-talents standards (assuming he really does want to be stretched by some challenges).

The third is to quit working altogether, go to the beach and decide how he feels while idle under countless, unchallenging sunsets.

[Note: The role of “surprise” and recent research about it as an offset to boredom and a factor in happiness in work-life satisfaction is a  topic that I’ll be tackling in an upcoming article.]

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Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).