I enjoy the work I do as a software developer… most of the time. As with any passion that becomes a profession, some tasks make me question why I started programming in the first place. While I still love my craft, tasks that have a long feedback loop, don’t require much brainpower, or that aren’t very enjoyable are a recipe for boredom.
Recently I’ve been trying to be more mindful of my boredom since I felt it was having an impact on my productivity. Why do I unconsciously open Reddit for the hundredth time in a day, expecting something new, when boredom sets in? After doing some reflection, the answer was simple: like many other emotions, boredom is uncomfortable. Just like when I’m embarrassed or scared, my natural response to boredom is to distract myself from the situation that is causing me to feel bored.
With this newly discovered knowledge, I’ve come up with some strategies to keep focus and become more at ease with my boredom.
Distraction ≠ Break
Before I get into the details, I want to call something out. When I’m talking about distracting myself from boredom, I’m not talking about taking a break from work.
I recognize that taking breaks is an important part of working at a sustainable pace. We as humans are not meant to strain our brains for eight hours straight, so taking short breaks throughout the day is important. What I am talking about is the urge to stop doing the task at hand because it is boring. This is the difference between taking a five-minute break after thirty minutes of working, and taking a thirty-minute break after five minutes of working, causing me to lose billable hours.
Stop and Reflect
When I’m doing something to distract myself from boredom, my brain is usually on autopilot. If I’m opening up Reddit because I’m bored at work, there’s no explanation other than habit. But if I stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I can usually snap out of autopilot and become more aware of how I feel.
If I acknowledge that I’m distracting myself rather than taking a break, it’s easier to recognize that I’m only lengthening the duration of boredom. This makes it easier to focus on the boring task because I will complete it faster if I am not distracting myself.
Even if I am taking a mental break, it’s useful to be more intentional about what I am doing. If this is the fifth time I’m using Reddit as a break from work, odds are I’ve already clicked all the links I’ve wanted to see. Recognizing this allows me to use my mental break to recharge in different ways. If I’m working from home, maybe I’ll go pet my cats or do the dishes. If I’m in the office, I’ll take a lap around the building. Break activities should be anything that allows me to truly turn my brain off before I’m ready to get back to work.
Sometimes it’s too late. You’re already sucked into social media, and you’re reading posts about the politics of Estonia. It’s not because you’re interested in what’s going on on the other side of the world, but because your brain is on autopilot.
In this case, it can be useful to ask yourself, “Am I enjoying myself right now?” If I am, I’ll continue reading about events around the world. But, more often than not, I’m scrolling to avoid boredom. Snapping out of autopilot allows me to recognize I’m prolonging the boredom, and that motivates me to get back to the boring task.
Since I’ve become more mindful about my boredom, I’ve noticed that the end-of-day burnout I experience after a long day of work is less intense. This is because I’m allowing my brain to rest. I’ve stopped switching between work and entertainment throughout the day. This allows my brain to rest and leaves me more energized by the time the workday ends.
I’ve also noticed that getting back to boring tasks is less scary. If I spend my breaks doing something non-stimulating, suddenly work becomes more interesting. This is because when I’m entertaining myself, work becomes a punishment. However, if I’m letting my brain idle, working is less of a punishment and more of an activity. Next time you get bored doing something, like writing documentation, try doing nothing. I would bet that writing documentation starts to sound more appealing.