When we think of burnout, we usually picture the times when we’re firing on all cylinders for weeks on end, perhaps working toward a major milestone or just struggling to keep the ship afloat. But research suggests there’s a different kind of burnout that’s unrelated to overwork—and the cause might surprise you.
Do you remember the last time you spent a day on the couch, flipping through the channels? As a busy entrepreneur, you probably have to dig wayyy back in your memory to think of it, but humor me.
As you sat on the couch, mindlessly clicking the remote, how did you feel? Probably not energized or engaged. Instead, you probably felt lethargic. You might have even dozed off.
And while from time to time, a day on the couch is just what the doctor ordered, imagine if you had to do it all day, every day. You’d go insane! With so little stimulation, you’d be ready to do whatever it took to get away from your couch-turned-prison. You’d be burned out simply from sitting in front of the TV.
In a similar way, boredom and burnout are directly linked.
The Pathology of Bordeom
A fascinating study dating back to the 1950’s illustrates the surprising and alarming effects of boredom on our psyche.
In 1957, a psychology professor at McGill University set out to study what happens to the brain if it’s deprived of stimuli. He paid student test subjects to lie on a bed in a very small room. Their vision was limited and cushions were placed over their ears to muffle sounds. The subjects were to stay in the room for six weeks, studying.
Despite being given ample food, bathroom breaks and opportunities to sleep, none of the test subjects lasted more than a week in the room. Most only made it a few days.
As one of the researchers observed, the subjects reported that “the most striking thing about the experience was that they were unable to think clearly about anything for any length of time and that their thought processes seemed to be affected in other ways.”
Indeed, their performance on cognitive tasks suffered. The lack of stimuli made it impossible for them to focus.
And it’s not just decades-old studies that support the theory that boredom is bad for us. In a 2014 paper, neurologist Judy Willis sums up how boredom can negatively impact judgement, goal-setting, risk assessment and focus, among other things.
As Willis explains, when there’s a discrepancy between our desire for stimulation and the existence of any, it’s as if our brains are being short-circuited. This explains why sitting in silence for hours can be maddening despite the fact that we all crave peace and quiet from time to time. It’s about our reality being in line with what our brain needs.
Boredom In The Modern Workplace
So if boredom can cause burnout, where’s the boredom coming from? Surely not our jobs.The modern workplace is anything but boring, a whirr of dinging texts and new inbox alerts. Or is it?
The problem, according to experts, isn’t whether we’re simply getting stimulated, but the quality of that stimulation.
As sociologist Orrin Klapp explained to Psychology Today, our workplaces are high-intensity in terms of the quantity of stimuli—your desk phone, your cell phone, your Facebook feed, your employees—but those stimuli are incredibly repetitive and thus, quickly cease to engage us.
There are only so many text messages you can answer before you start to feel exhausted. Instead, we just feel inundated. Cue the burnout.
Curing Boredom To Curb Burnout
Our struggle as entrepreneurs isn’t much different than the one teachers face with kids who are fast learners; because the material isn’t stimulating for them, their boredom often manifests in disengagement or worse, behavioral problems. Ours manifests in burnout.
If we want to beat boredom-induced burnout, experts say, we should strive not just to stay busy, but to stay engaged. Try the following:
- Switch up your routine. Usually head to the gym after work? Try sneaking in a morning workout instead. Hold your weekly conference call from a park bench instead of at your desk. Skip the same-old lunch spot in favor of a new place.
- Keep learning. Whether it’s a new software you’ve been meaning to master or a skill completely unrelated to your job, learning something new is one way to get the neurons in your brain firing. For some inspiration, check out our 9 favorite resources for continued learning, no matter what your field.
- Get out of your bubble. Just as the college students in the study needed to get out of their tiny rooms, you need to break out of your bubble every so often. Chances are you engage with the same 5-10 people on a regular basis, and yep—they can be a contributing factor to your boredom! Mix things up by joining a new group or attending one of those Chamber of Commerce meetings you always blow off.
- Don’t get complacent. Whatever you do, don’t accept boredom or burnout as the status quo. It is possible to achieve a balance between pursuing your passion and letting it consume you. Like anything, you have to work at it!
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