The Fun in Boredom with James Danckert

PodcastJune 28, 2021
stick man with VR and other gadgets

Boredom feels uncomfortable because it is pushing you to be the person that’s in control, to acknowledge that you’re the author of your own life.

– James Danckert

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In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke is joined by James Danckert, professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo and coauthor of Out Of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, with the goal of understanding a thing we typically try to avoid at all costs: boredom. More specifically, they dive into the purpose of boredom and how we can make these dull moments important and meaningful.

This podcast covers a variety of exciting topics, including: 

  •  Why boredom is so important for finding meaning in your life
  •  How the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ can help you get focused
  • What Chris Hadfield, farming, and the myth of “only boring people get bored” all have in common
  • Why COVID-19 has made us more bored than ever before
  • How the “Dark Room Problem” means our brains can’t operate as predictive machines
  • Why you should sometimes binge-watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians 

The conversation continues

TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.

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Key Quotes

On technology: 

“We’re surrounded by stuff. We have our computers, we have our phones, we might have two computers, depending on how you sort of structure your work life. And perhaps that gives an illusion that we’re constantly stimulated, but we might not be stimulated in the perfect way or in the right way.” – James Danckert

On escapism:  

“When people get bored they feel that agitation, they feel that restlessness, and then there might be a tendency to just lurch towards the quickest, easiest thing. That’s why people often pacify boredom with things like social media. And we also know that people pacify boredom with things like alcohol and drugs. So, turning to that quick solution is not spending enough time thinking about what boredom is telling you. Not spending enough time calmly reflecting on “why am I bored right now?” “What would be meaningful to me?” And “what might be the next positive step that I can take?” – James Danckert

On spontaneous collaboration: 

“I think organizations try and say to their employees “I want you to be collaborative now! Go!” or “I want you to be spontaneous now! Go!” But those organizations are set up for failure. I’ve been involved in some of those things in various places where people are brought together and they say, “We want you to figure out how to make things more collaborative across institutions.” It has to be organic.” – James Danckert

On how high expectations can fuel boredom:

If we are expecting something to be super rewarding or if we’re expecting something to be more stimulating or more engaging than it realistically has the chance to be, then we’re probably setting ourselves up for failure, and we will ultimately feel bored.” -James Danckert

On productivity and the workweek: 

“There is a sense in which, as a society, we want to strike a balance between how much time we have outside of our work to do all those things that are really important to being human like interacting with our friends, family, and pursuing hobbies. All these kinds of things that make our lives rich. We want to strike a balance between those things and work, but that balance is not going to be two days of work and five days of weekend.” – James Danckert


Brooke Struck: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is James Danckert, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, and co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, which he wrote with John Eastwood. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about boredom, so much more than just your favorite lockdown pastime. James, thanks for joining us.

James Danckert: It’s my pleasure. It’s great to be here.

Brooke: Please tell us a bit about yourself and what put you on the trail to reading this book?

James: Right. So as you mentioned, I’m in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo, actually I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. So my interest in understanding human behavior is really tied to understanding how the brain controls our behavior. And I got into boredom research, I think there are two main reasons why I’m interested in boredom. One is that it’s a sort of physician heal thyself kind of problem. I experienced boredom more than I’d like to admit. And so if I can understand it, then I might be able to overcome it and deal with it better.

James: The other reason that got me into boredom research is that, as a much younger person, my older brother had a serious motor car accident. During his recovery, he talked about being bored a lot. And to me, that seemed like well, that was a consequence of the head injury that he’d suffered. And much later, I trained as a clinical neuropsychologist and I would see young people like him who had similar brain injuries. And I would ask them if they were bored now more than they were before their brain injury, and to a number, they would all say yes. And so, it seemed to me that there was good reason to suspect that something about their head traumas had caused this increased level of boredom. And so that was one of the other motivations that got me into studying boredom.

James: It took a long time before I got around to actually being able to study boredom. I think the first paper we published was in 2005. And so writing of the book recently with John, it was that we felt like there was a good moment that enough interesting and new ideas had come out about boredom. I mean, we’ve been studying it for more than a century, but in bits and pieces. It hasn’t really been at the forefront of psychological research. People study other things much more conservatively.

James: But over the last two decades, I’d say, interest in studying boredom and our understanding boredom has really exploded. John and I both felt now is the right time to try and write a book that condensed some of those ideas and gave them to the public, so that people could think about boredom in a slightly different way than they have been in the past. Boredom is not just laziness, or a lack of drive, or any of those kinds of things that sometimes people associate with boredom. And so we thought it was time to write the book and highlight to people what we think boredom really is.

Brooke: Yeah, that’s a perfect segue. Tell us what is boredom, and what makes us bored?

James: Right. The quote that I love to start with comes from Leo Tolstoy from Anna Karenina, where he describes boredom as the “desire for desires”. So that really is important to the key about boredom: it’s a motivation. You really want something, you want to be doing something that matters to you. By casting it as a desire for desires, it also captures the true conundrum of boredom: you want something, but you don’t want anything that’s in front of you, or you don’t think that anything that’s available to you is going to work. So you’re sort of in this kind of in-between state. This is why we would also say that boredom is uncomfortable. When you’re bored, you tend to be sort of restless and agitated because you have those twin things: wanting something but failing to satisfy that want. And so yeah, the sort of more prosaic way of putting it is that boredom is an uncomfortable feeling of an unmet desire to be engaged in something purposeful and meaningful to you.

James: And that also sort of highlights one of the key things about boredom for us, which is that boredom really threatens your sense of agency. And by that, I mean, that when you’re functioning well and operating well, you sort of feel like you’re in control, you’re the one that’s driving whatever it is that you’re doing. And you chose the activity you’re doing, you chose the goal that you’re pursuing, and you’re making progress, and that has that really positive and important sense of agency to it that we all want. When you’re bored, you’re missing that. Actually, it’s being made quite obvious to you that you’re not demonstrating agency very well. And that’s one of the reasons why boredom is so uncomfortable.

James: To your other part there about what makes us bored? Everything and nothing. I like to sort of make the analogy between boredom and happiness in that sort of sense. If you ask me what makes people happy? You would probably think, well, that’s a silly question because any number of things can make people happy. And the same thing is true for boredom, any number of things can make people bored, and what makes me bored won’t necessarily make you bored. And so, yeah, whatever it is that makes you bored is somewhat unique to the individual.

James: Now there are things that are sort of commonly make many people bored. Like we often think of monotony, something that’s just droning on, and on, and on. That’ll make people bored. But I think also, situations where you feel like you have no control, where you don’t have agency. So if any of your listeners can imagine a circumstance where they’ve been trapped in an event that they didn’t really want to go to, their spouse or their partner dragged them to some sort of event, and they have to sit through it for the next hour and a half or two hours. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t change the event, you can’t change how you’re interacting with the event, because you’re sitting there being passively talked at for whatever purpose. That kind of lack of control, most people will find boring as well.

James: I think the other big thing that people talk about often is a lack of meaning. If the thing that you’re doing right now doesn’t feel like it’s particularly meaningful to you, then you can probably find it boring. And that comes full circle back to the fact that it’s unique to the individual because what I find meaningful and what you find meaningful might be completely different things.

Brooke: So, there’s a particular experience that I want to share with you and just ask you to kind of diagnose this in the terms that we’ve been discussing up until now. I sit at my desk in front of a computer and there are things, and there are bleeps, and there are lights, and there are all kinds of notifications going off around me a million times a minute. And I’m feeling very distracted. And then at the end of my day, I say, “Okay, enough with work now.” So, I turn off my computer and I put away my phone, and then I try and sit down and do something else. Say, play with my daughter or read a book. And maybe reading a book is a good example there. My eyes are tracking along the page, I’m reading the words. But I’m feeling like I want more stimulation than just the book alone provides to me, especially in the first few minutes when I sit down until my brain is kind of recalibrated to how much stimulation I’m getting. Is that boredom that I’m experiencing?

James: Possibly. Another way of describing what I think you’re experiencing is you haven’t found yourself yet in the ‘Goldilocks zone’. And I think for a great many things that we try to do on a day to day basis, we want a sort of perfect kind of zone that is not too little stimulation, and not too much stimulation. This actual idea, and it relates to boredom, very tightly, this idea comes from a guy called Orrin Klapp in the 1980s, who’s a sociologist who wrote about this. He got a really funny phrase in his book where he talks about the fact that we’re bombarded by technology. But it’s funny to me because the technologies he talks about are a pager, and a ghetto blaster, then a Sony Walkman or something like that, all stuff that’s quite anachronistic now.

James: But as you point out, in your own example, yeah, we’re surrounded by stuff. And so we have our computers, we have our phones, we might have two computers, depending on how you sort of structure your work life. And perhaps, that feels, that gives an illusion that we’re constantly sort of stimulated, but we might not be stimulated in the perfect way, in the right way.

James: And so again, I’ll bring it back a little bit to agency, we know that there are some research studies over the last five years showing that some percentage of people have a problematic relationship to their phones, that is that they sort of shown an addictive kind of relationship to their phone. They keep ramping up how much time they’re on it and they feel anxious when they’re not with their phone. But one of the ways in which people interact with their phones is that they just let the phone passively occupy their minds. And perhaps, when you sit down with your book, it’s not active enough, it’s not something… and I don’t mean active as in getting on the treadmill and start running, it’s not that you’re just sort of letting the words passively flow into your mind, it’s not something that you’re actively seeking out and engaging with.

James: So when I come back to the problematic smartphone sort of stuff, I don’t want to be a person who talks about how the internet is ruining our brains. It’s not, it’s allowing massive amounts of things that we couldn’t otherwise do. But if we passively interact with these things, then I think boredom can come into play. When we actively seek out how and consciously choose how we interact with our devices and how we interact with other things in our world, like our kids or reading a book, the key point is that we’re actively choosing when and how we’re going to engage. If you just sort of hope that after a long day at work, that you’ll sit down and pick up a book and it’ll satisfy you, that’s not as active a kind of choice. And so boredom might be…

James: And that destructiveness that you talked about, your mind is wandering, you have to reread a paragraph over and over again, that kind of distraction does suggest that you’re having trouble focusing your attention, focusing your mind, and that we do know that that is associated with being bored. But I think also, what you might be looking for is just some sort of downtime. We can’t always be up and always on the go, we can’t always be constantly pursuing goals and constantly pursuing achievements. Sometimes we just need to chill. And so maybe at that point the book is too much, it’s too hard, because what you really want us to relax, and maybe that’s when you should binge-watch the Kardashians.

Brooke: So it sounds like we’ve got a couple of things going on here. The first is around boredom as agency and meaningfulness. The second is around boredom as the right level of stimulation. So you mentioned this idea of the Goldilocks zone. And that I think, really speaks to this issue of sitting down with a book, if it’s not stimulating enough you’re too low, you’re below the Goldilocks zone. Similarly, if you’re very chill and relaxed, and then all of a sudden, you walk into a very chaotic office environment, where not only your phone and computer are binging and bleeping all the time, but there are lots of people around you whose devices are also doing that, it can feel very intense. So that’s kind of the other side. This is hyperstimulation.

Brooke: And it seems like the story that I talked about of transition from one activity to another also speaks to the fact that our Goldilocks zone might be in a different place depending on our mood and our expectations with regard to a situation and also our level of fatigue. As you mentioned, sometimes you just need a bit of downtime.

Brooke: So I want to transition now towards more pandemic related stuff and specifically lockdown related stuff. With the stay at home orders and a lot of working from home, many of our usual activities have been curtailed, disrupted, or disturbed. And we’ve sought out new activities to replace them where we can. But a lot of people have been reporting feelings of boredom over the last 15-16 months. Why is it that the new activities we’ve been seeking out haven’t managed to quell the boredom?

James: I had to work through how I felt about that fairly early on in the pandemic. I think in those first couple of weeks when we hit lockdown midway through March in 2020. And so you rapidly changed and started working from home and things were all in a little bit of a state of flux. And I felt uncomfortable in those first couple of weeks. How do I fix that discomfort? I established a routine. I set up an office in the basement. I would go down at the same time of day and I would tell my family, “This is my office. So just like you don’t come to my office at work normally, don’t come to the basement.” And then I’d set myself up and I’d do my work.

James: Sometime after, I had the revelation that I’ve just switched one set of routines with another set of routines. It felt good to establish a routine because I think humans need that kind of structure. When we’re unstructured, when we don’t really know from one moment to the next how we’re going to plan our day and execute our day, that’s uncomfortable. But then, after a certain period of time, then, as you say, people start feeling bored about those kinds of things.

James: Well, I think what we missed, at least from my perspective, is we missed spontaneity. We missed agency, choice, and control. We missed that. And we missed it for really tiny, insignificant things, at least in my view. So, the example I like to give is coffee. When I was in my office at work, there are about three different places that I can go and get a coffee at work. I can go to the library, I think there’s a Starbucks on there, there’s a Tim Hortons, which would be my last resort. But anyway,

James: I had the choice, I could do one of those three places. I could choose when I did it. Now home, I’ve got one place I can go to coffee. Sure, I can choose when I go and do it, but it’s the one place. It’s the same coffee over and over again. I’m not going to be making fancy lattes for myself in my kitchen. Some people might, but I’m too lazy for that. And so that tiny, seemingly insignificant capacity to choose when and where I go to get my coffee is gone now. I have routines but I don’t have that little bit of choice.

James: Then I don’t have spontaneity. For a lot of us, when you’re at work, you have these conversations with your coworkers that you can’t predict. And those too might be about things that are seemingly insignificant. I say seemingly because clearly they’re not insignificant, they are actually really important to us. You walk past a coworkers office and you just chat about, “Did you see the game last night? How bad is it that the Leafs lost again?” So, these kinds of conversations that you have seem like they’re trivial, but they’re not, they’re actually quite important. They’re important, unpredictable, unscripted parts of our day, that when we’re in lockdown and we’re all working from home that we don’t have any longer. I think that that is really a pretty good cauldron to brew up some boredom.

Brooke: Yeah, it’s interesting that you should bring up these kinds of serendipitous and unplanned meetings. So much of the innovation literature out there is replete with these examples of organizations wanting to mix things up more so they’ll create common spaces where, essentially people who work in different functions within an organization or even different departments in the university have, in some sense, no choice but to cross paths with one another. So you’d have one common cafeteria, or you’d have one kind of common amenity, that becomes that melting pot, as you say, for lots of different people to cross paths with each other. And that’s where seemingly small fleeting things actually turn into these opportunities for great learning. In fact, that’s something that has worked in a lot of smaller organizations, it’s something that I love. Is that, essentially, you never get pigeonholed into just one place where all the people around you all execute exactly the same functions you do. You get to see and hear everything that’s going on across the entire business all the time, much of which happens just at the coffee machine or at the lunch table.

James: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the collaborations, perhaps all of the collaborations that I have, came about by chance more than anything else. You meet someone at a conference, you weren’t sure what their talk was going to be like or what they were going to be like, and then you get fired up by an idea they have. You both go for a beer afterwards and all of a sudden, you’ve got a collaboration. It’s the unpredictable nature of it that I think is really important.

James: So in neuroscience, there’s been a lot of talk over the last 20 years about what we call predictive coding. The idea is that the brain is a prediction machine. It anticipates the outcomes of action choices, and then it uses prediction error, so it predicts a situation that slightly happened but didn’t perfectly happen. It uses the error from that prediction to sort of change its mental models and mental representations. All of that to say, that model of the brain, that predictive coding model, encounters one particular problem known as the darkroom problem. If the brain is indeed a predictive machine, its best approach would be to curl up in a ball in a dark room because in that circumstance, everything’s maximally predictive. You can predict everything is going to happen to you. And of course, no one does that. Why? Because we get bored, and that pushes us out of the darkroom. And because we also seek novel experiences. We like novelty, we like new things, we like curiosity, we like discovering new things in our world.

James: And then the examples that you’re sort of talking about, in terms of working in small companies and having those common places, I think organizations that try and say to their employees, “I want you to be collaborative now! Go!” or, “I want you to be spontaneous now! Go!” But those are set up for failure. I’ve been involved in some of those things in various places where people are brought together and they say, “The aim is, we want you to figure out how to make things more collaborative across institutions.” It has to be organic. I think that most of the time that it works, it works because it wasn’t predicted.

Brooke: That’s interesting. And it relates back to the point that you made before about wanting routine. We want a certain amount of routine, but we don’t want everything to be scripted. We want a certain amount of agency, but at the same time, things to a certain degree have to happen to us and to be not so hermetically constrained, that actually there are options of what to do. So how do we strike the right balance between structure, serendipity, and chance to end up in those holy lock zones?

James: Yeah, it’s a fantastic question. And there’s two things I’ll say about it. First, I might say, well, I don’t know. I don’t have a great answer to how you find that perfect zone. But one of the other things I’d say is that it’s different for different people too. So, you’ll know people in your life for whom routine and structure is of vital importance, and they really have everything sort of nailed down in their lives. And then you’ll know other people who are quite spontaneous. So each person’s Goldilocks zone is going to be somewhat different.

James: But then the other point that you made, we want agency, but we don’t always want to have to choose. That makes me think about this experience, and this hasn’t happened for 15 months because of the pandemic, but quite commonly when my wife and I decided we want to go out for dinner. It’s this sort of hilarious Abbott and Costello conversation about, “Well, what do you want to go?” “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” “Why don’t you choose?” “Well, I don’t know.” Because neither one of us really wants to take agency at that point, we want the simple, trivial decision of where to go to be made by somebody else. So yeah, we can’t always be on, we can’t always be agentic. Nor we don’t want to always be agentic. And so this is the central challenge of finding that Goldilocks zone.

James: One of the things I think that’s important about that, though, is just having that revelation. Having that understanding that this is actually what you want. This is what boredom is signaling that you’re outside of your Goldilocks zone. I think one of the things that happens when people get bored in the moment is that they feel that agitation, and they feel that restlessness, and then there might be a tendency to just lurch towards the quickest, easiest thing. That’s why people often pacify boredom with things like social media. And we also know that people pacify boredom with things like alcohol and drugs. So, turning to that quick solution is not spending enough time thinking about what boredom is telling you. Not spending enough time calmly reflecting on “why am I bored right now?” “What would be meaningful to me?” And “what might be the next positive step that I can take?” These are not easy questions, but they are the things that boredom is prompting you to address.

Brooke: Right. So the solution to boredom is to lurch instead into existential terror of trying to figure out what my life is actually about.

James: Perhaps for some it feels like terror. I’m not sure, but you’re touching on the fact that the first people to really, or not the first, but one of the groups to most prominently explore boredom were existential philosophers. So, in many senses it is this crisis of meaning, what matters to me? And it’s not an easy question to answer.

Brooke: It’s not even an easy question to formulate and to kind of face up to. That seems like a heavy thing, the transition. If I think about the lived experience of that, the transition from say, sitting on my couch and feeling like, “I’m not really sure what I want to do right now,” to, “I’m not really sure what I am or what I’m about.” That’s heavy, you got to kind of buckle up for that, you can’t just dive in.

James: So, you could choose if you wanted to address those really deep, important questions like what is my place in the universe? What’s my legacy? Where do I fit? How do I belong? Those are big questions and you could do that. But that’s not really what I mean when I suggest that boredom is pushing you to find something that matters to you. It doesn’t have to be on that grand, cosmic sort of scale.

James: So the example that I like to give is that a couple of months into the pandemic, I found myself one afternoon bored out of my mind. So what did I do to fix that? Well, I called my mum in Australia and I asked her for a cake recipe that we used to bake when I was a kid. I baked it. Now that’s trivial. It’s just a cake. And in fact, the cake didn’t turn out that well. But what it did, the purpose that it served, is that I decided for myself, in that moment, that baking a cake would be valuable. It occupied my mind, and it occupied my time. I was in control, and I’d made the choice. So it doesn’t matter that I didn’t cure cancer in that move. What matters is that I chose a thing that I thought would be of value.

James: And so yeah, boredom is not forcing you to necessarily to address the big questions of meaning every time you get bored. I think that would be overwhelming and will probably lead to anxiety. But it is asking you to choose something and choose it consciously. And so say, “Okay, this is the thing I’m going to do for me in this moment.” So yeah, it doesn’t have to be big.

Brooke: That’s a really interesting example because what it illustrates is kind of this mismatch between what I have often sensed is kind of the subjective experience of boredom, which is like boredom is something that happens to me. As you mentioned earlier, this desire for desires, I want to want something. And the response that you bring to that in the example that you just gave, is that you chose what you want. And that, to me is like a bit of a conundrum. Like how is it that you choose what it is that you want? What does that process feel like? How do you do it?

James: Well, that gets into a whole other sort of philosophical rabbit hole as well. Do humans actually have free will? And I think from my point of view, I’m just abdicating any talk of that conversation. I think it’s fascinating, but I don’t really have much to say about it. I think in some sense, my personal opinion would be, no, we don’t have free will, we have a pretty good illusion of it. So just live with the illusion.

James: Whether or not you choose to bake a cake or whether or not you choose to think about the bigger goals and the bigger purpose that you have in your life, I’m not suggesting that in either of those circumstances that the question is easy. It’s not. Again, that’s why boredom feels uncomfortable, because it is pushing you to be the person that’s in control, to acknowledge that you’re the author of your own life. Yeah, that’s not easy and it can be uncomfortable. And I think maybe, for the people who are chronically bored, who experience it a lot, it’s because they struggle to answer that precise question.

James: And I don’t have any magical answers for you about how to go about that., The first thing to do is when you feel bored, and you’re trying to address this kind of question about what matters to me, is to take a couple of deep breaths. As I mentioned, boredom is most commonly accompanied with feelings of agitation and restlessness, because you have that desire for something that’s going unsatisfied. If you don’t deal with that first, if you don’t face that restlessness first and then try and overcome that, just sort of like, “Okay, it’s just boredom, don’t freak out, take a couple of deep breaths.” Then that’s at least a good start to then have a better frame of mind to address the next things.

James: And some of that next steps is just going to be reflection. What is it about right now that’s boring? You gave an example earlier that you’d spent your whole day with things beeping at you, lots of attention grabbing sort of stuff, and you’re sort of tired.

James: Then you go and turn to a book. And why am I not focusing on this book now? Maybe if you reflect on that and ask the question, not, “Am I bored”? But “Why am I struggling to focus on this book”? Maybe it’s because at that point in the day, you’re just too fatigued. And so what you really needed was something even easier than just sitting with a book. You want something that occupies your mind, but didn’t really take huge amounts of effort. So yeah, some of that sort of reflecting on what’s boring about what I’m doing right now and could I reframe it, could I make it into something else. That reframing is something that people have done for centuries as well.

James: So, a lot of the early work on boredom in the early part of the 20th century was related to industrialization. We started to automate things and make factories, and what that meant is that the worker stood in one place and did one thing on the assembly line over and over again for the day. People started to worry at that point, “Well, this is going to lead to boredom, that will lead to stress, and this will be bad for the health of the worker. We need to address this.”

James: But there are stories of assembly line workers who reframed their day to be meaningful. So, instead of saying, “Oh, gee, I’m just doing the same thing widget A to widget B every minute of the day, this is boring.” Instead, some of these individuals would say, “I’m trying to try and beat my last hours time.” or “I’m going to try and beat my personal best of how many widgets I can make in an hour.” Now, all of a sudden, the monotonous, boring task on the assembly line becomes meaningful, because you’ve made it meaningful. You’ve given a purpose to yourself. So, there are lots of ways in which people can reframe things to make them less boring. But there’s no magic solution. But I think reflecting and thinking about, “Well, why is it boring? Why am I not satisfied right now?” is probably a pretty good step.

Brooke: Yeah, so in terms of practical steps, I mean, there seem to be a number of things that you’ve just laid out there, and I think we can start to pull them apart. The factory worker example, I think is a great one, especially if I don’t have much of a choice about the activity that I’m doing right now or that I feel I don’t have that much choice. There is an opportunity to reframe the activity and to pitch it in a different light. Setting yourself these competitions and trying to beat your personal bests and that kind of thing. Another seems to be asking yourself what your expectations of the situation are, and where you’ve come from before. So maybe that’s something that comes a bit more out of the story that I told earlier about moving from very, very stimulating work to a book that’s just kind of, in some sense, very flat and on the page.

Brooke: So first of all, identifying as you pointed out, that not everything that I’m feeling there is boredom. Identifying the fact that actually part of what I’m feeling is just fatigue. And the second is identifying what it is that I was doing before I started to feel this feeling which perhaps I was labeling as boredom. And perhaps that’s part of it but maybe there’s another feeling that I need to identify there along the way. But understanding what it is that I was doing before, and what my expectations are likely to be and where my kind of Goldilocks set points are likely to be, having just transitioned out of what I was doing previously.

Brooke: So to sum those up, that gives us three so far, first of all, reframing the activity that you’re working on. Second of all, identifying what other feelings along with boredom might be going on. And third, trying to think about what your Goldilocks zone might look like the way that you’re feeling right now.

James: Right. Your expectations, I think was the word that you used, I think is a great one. Sometimes, I think we expect too much out of a circumstance. I think many people will have that experience. If you expect too little, and you get surprised that it was better than you thought, that’s a great circumstance. But if you expect too much, so that in the first instance, if you think, “I’m going to go to this show, and I think this is going to be that good.” And you go to the show, it’s like, “It was fantastic.” That’s great. But if you think, “Okay, I’m going to go to the show, and it’s going to be fantastic, going to be the best thing since sliced bread.” And you turn up and it’s kind of ho-hum, now you’ve set yourself up for disappointment experience. Well, the same kind of mismatch can happen for boredom too, for expecting something to be super rewarding or if we’re expecting something to be more stimulating or more engaging than it realistically has the chance to be, then we’re probably setting ourselves up for failure and for ultimately feeling bored.

James: That too is a really hard thing to really think about. In many circumstances that we find ourselves in, how do I know what to expect? It’s difficult to do. But, what that all of that does is point out that we need to reflect on the feelings that we have in the moment. And, as I’ve said a little bit earlier, often when we’re bored, we don’t do that reflection. We don’t actually think hard about our own goals, our own expectations, the current circumstance, and what we might be able to do it. All we do, and this is true certainly of children as well, all we do is we sort of ruminate, we cycle around and around and around that, “I’m bored. I’m bored. This is so boring, I’m bored.” And you can’t get yourself out of that loop if you don’t pause, try to stay calm, and then reflect on the circumstance in a little bit more detail.

Brooke: Yeah. There’s kind of a meta expectation there as well. And this gets back to a comment that you made earlier about the kinds of grand narratives and potentially the egotism that goes into that. Like calibrating expectations, not just about like, “What is it that I want right now? And what would be fulfilling and what am I up to?” And these kinds of things. But also calibrating like a larger scale of expectation that actually, just sometimes in your life, you are going to be under stimulated. Sometimes you are going to feel like you don’t have that much agency and that not everything that you do in your life is meaningful. Standing at the sink, doing some dishes and listening to a podcast can be fine. Not every moment needs to be something that will end up in a history book one day.

James: There’s an interesting thing about that. Two stories, one about Sir Francis Galton and one about Chris Hadfield. Francis Galton wrote a paper in the 1880s called a Measure of Fidget. Now, this guy, Francis Galton, was a very famous scientist who contributed a lot to science and actually is somewhat problematic. But the whole thing of this paper, A Measure of Fidget, is that he found himself sitting in a lecture of some kind. He doesn’t tell us what the lecture is, because he doesn’t want to embarrass the person who gave it, but he was in that lecture and he was bored. I mean, he didn’t actually say that he was bored, but he was bored. He wasn’t paying attention to the lecture. And neither were some of the other audience members.

James: So what did Galton do? He spent the rest of the lecture measuring people’s fidget behaviors. He sort of says, “If people are not attending, they tend to sway side to side, and they tend to look uncomfortable in their chair. But when they’re attending they’re alert, they sit upright, they’re rigid, and they don’t move.” He had this whole paper where he occupied his mind, during something that he thought was boring, by measuring something else.

James: And then that brings me to Chris Hadfield. And that’s a bit of a name drop, but in our book, we tell the story of a conversation that I was lucky enough to have with Chris Hadfield. He’s one of these people that says, “Only boring people get bored.” Tthe interesting thing for me is that once you have a bit of a longer conversation with him, you find out that he gets bored a lot. But what he does is that he actually addresses it super quickly. And so, he doesn’t think he gets bored often, because he never lets it last for very long. And I think that’s what’s true of people who say only boring people get bored. Like Galton, you just pick up and do something else.

James: Hadfield talked about how he grew up in a farm in southwestern Ontario or something. And he said he quite liked ploughing the field on the tractors because you’d see progress. The field ahead of you is not ploughed, the field behind you is plowed, so you have great progress. It was an engaging activity. But then he introduced me to an activity I’ve never heard of before, called harrowing. Now harrowing is essentially ploughing the fields that have already been ploughed. So what you’re doing is you’re breaking up big bits of dirt into smaller bits of dirt. So in front of you is a field of dirt, behind you is a field with dirt, you can’t really see your progress and it’s boring, according to Hadfield. So he’s a guy that said only boring people get bored, and then he described how he gets bored when he just does his harrowing.

James: So what did he do? Well, he says, “I didn’t get bored with that.” I called bullshit on that. What he did was challenge himself to see how long he could hold his breath. So he’s doing this activity that doesn’t occupy much of his cognitive resources, his brain is not occupied enough to satisfy him, he’s not in his Goldilocks zone. So to get into his Goldilocks zone, he challenges himself to see how long you can hold his breath. Probably not recommended when you’re controlling heavy machinery, but that was up to him. Some of us can do that. Some of us can launch into something that keeps us in the Goldilocks zone that keeps us comfortable and mentally occupied. Some of us can, some of us struggle. And the people who struggled to do that are the people who experienced boredom more often and more frequently.

James: But I also think that what that highlights too, is that someone like Chris Hadfield might just be really uncomfortable with downtime. You talk about these Goldilocks zones, and I suggested that they’re different for different people. His might need a narrower range of engagement. He might really need things to be in a specific way to be fully engaged and feeling comfortable about that. Others might have a bigger range of comfort with engagement. And I think when we’re bored, all it’s doing is saying to us that you’re not in your comfortable range of engagement. And so yeah, I think there are lots of ways in which you can get yourself back into that Goldilocks zone and they’re unique to the individual sometimes.

Brooke: So let’s pivot from individual level stuff to more organizational and institutional stuff. It’s helpful to have some practical advice that us mere mortals can put into practice. But on a more systemic level, what is it that organizations can do to help their employees, their teams, to feel that they’re in the Goldilocks zone more often knowing that that’s where more productivity and more creativity and more engagements come from? And those are things that certainly lots of companies are after.

James: Yeah, first of all, I should say that we’re starting to step outside of my expertise. I’m not an industrial-organizational psychologist. And so there are plenty of excellent psychologists of that ilk, and that they address this concern and this challenge in ways that I’m just not super familiar with. But you’re touching on this notion of agency again, and giving people some sense of agency or some sense of control. And so the example that I think most people know about is Google, which said to their employees, “Alright, you do what we want, Monday through Thursday, and then you do what you want Friday.” And that spawned Gmail. So, I think that, that kind of approach works where it’s possible, and it’s not always possible. I don’t think you can sort of do that on a factory floor. You build your widgets Monday to Thursday, and then do whatever you like Friday is probably not going to work in that circumstance.

James: But finding creative ways to allow your employees to have that sense of agency and a sense of ownership. And the sense of ownership over what they do now taps into not agency, but a sense of meaning and purpose. If you’re going to work each day, feeling like what you do matters, then you’ll be much more engaged with that work and much more motivated to do that work.

James: We talked about differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Your paycheck each week is extrinsic motivation. You’re doing it for the money. And we all have a bit of that. And that works reasonably well. But what we know from the sort of literature on reward and reward processing is that intrinsic motivation is far more powerful. When you want to do it, then it’s a much better motivating factor. So if organizations can promote those spaces for agency and intrinsic motivation, then I think that their employees will feel less bored. They’ll have more ownership, more sense of meaning, and pride in what they do, and that would ultimately lead to productivity.

Brooke: It seems like some of the stuff that we’ve been learning during this global work from home experiment is actually potentially shedding some light on that as well. So you mentioned agency and one of the things that comes to mind immediately is the more kind of flexible and negotiable nature of when people are going to work. And that not everyone is maximally productive between the hours of 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM, with a very nice 30 minute break somewhere between 12:00 and 1:00. So, giving people agency to determine when it is that they’re going to work, again, with some barriers, you might say that there are core hours for your company, everyone must be online between 10:00 and 2:00 or something like that. But the rest of your hours, you can basically place whenever you want.

Which can have two nice effects. The first is this, the agency itself of just choosing when you’re going to work. And the second is choosing those moments strategically, that when you’re just kind of you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall and engaged in a Sisyphean task of pushing this rock up the hill that just refuses to stay there. Well, that can be a very powerful sign to you as an individual that now it’s just not your most productive time to be working. And if there is agency to say, “Well, then now I’m not going to work, now I’m going to do something else.” That allows you the option to then come back at a time when actually setting down those hours are going to be much more valuable.

James: Yeah, I would agree. My history is not that fantastic, but unions worked really hard to get us this sort of eight-hour workday. I think sometime in the 1930swe started talking about 8-8-8. Eight hours of waking time, eight hours of working, eight hours of sleep. We might be in a sea change, as you suggest that now because of what we’ve discovered over the course of the pandemic, we could change that and be much more flexible. So I’d agree, I think that that would be a great way to promote agency, a sense of control, and so on.

James: There’s been talk since before the pandemic of moving to a four-day workweek. And the thing that I find interesting about that is there’s a few companies who’ve done it and shown increased productivity. But you don’t ever hear people clamoring for a three-day workweek. Now, you’re not looking at companies clamoring for that, because it would probably increase their costs, but you don’t really hear workers clamoring for it either. So, I think there is a sense in which, as a society, we want to strike a balance between how much time we have outside of our work to do all those things that are really important to being human – like interacting with our friends, family and pursuing hobbies. All these kinds of things that make our lives rich. We want to strike a balance between those things and work, but that balance is not going to be two days of work week and five days a weekend

James: I think it’s also important to point out that there are some circumstances where the flexibility approach is going to be challenging. If I think about Amazon’s so-called fulfillment centers, where do you get your flexibility in an organization run in the way that that is run? I don’t know. That’s for clever, more creative minds than me.

Brooke: Well, to come back to this more kind of industrial model of labor, one of the things that came to mind when he first brought it up is this piece of technology, I guess you’d call it, or this concept of the Andon Cord from the Toyota assembly factories. And essentially, what happens there is that front line assembly workers are basically allowed to shut down the entire production facility if they notice that there’s a systemic problem. And the reason for that is that the company identified quite quickly, that as expensive as it is to stop the production line, it’s even more expensive to let a systemic problem remain unaddressed.

Brooke: And this is a concept that’s been making the rounds a little bit and seems to tap into these ideas of agency and meaning as well. That you’re not just there to take the widget and slap on the next piece and pass it on to the next person on the assembly line. Part of what you’re responsible for is also kind of monitoring the general health of this ecosystem, which is a factory that you work in. And that gives a sense of agency, you have the option to pull the cord or not, but it also gives you a sense of meaning that you participate in something that is bigger than yourself.

Brooke: So that seems to be something even in an industrial context, and I think something like an Amazon fulfillment center is potentially along similar lines. Employers want to encourage from their employees things that make the company run more efficiently and more profitably.. Opportunities that can be opened up for real frontline employees to contribute to that are ones that those employees will often find engaging and valuable.

James: Yeah. You make me think too, about the adage that people have of live to work or work to live. I think back about my grandfather who spent his life as an accountant. I don’t think he would have said that he necessarily loved his work. But what he did do is he worked to live. He was in that generation that said, “No, I work so that I can have a salary so that I can do the fun things that I want to do with my family outside of work time.”

James: We also know that the flip side; people who really have a passion for what they do get a lot of enjoyment and gratification out of that. So, again, it might be a bit of a pendulum swing. We might be in this phase now where we’re not demanding of our work life that it’s perfectly rewarding every minute of every day, but we don’t want the pendulum to swing so far back that we don’t have any investment, care, or pride in what we do. So, yeah, there’s a balance to be struck there.

Brooke: All right. So maybe on that note of balance is a good place to wrap it up.

James: Sure.

Brooke: James, thank you very much for your time and your insights today.

James: No problem.

Brooke: The next time I get bored, I will surely think of you and I will hopefully, by that time, have a copy of your book ready to hand so that I can pick it up. If I find myself having to reread paragraphs, I’ll realize that maybe reading just wasn’t the right activity for right now.

James: Hopefully next time you get bored, you don’t think of me in a shaky fisted past.

Brooke: I’ll try not to. Anyway, thanks very much for doing this and we look forward to talking to you again soon.

James: No worries.

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About the Guest

James Danckert

James Danckert

James Danckert is a professor, lecturer, writer, and researcher who has made a career from studying boredom. Since 2002 Danckert has worked as a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, where he established the Danckert Lab, a research lab that examines boredom, brain damage, and mental model updating. He also helped develop the University’s Neurological Patient Database website, and was awarded a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair based on his success in his cognitive neuroscience. To add to his accolades, Danckert was recognized as one of the recipients of the 40 Under 40 award by the region of Waterloo in 2009. Recently, he co-authored Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom with John Eastwood, which combines scientific discoveries with everyday events to explain this universal facet of the human condition.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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