How To Be Productive When Bored At Work

How To Be Productive When Bored At Work

If you’re bored, that means you’re boring – Mrs. Schellenberg [my 3rd Grade Teacher]

I have never forgotten this statement. I can clearly remember to whom and how Mrs. Schellenberg said it. I can remember what I was wearing that day. I remember what subject we were studying. For some reason that nugget of wisdom snapped at a fellow student in such a perfectly scary-teacher-way really stuck with me. As a result, I have always looked inward when I am “bored” and find things to do that are “productive” and occupy my mind, my body, and my time. There are some pretty shocking statistics around boredom at work…here are a few to marinade in:

How Boredom Can Inspire Productivity

It seems counter-intuitive but boredom can – sometimes – be a catalyst for innovative solutions to common challenges or obstacles. When you’re looking to get busy, sometimes what you do is to fill your time with distraction and activity “stuff” that make you feel you’re always in doing something. “YAY!!! You’re not bored anymore!” Browsing the internet, perusing Instagram, or your Twitter feed…these are time fillers.

The problem of doing “stuff” all the time is that you don’t stop to analyze if what you are doing is aligned with your objectives and your strategic business [or life] plan . It’s one thing to be busy and another to be productive. In order to have “stuff” be “productive stuff”, you must have goals and priorities, define your strategies, and plan. There needs to be a balance and calibration between thinking and doing. Being bored isn’t horrible if you use it to your advantage…

  • When you are bored, your mind relaxes and you’re more inclined to contemplate: Contemplation is a fundamental planning function for your life. Channeling that time you find you have out of “autopilot” and  into intentional contemplation will help you find purpose in your boredom. You can assess the things that need to be addressed, start thinking of way to achieve them, and then – take action on them.
[Another meeting doodle]
  • When you are bored, your mind starts will start to innovate:  Again, when you focus on intentional contemplation you think through a course of action that you can follow. You can find inspiration in your ideas. Just like all ideas, some will be fun, some will be impossible, some may be super kooky, and some may be potentially amazing. You think of ways to conquer new things and ideas to improve things that already exist. It provokes and encourages options to work through when you take action. Basically, boredom forces you to be curious [and that’s never a bad thing…]. As I have mentioned before, I am a compulsive doodler and while I am drawing – either through a meeting or when I am at an impasse on a project – I generally can motivate action towards my objectives.  According to Jackie Andrade, a psychology professor at Plymouth University in the U.K., “doodling distracts people from consciously thinking about a problem, it allows for a ‘subconscious incubation of the solution’.”

Today’s world is noisy and very busy – it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone has the time available to be bored. But…according to the British Psychological Society, “Most research in the field of workplace boredom focuses on task repetitiveness. Studies that have looked at boredom have revealed a burgeoning trend called The Boredom Boom.” The Boredom Boom is a condition that can be more stressful and damaging than overwork [according to the Washington Post].  Boredom can cause employees to – figuratively physically, but realistically mentally – waste away, unchallenged and uninspired at their desks or in behind the tills in retail stores. As frustrating as it is to be bored at work there are some things you can do that can galvanize productivity.

The unfortunate reality is that I see this very frequently in some industries more than others – too many retail organizations [in particular] just homogenize and bully their employees into becoming compliant sheep. Then – oddly – they become frustrated when their employees aren’t proactive problem solvers or take any action to improve their business. You can’t have it both ways. Employees also cannot expect [nor should they] for the organization to deliver their motivation. There should be and needs to be a balance but in the absence of a company motivating their employees – each person needs to control their own future and growth or find someplace that will inspire and engage them.

Tips To Help Overcome Boredom That Can Inspire Productivity

  • LEARN SOMETHING NEW: I have been pretty vocal about people owning their own development and being the biggest cheerleader around their own career path. Our loud and sometimes blurry world moves very quickly today, and every professional needs to learn new skills – consistently – to remain competitive and support their marketability. Fortunately, this also serves as the first actionable upshot for fighting back against workplace boredom: Learning something new can help the time fly by, and it may restore interest, as well as a sense of accomplishment, in your career. Research suggests that learning and accomplishment are vital criteria for making employee engagement a standard of the company’s culture. For the employee, this means keeping abreast of industry changes, new trends, or emerging innovations and skills that can enhance your reputation and performance.
  • ASK FOR STRETCH ASSIGNMENTS: This point is congruent with learning something new but working in tandem with your employer. Assigning challenging stretch assignments is a staple behavior of a great leader because it involves matching employees with goals or tasks that challenge them without becoming overwhelming. This requires a leader and their employees to have authentic and open communication in order to assign tasks and create milestones that complement the strengths of their team members. Whereas a lack of challenge causes almost every employee to disengage. Keeping in mind, an overwhelming challenge can cause anxiety and disengagement – – an appropriate challenge, and the mental focus and energy required to tackle it, can be extremely exciting to a high-performing or high-potential employee – this type of challenge can be fabulous for renewing enthusiasm.
  • BECOME HYPER-COLLABORATIVE & UP YOUR SOCIAL INTERACTIONS: We’re social creatures, but when we lack motivation or aren’t being challenged, our enthusiastic disposition and social inclinations can definitely ebb. After all, we can sit at our desks and delve into a world of Facebook, SnapChat, Twitter…any number of things that allow us to retreat into our own space and mind and wallow in boredom. If you’ve found yourself struggling to remain engaged and interactive at work, take a close look at your behavior. Are you being a social partner and an active colleague. Even when you’re not performing work that requires collaboration, a collaborative temperament and personality can be fabulous to keep you engaged and social with your colleagues. Smile more – be THAT person in the building. Make new workplace friends outside your immediate coworker pool. Offer support to a colleague and don’t be afraid to ask for help in return. Research shows asking for favors may actually help you become more charming to others.
  • BUILD A “HOW-TO GUIDE” FOR YOUR ROLE: I recently was working with a retail organization and one of the most consistent grumbles I heard was about the quantity of calls people received on their days off or when they were on vacation. So I suggested that they create a guide to help people figure out the who, what, where, why, and how of their roles. This allows for people to step in and support that job and have a resource to answer any questions they may have. It gives you something productive to do with your perceived “down-time” and it may inspire productivity in areas of your job that you feel a sense of ennui around and view it from a different perspective.
  • GET ORGANIZED: Whether it is lots of files [for accessbility] on your laptop as you are working through a project – or papers that need to be filed – once you are at a standstill or have finished with a project, it is a great time to organize and clean your work-space. Keeping things in their proper place and creating order is likely impossible when you’re extremely busy. Slow times, though, are perfect opportunities to reorganize after the chaos and it can have other benefits as well on your attitude toward work and upcoming projects.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am passionate about and committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog around how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations.

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